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Reconstruction of Eosimias, the dawn monkey – responsible for the Chinese ink monkey’s erroneous resurrection? (Nancy Perkins/Carnegie Museum of Natural History)
The Vu Quang ox or saola Pseudoryx nghetinhensis, the giant muntjac Muntiacus (=Megamuntiacus) vuquangensis, and the Panay cloud rat Crateromys heaneyi are just a few of the remarkable number of major new mammals that were described from Asia during the 1990s. Yet none has a more controversial pedigree than the very mysterious mini-mammal that was supposedly rediscovered during the mid-1990s in southeastern China.
The tangled tale of the Chinese ink monkey (also called the pen monkey) hit the media headlines on 22 April 1996 when the People’s Daily newspaper published an account based upon information supplied to it by the official New China News Agency (Xinhua). According to these sources, this amazing little animal was no larger than a mouse, weighed only 7 oz, and had recently been discovered alive in the Wuyi Mountains of Fujian Province after having been dismissed as extinct by Chinese scientists for several centuries. Strangely, however, no additional details concerning its resurrection – precisely when, by whom, the number of specimens recorded, whether any had been photographed or collected, etc – were given. Nor was its zoological species identified, or any extensive morphological description supplied.
In contrast, details of its ‘pre-extinction’ history were as profuse as they were perplexing. Supposedly known in China since at least 2000 BC, the ink monkey was so-named because it was the traditional pet of scholars and scribes – and for good reason. Despite its tiny size, the ink monkey was very highly intelligent – so much so that a writer would frequently train one to prepare his ink for him, turn the pages of a manuscript that he was working on or reading, and pass brushes to him as required. Ever the practical, diligent pet, a writer’s ink monkey would even sleep in his master’s desk drawer or brush pot. Zhu Xi (AD 1130-1200), a famous Neo-Confucian philosopher, allegedly owned one of these obliging little helpers, yet sometime later the species seemed to have become extinct (an unexpected occurrence for so useful a beast, I would have thought) until its belated reappearance during the mid-1990s.
Those, then, were the ‘facts’ of a very odd cryptozoological case – but they served only to enhance rather than to elucidate the mysteries encompassing this extraordinary animal.
An Eosimias-inspired Chinese ink monkey, as visualised by artist Monkeyink (click here to view a selection of products bearing Monkeyink’s wonderful artwork)
First and foremost of these was its identity – what exactly was – or is – the ink monkey? The world’s second smallest known living primate is itself a fairly recent revival – the western rufous mouse lemur Microcebus myoxinus of Madagascar, measuring a mere 7.75 in long, and weighing just over 1 oz. This tiny species was first described by science back in 1852, but was subsequently believed to have died out until its rediscovery in 1993. Could it be that the ink monkey report was a confused retelling of this lemur’s reappearance? In view of the historical background details presented above, this seemed highly unlikely. (In 2000, an even smaller species, Madame Berthe’s mouse lemur M. berthae, was formally named and described, and now holds the record of the world’s smallest living primate species.)
Western rufous mouse lemur (Wikipedia)
Turning from lemurs to monkeys, however, shed little light on the problem either. The world’s smallest formally recognised species of monkey is the pygmy marmoset Cebuella pygmaea of the Upper Amazon Basin, with a total length of around 10 in. Yet mainstream zoology knows of no species of Chinese monkey as small as a mouse – nor, as far as I am aware, are there any reports of such a beast in the cryptozoological literature either. Nevertheless, the ink monkey is not entirely unknown to Westerners.
Two baby pygmy marmosets (FactZoo.com)
I am greatly indebted to Steve Moore, a renowned specialist in Oriental Fortean-related literature, for bringing the following excerpt to my attention, which appeared in a book of Chinese lore by E.D. Edwards entitled The Dragon Book (1938), p. 149:
“This creature is common in the northern regions and is about four or five inches long; it is endowed with an unusual instinct; its eyes are like cornelian stones, and its hair is jet black, sleek and flexible, as soft as a pillow. It is very fond of eating thick Chinese ink, and whenever people write, it sits with folded hands and crossed legs, waiting till the writing is finished, when it drinks up the remainder of the ink; which done, it squats down as before, and does not frisk about unnecessarily.”
Edwards obtained these engrossing snippets from a Chinese author called Wang Ta-Hai, writing in 1791, whose work was translated into English as a two-volume tome entitled The Chinese Miscellany (1845, 1849).
Whereas Edwards’s description may initially conjure forth bizarre images of a red-eyed pixie with an insatiable ink lust, it also calls to mind certain real-life creatures, such as the bushbabies or galagos, and, especially, those real-life goblins of the golden eyes – the tarsiers. These tiny arboreal primates weigh only a few ounces and have brown or grey bodies measuring no more than 6 in. Tarsiers are distantly related to bushbabies and lemurs, and are characterised by their large ears, enormous orb-like eyes, very long tarsal bones, flattened sucker-like discs at the tips of their fingers and toes, and a long thin tail.
Phillipine tarsier (Wikipedia)
Traditionally constituting a trio of species indigenous to Borneo, Sumatra, the Philippines, and Sulawesi, in recent times several additional species have been recognised from Sulawesi and its offshore islets – including the pygmy tarsier Tarsius pumilus in 1987, Diana’s tarsier T. dianae in 1988, and the Sangihe tarsier T. sangirensis in January 1996. Could the ink monkey be yet another lately-revealed tarsier? During a radio interview broadcast on 24 April 1996 concerning the ink monkey in which he expressed the view that it may possibly be a tarsier, veteran British wildlife broadcaster Sir David Attenborough noted that tarsiers did exist in southern China a long time ago, and that such secretive, nocturnal creatures as these might conceivably have succeeded in surviving in small numbers amid this region’s thick forests right up to the present day while remaining undetected by science.
Conversely, during the same interview, Cyril Rosen of the International Primate Protection League favoured the slow loris Nycticebus coucang as a plausible contender, whose southeast Asian distribution range may indeed extend into southeastern China.
Slow loris depicted on a postage stamp issued by Vietnam in 1984
Yet even if one or other of these identities were correct, how could such an animal be trained to prepare ink? Back in the centuries when the ink monkey allegedly assisted writers in this manner, ink was normally compounded from a precise array of precious materials, such as sandalwood, musk, gold, pearls, and rare herbs or bark, yielding a stick of ink. Consequently, it was suggested in Western media accounts that perhaps the ink monkey was trained to grind the stick in an inkstone with pure water until the correct shade was obtained. Nevertheless, such valuable constituents as those listed above are hardly the types of material that most people would entrust to a monkey (or tarsier) for handling.
Moreover, aside from Edwards’s curious contribution that the ink monkey not only prepares but also consumes ink, there were no details as to its dietary preferences. Tarsiers, unlike most other primates, are entirely carnivorous. So if the ink monkey is indeed a tarsier, what might we expect its favourite food to be? When a colleague’s enquiries at the news agency in Xinhua that released the original press information concerning the ink monkey revealed that the agency had no record of where they had actually received their own details(!), I began to suspect that fillet of red herring – or perhaps even a tasty canard? – may well prove to be the answer.
In other words, it seemed likely that the whole episode of the Chinese ink monkey was either a bizarre hoax from start to finish, or, more probably, simply the benighted product of confused reporting. Quite possibly, for instance, a Chinese media report had somehow been erroneously translated by Western journalists so that its true subject, one of China’s lesser-known non-existent beasts of fable and folklore, had falsely ‘become’ a real-life animal that had been rediscovered after several centuries of supposed extinction.
And in case this hypothesis seems too implausible, I recommend readers to peruse an entire chapter devoted to several comparable cases of monstrous misidentification exposed in all their glorious folly, within one of my earlier books, From Flying Toads to Snakes With Wings
Nevertheless, it would be reassuring if the original source of such confusion could be traced. For a time, I was unable to do this, but eventually, when resurveying zoological reports from April 1996, I came upon a short piece that had not attracted anywhere near as much attention as the Chinese ink monkey story, and which I had not seen before, yet which assuredly presented me with the missing piece of this extraordinary cryptozoological jigsaw.
Life-size reconstruction of Eosimias centennicus (Northern Illinois University)
The report was a short but succinct item published by London’s Times newspaper on 5 April 1996 (3 weeks before the ink monkey reports). It recorded the discovery in China’s Yellow River basin of fossil jaw remains from a mouse-sized primate dubbed Eosimias centennicus, the dawn monkey, which had lived 40-43 million years ago, and weighed a mere 3-4 oz. Needless to say, this description tantalisingly echoes the sparse details available in the subsequent reports dealing with the Chinese ink monkey.
Consequently, the most reasonable explanation for this entire episode is as follows. Somewhere in the early portion of the chain of journalistic communication ultimately giving rise to the ink monkey media stories in the West, details of the discovery of the Eosimias fossils, documented correctly in The Times, became distorted elsewhere, and were mistakenly combined with the traditional Chinese ink monkey folklore – until the tragi-comical result was the rediscovery of a creature that had never existed.
In other words, a scenario featuring, perhaps fittingly, a classic case of Chinese whispers!
Life-sized model of Eosimias centennicus (Robert Clark/National Geographic)
NB – Four Eosimias species are currently recognised nowadays, with remains of a fifth presently awaiting formal naming.
This ShukerNature blog post began life as a ‘Menagerie of Mystery’ article of mine published by Strange Magazine
in 1996, which I later expanded and updated to yield a chapter in my book The Beasts That Hide From Man: Seeking the World’s Last Undiscovered Animals
(Paraview: New York, 2003), but it has been extensively plagiarised online since then (like so much of my other writings and researches!). Consequently, I decided it was high time my original, authentic version was made available on the Net, so here it is!