By Janice Lindsay
“We never saw those people, we don’t know them, we’ve never been where they live, they’ve never been here, so obviously they must have two heads. Or maybe they have only one head but only one eye. Or maybe one head and three eyes. They’re probably covered with feathers. Or fur.”
For much of human history – until relatively recent human history, in fact – people have imagined “the other” to be extremely other.
In a strange coincidence, I was once studying two different realms of “other,” two realms that bumped into each other in a big way, not only in my brain but in the real world, around the sixteenth century.
Realm One: I was taking a course in the age of European exploration. We Americans learn about this era when we study Christopher Columbus who, sailing the ocean blue in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, was looking for an ocean route to Asia when he accidentally stumbled onto America.
Realm Two: I was researching Chinese folklore for a writing project, China representing the very Asia that exploring European sailors were trying to reach.
That’s where the “other” comes in.
Medieval Europeans, taking their tradition from the Romans, were quite sure that “monstrous races” inhabited the unexplored lands outside the edges of their known world.
Some of those other people, if they could be called people, were dog-headed with human bodies. Or they had feet like ours, but pointed backwards. Some had gigantic floppy ears that hung down to their knees. Some were cannibals which, in some cases, turned out to be true but, never mind, even guesses are right sometimes. One race had no heads, but large faces in their chests, with mouths where the navels would be.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, Chinese tradition described the same kinds of “unnatural people,” as it’s translated, who lived outside their familiar territories. The Chinese pictured nine-inch-tall, large headed people who lived like ants; 50-foot giants whose lives spanned 18,000 years; people without arms whose legs grew from their shoulders; people with holes in their chests so they could be carried on a pole running through the hole, or hung on a wall peg; the gentle, feathered people with wings instead of arms, who sang so beautifully. Like the Europeans, they imagined gigantic floppy-ear people, and the ever-popular people with no heads whose faces resided in their chests.
For various political and social reasons, the Chinese weren’t enthusiastic explorers, even though they know how to build and navigate big ships; otherwise, they might have arrived in America before the Europeans, and you would be reading this in Chinese. They preferred to wait for the world to come to them which, as we know, it did.
And imagine everybody’s surprise when – once previously unexplored lands were explored and unknown people became known – it was revealed, probably to everyone’s great relief, that the standard-issue human structure consisted of one (human) head, with two eyes, two arms, and two feet that point forward.
Not that this anatomical similarity has ever been enough to inspire us to appreciate, trust, and cooperate with each other.
Maybe some day it will.
As we humans explore space, probably we will discover that monstrous races inhabit other planets. We earthlings will discover that we have a lot more in common with each other than we thought, when we meet those strange monstrous races face to face though probably they won’t have faces.