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[Xinhua] Interview: What primate is the best mascot for Year of the Monkey?

Last updated :2016-02-14

Source: news.xinhuanet.com/english/2016-02/07/c_135083498.htm
by Xinhua writer Huang Kun

BEIJING, Feb. 7 (Xinhua) -- According to the Chinese lunar calendar, the Year of the Monkey starts on Feb. 8, succeeding the year of the Sheep, also known as the Goat or Ram. Now what kind of primate would be the best mascot for the Chinese Year of the Monkey?

In China, the most famous monkey is Sun Wukong, also known as the Monkey King. But in the West, other primate figures might be more famous, such as King Kong in the movie of the same name, and Caesar in the movie "Rise of the Planet of the Apes." Some may wonder whether they can also be used as symbols for this Chinese new year.

"In biological classification, the order Primates consists of 16 families," Professor Zhang Peng of China's Sun Yat-sen University said in an interview with Xinhua. Zhang is an expert who has studied primates for years, earning the nickname "Doctor Monkey."

First, what kind of monkey is Sun Wukong? In the 16th-century classic Chinese novel "Journey to the West," Sun Wukong is a monkey born from stone. When scholars try to relate it to a species of monkey in the real world, there are two major standpoints.

"Some say Sun Wukong should be a golden snub-nosed monkey," said Zhang, "because that figure originated from Hanuman, a monkey and god in ancient Hindu culture. Hanuman should be classified into the family of leaf monkeys, and golden snub-nosed monkeys belong to the same family."

But as the Hindu figure entered Chinese culture in the course of history, its image gradually became closer to a native species of monkey that is widespread in China. The species is called Mihou in Chinese, Rhesus macaque in English, and scientifically known as Macaca mulatta.

"They are not only more Chinese, but also cleverer," Zhang said. "If you ask me to choose a species of real monkey that is closest to Sun Wukong in Chinese culture, I think it is Mihou." < King Kong, however, is actually a kind of gorilla, which belongs to the family Hominidae in the order Primates. In the famous movie, King Kong is so powerful that he can defeat a dinosaur, and even fights off military planes on top of the Empire State Building. That surely is Hollywood exaggeration, but in the real world, gorillas are indeed the biggest and strongest primates, as the adult males can be nearly 2 meters tall, and weigh up to 180 kilograms.

However, gorillas are not as violent as depicted in the movie. "That is a misunderstanding," said Zhang, "although gorillas are big, they are herbivorous and good-tempered." He pointed out that the public understanding of animals "should not be totally based on movies" but on scientific knowledge instead.

Caesar in the movie "Rise of the Planet of the Apes" is a chimpanzee. He also belongs to the family Hominidae, just like gorillas and humans. Actually chimpanzees are the closest relative to humans as their genes are almost 99 percent identical, having separated in evolution from common ancestors only around 5 million years ago.

Chimpanzees are smart. They are able to make simple tools and use them to acquire food, such as using shrub shoots to dig and dip for ants. They are also highly social, forming a hierarchy in their society. They even cooperate with each other to use sophisticated strategies in hunting. No wonder Caesar in the movie can lead a group of chimpanzees to fight against humans.

"There are around 430 species of animals in the order Primates," Zhang said. "Each species has its own characteristics, its own society and its unique history of evolution."

In the evolutionary tree of primates, Mihou and other monkeys separated earlier, while gorillas and chimpanzees separated later. Although some people may be confused and call all primates "monkey," experts like Zhang would clarify that monkeys don't include the later species, which are often called "apes." Humans are also called "naked apes."

So, even though King Kong and Caesar are famous, they can't compete with Sun Wukong for being the symbol of this Chinese new year. "If it's up to me to choose the protagonist of the Chinese Year of the Monkey, I will say it's the Chinese Mihou," said Zhang.

Editor: Xiang Bo