蛇，福兮祸兮？ / Good Snake, Bad Snake
Good Snake, Bad Snake
Dozens of villagers in Xinglong County, Chengde, were on the hunt yesterday for thousands of snakes that were reportedly released in the area on Friday by a group of people who bought them from a live-animal market in Beijing, the Beijing Times reports. The type of snakes released, including whether any were dangerous, had yet to be determined."
--South China Morning Post, June 6, 2012
News items like this remind us of the old saying: "truth is stranger than fiction." They are also a reminder that newspapers need to do a better job of reporting the whole story instead of leaving more questions unanswered than answered.
Although it would be somewhat interesting to know what type of snakes were among the thousands reportedly released, even more interesting to me would be to know why this group of people would have bought thousands of snakes and brought them to this county in Chengde.
Then there is the secondary question of which live-animal market in Beijing routinely has thousands of snakes available for sale. It is definitely not one of the markets I have visited. (This also raises the question of whether there is potentially an emerging market for personalized snake delivery in China: just like sending a dozen roses for Valentine's Day; except in this case it might be twelve snakes for your enemy.)
Next time I'm in Beijing I may jump in a taxi (if I can find one of these increasingly endangered species in the nation's capital) and announce my destination as the "snake market." If he's one of the growing numbers of "recently arrived in downtown Beijing" drivers, he may admit he doesn't know where it is; or he may take me to Panjiayuan or the Silk Market, which also have their share of snakes, albeit of a different sort.
Returning to the question of motive, we can only speculate why a group of people, presumably lead by some disgruntled individual, would go to the trouble and expense of acquiring thousands (not hundreds, or dozens, mind you) of snakes, and then transporting them several hours north of Beijing to be released in Xinglong County.
Simple, mundane questions come to mind, like how would you transport thousands of snakes? You could of course call a trucking company and ask for a price quote.
Customer to trucking company: "I need a quote on transporting thousands of snakes from Beijing to Chengde."
Trucking company: "Hold on. Let me connect you to the Reptile Department …."
"Yeah. OK. That's gonna be very expensive. Special snake truck, qualified driver wearing tall boots, special insurance; and poisonous snakes carry a surcharge. I'll call you back after I talk with my manager."
As I pondered the possible motives behind the massive snake release program, my speculation turned to the nefarious side. It seemed logical to me that the plot to etch Xinglong County into peoples' minds as "the county of ten thousand snakes" must have stemmed from some fairly deep unhappiness. Much deeper than the sort we'd normally associate with just forgetting someone's birthday or wedding anniversary, for example.
Given the type of issues which frequently agitate people in the Chinese countryside, it seemed there was a good chance that the unhappiness in this case stemmed from something to do with real estate.
Although pure speculation, I imagined a scenario where a real estate developer was threatened with "snakes falling like raindrops on your new holiday villa development" by someone unhappy about that development for some reason (such as a land grab).
The news report said that dozens of villagers were deployed to catch thousands of snakes. Presumably none of the villagers were professional snake-catchers (a niche profession which does exist, by the way, and may well be a growth industry based on this news report), which means that most of the thousands of wriggly ones escaped into the underbrush.
If this is the case, Xinglong County residents and visitors may be seeing more than their fair share of snakes for a long time to come.
To my surprise, however, it turns out that my speculation about revenge as a motive behind this snake caper was completely wrong and ill-founded, as a well-informed colleague of mine who researched the matter pointed out.
On the contrary, the motives of those who bought and released the snakes were of a lofty spiritual sort, associated with the Buddhist tradition of "fang sheng," in which ordinary people buy captive animals and release them in the wild for the good karma associated with such compassionate acts. I have seen people release caged birds and live fish before, as part of this custom, but had not previously associated snakes with the practice.
There are at least two morals I derived from this story.
First, I should be more open to the optimistic interpretation of everyday news items. It's reassuring to know that compassion is still alive and well, although in this case it seems to benefit the snakes more than the villagers.
(Imagine a village elder in Xinglong commenting to the snake releasers: "Hey Guys, next time, could you try releasing quail or pheasants?")
Second, I hope the practitioners of "fang sheng" are very careful not to release non-native species into the countryside, whether in Xinglong County or elsewhere, because the ecological results of introducing invasive species can be disastrous.
This is not only a problem in China, which already has more than 100 invasive species of fish, mollusks, and amphibians in its waterways, but globally. Invasive species can and often do upset the ecological balance and wipe out local varieties.
But still, it's always good to see compassion in action.