Thursday, September 11, 2008


Bashe was a python-like giant snake that ate elephants.


The term ''bashe'' ''ba'' "a proper name; tip, tail; crust; greatly desire; cling to; be near" and ''she'' "snake; serpent".

The Chinese character 巴 for ''ba'' was graphically simplified from ancient Oracle bone script and Seal script pictograms of a long-tailed snake. In early Written Chinese usage, ''ba'' 巴 frequently referred to the Zhou Dynasty state of , which was located in present-day eastern Sichuan. In modern Standard Mandarin usage, ''ba'' 巴 often transcribes foreign loanwords such as ''ba'' 巴 "bar ", ''Bali'' 巴黎 "Paris", or ''Guba'' 古巴 "Cuba". ''Ba'' 巴 is a variant Chinese character for ''ba'' 把 "grasp; handle", ''ba'' 笆 "bamboo; fence", or ''ba'' 芭 in ''bajiao'' 芭蕉 "banana" .

''Bashe'' not only names this mythical giant reptile or Chinese dragon but is also a variant Chinese name for the South Asian ''ran'' or ''mang'' "" . "Mythical draconyms often derive from names of larger reptilians", says Carr and, "Since pythons usually crush their prey and swallow them whole, one can imagine Chinese tales about southern ''ran'' 蚺 'pythons' being exaggerated into legendarily-constipated ''bashe'' 'giant snakes' that ate an elephant every three years." In literary usage, ''bashe'' is found in the four-character idiom ''bashetuxiang'' 巴蛇吞象 meaning "inordinately greedy; extremely insatiable".

Early textual occurrences

The earliest references to the legendary ''bashe'' 巴蛇 are in the ''Chuci'' and ''Shanhaijing'', two Chinese classic texts containing Warring States period materials compiled during the Han Dynasty .

The ''Chuci'' is an anthology of Chinese poems from the southern state of , and it mentions ''bashe'' in the ''Tianwen'' 天問 "Heavenly Questions" section. The preeminent ''Chuci'' translator describes the ''Tianwen'' as a "somewhat odd combination of archaic riddles with questions of a speculative or philosophical nature" and believes "it started as an ancient, priestly riddle-text which was rewritten and greatly enlarged by a secular poet". This mythological questionnaire asks.
Where are the hornless dragons which carry bears on their backs for sport? Where is the great serpent with nine heads and where is the Shu Hu? Where is it that people do not age? Where do giants live? Where is the nine-branched weed? Where is the flower of the Great Hemp? How does the snake that can swallow an elephant digest its bones?

The ''Shanhaijing'' is an ancient Chinese mytho-geography. Chapter 10, the "''Haineinan jing''" 海內南經 "Classic of Regions within the Seas: South" describes a legendary land where ''bashe'' lived.
The Big Snake eats elephants and after three years it disgorges their bones. Gentlemen take a dose of this snake so that they will never have heart disease or illnesses of the belly. The snakes of Bigsnake country are green, or yellow, or scarlet, or black. One author says the black snakes have a green head. The land of Bigsnake lies west of Rhinoceros country.

The ''Shanhaijing'' commentary by Guo Pu compares the ''ba'' snake with the southern ''ran'' 蚺 "python", which after eating a large animal can wind around a tree trunk and expel the bones from between its scales, and notes they could grow up to a length of 100 ''xun'' . Guo's commentary likewise notes this exaggerated length for the ''changshe'' 長蛇 "long snake" that the ''Shanhaijing'' locates on Daxian 大咸 Mountain "Mount Bigwhole" ; "There is a snake here named the long-snake; its hair is like pig bristles. It makes a noise like a nightwatchman banging his rattle."

The 1578 CE ''Bencao Gangmu'' entry for ''ranshe'' 蚺蛇 "python" mentions the ''bashe''.
The ''Shan-Hai-Ching'' says that pythons can eat elephants, the bones of which they emit every three years. Gentlemen who take these bones as medicine never suffer from heart or visceral ailments. They are referred to as ''Pa She'', that is the great snake.

Compare how the ''Shanhaijing'' description of the ''ba''-snake's sympathetic magic is interpereted as eating the snake or eating the undigested elephant bones . This materia medica lists uses for python bile, flesh, fat, teeth, and oil. The ''Bencao Gangmu'' says pythons can reach lengths of 50-60 ''chi'' ; but Python molurus grow up to 5.8 meters and Python reticulatus 9.2 meters.

The Chinese folklore scholar Wolfram Eberhard links ''bashe'' with the legendary archer Houyi 后翌 who descended from heaven to destroy evildoers. One of Houyi's victims was a monstrous serpent in Lake Dongting, the ''xiushe'' 修蛇 "adorned/long snake" . Eberhard concludes giant snakes such as the ''xiushe'', ''bashe'', and ''ranshe'' "were typical for the South", but were not part of a snake cult like those among the ancient Yue .

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