National Geographic : 1913 Jun
CHINESE PIGEON WHISTLES WE ARE wont to speak of the Chinese as a sober, practical, and prosaic people, and to view them throughout in that light. Im mensely rational they are, secular and worldly minded, bestowing their efforts on useful temporal affairs; but, never theless, they are by no means lacking in purely emotional matters of great at tractiveness. As early as the IIth century one of their greatest poets sang: "Upon the bridge the livelong day I stand and watch the goldfish play." The domestication of the goldfish, the first species of which reached England only in 1691, and of the wonderful para dise-fish as well, is justly ascribed to the Chinese, and it is remarkable to notice that their attempts in this direction and the amazing results achieved were not prompted by any utilitarian views they had in mind, as neither fish is of any practical advantage. On the contrary, their skillful breeding, so eagerly pur sued, is due solely and exclusively to the aesthetic tendency of the Chinese in their art of living and to their highly culti vated sense of beauty, which delights in the bright coloration of the skin of these fishes, the graceful form of their bodies, and the restless motions of their long, flowing fins. While the almost Darwinian experi ments to which Chinese breeders have subjected the goldfish, and their un bounded admiration of this little crea ture in its hundred and one forms and variations, illustrate well the intimate re lation of the people to the element of water, their friendly associations with the world of birds are not less close and sympathetic. The lover of birds does not permanently confine his pet in its prison cage, but he takes it out with him on his walks, carrying it on a stick, to which one of its feet is fastened by means of a thread long enough to allow it ample freedom of motion. Where the shade of some stately tree bids him wel come, he makes a halt and permits the bird to perch and swing on a supple twig, watching it for hours. One of the most curious expressions of emotional life is the application of whistles to a flock of pigeons. These whistles, very light, weighing a few grams, are attached to the tails of young pigeons soon after their birth, by means of fine copper wire, so that when the birds fly the wind blowing through the whistles sets them vibrating, and this produces an open-air concert, for the in struments in the same flock are all differ ent. On a serene day in Peking, where these instruments are manufactured with great cleverness and ingenuity, it is pos sible to enjoy this aerial music while sit ting in one's room. There are two distinct types of whis tles-those consisting of bamboo tubes placed side by side and a type based on the principal of tubes attached to a gourd. They are lacquered in yellow, brown, red, and black to protect the ma terial from the destructive influences of the atmosphere. The tube whistles have either two, three, or five tubes. In some specimens the five tubes are made of ox horn instead of bamboo. The gourd whistles are furnished with a mouth piece and small apertures to the number of two, three, six, ten, and even thirteen. Certain among them have besides a num ber of bamboo tubes, some of the prin cipal mouthpiece, some arranged around it. These varieties are distinguished by different names. Thus a whistle with one mouthpiece and ten tubes is called "the eleven-eyed one." The explanation which the Chinese of fer of this quaint custom is not very satisfactory. According to them, these whistles are intended to keep the flock together and to protect the pigeons from attacks of birds of prey. There seems, however, little reason to believe that a hungry hawk could be induced by this innocent music to refrain from satisfy ing his appetite; and this doubtless savors of an after-thought which came up long after the introduction of this usage, through the attempt to give a rational and practical interpretation to something that had no rational origin whatever; for it is not the pigeon that profits from this practice, but merely the human ear, which feasts on the wind-blown tunes and derives aesthetic pleasure from this music.