Edward Kajdański's take on the sumxu

Binturong, a.k.a. the Asian Bearcat - one of SE Asia's civet-like animals. (Photo by Tassilo Rau)

I wrote a while back about the sumxu, a strange creatures described by the 17th-century Polish Jesuit Michael Boym in his Flora Sinensis (1656). Sumxu is Boym's transcription of the Chinese 松鼠 (songshu, in the modern Pinyin transcription), which means "squirrel" (literally, "pine rat"), and Boym's picture is so labeled in both Chinese characters and in transcription, and the creature depicted certainly looks squirrel-like. However, Boym's text says that people kept those sumxu as expensive pets, valued for their ability to hunt mice - which, of course, is a rather strange thing for a real squirrel to do. The sumxu became popularized in the European imagination by Athanasius Kircher, who in China illustrata (1667) compared it to a cat... and the story lived in European books for the next 200 years. A number of people tried to solve the riddle of the sumxu; in particular, it has been suggested by some that due to some confusion on Boym's or his informants' part, the sumxu (松鼠, "squirrel") label got attached to a different animal, from the mustelid family, such as the yellow-throated marten. Here's the promised update on the work of one researcher who spent a fair amount of effort tackling the sumxu mystery. Polish diplomat and writer Edward Kajdański published three books (and a number of articles) on Michael Boym. The last of them, Michał Boym – Ambasador Państwa Środka ("Michael Boym, an Ambassador of the Middle Kingdom"; 1999; also available in a Chinese translation by Zhang Zhenhui (张振辉) "中国的使臣卜弥格", 2001) has a chapter on Flora Sinensis, with a few pages on the mysterious green winged turtle and the mice-hunting sumxu. For some reason, Kajdański keeps referring to the creature as the "sumxu cat" ("kot sumxu"), although Boym himself did not mention cats at all, and Kircher merely compared the sumxu to a cat. Kajdański has a number of interesting ideas about the sumxu, but, to be honest, I can't quite make sense of how he puts them together. Kajdański somehow links the origin of Boym's famous sumxu-and-turtle picture with the Polish Jesuit's "fascination" with the travels of Marco Polo. Marco Polo in his Travels talks about the musk deer, the mysterious (for Europeans) source of the precious musk - and says somewhere (in some editions of his Travels, at any rate) that the creature was cat-sized. Somehow, through a logical connection that I don't quite understand, the Polish researcher then infers that what Boym really had in mind when drawing the sumxu was, too, a musk-producing creature, namely, something from the civet family. Kajdański even says that he saw a matching creature - looking sort of in between the Siberian weasel and the small Indian civet - in the Natural History Museum of Kunming, but, alas, was not able to find out its Latin name. The next thing Kajdański does (and I can't quite figure the connection to it either), is to suggest that sumxu/松鼠 (Pinyin: songshu; meaning "squuirrel", or, literally "pine mouse/rat") with the "snake-eating mouse", 食蛇鼠 (Pinying: shi-she shu; likely Boym-era transcription, xixexu, though Kajdański suggests shuxexu) - a creature mentioned in the famous Chinese compendium of materia medica, Ben Cao Gang Mu. Boym indeed must have been well familiar with Ben Cao, as he wrote extensively on Chinese medicine; and such a "snake-eating mouse" (or "rat", if you wish) is indeed mentioned in that work. However, I think it rather unlikely that Boym would choose that creature for including into his fairly small work - really, a selection of the most interesting and important plants and creatures of East Asia for the erudite European audience. After all, Ben Cao only has a couple lines on the "snake-eating mouse". It says that, according to the Book of Tang, such a "snake-eating mouse", with a pointed mouth and a red tail, was sent as tribute by the country of Jibinguo (罽賓國/罽宾国; Kapisa (?) in Northern India), but noone has heard of such a thing lately (i.e., in the 16th century, when Ben Cao was compiled). (I suppose what the Indians actually sent to the Tang Emperor was a mongoose of some kind). Kajdański says that according to the old pharmaceutical works (presumably, the same BCGM), the creature Boym had in mind (not entirely clear to me whether he refers to the same shi-she shu or the civet-like creature that he saw in the museum... I guess he identifies the two) was indeed valued in old China, and could be kept (on a leash, presumably) with a silver collar. However, he says that what the creature was valued for was not its mice-hunting prowess, but it's anti-snake powers. First, the creature was said to be able to locate venomous snake by their scent; second, the creatures own musky smell would repel such venomous snakes from the place where it was kept; third (which Ben Cao indeed mentions), if the creature's owner still had a misfortune of being bitten by a snake, he only had to have his shi-she shu urinate on the bite wound, and it would save him from the venom! This all sounds like a fascinating legend indeed (certainly goes way beyond Kipling's Rikki-Tikki-Tavi!) - just the stuff Kircher would love. If Boym really had such a thing in mind - how come he did not pass the story to Kircher, instead of just telling him about a comparatively boring mouse-hunter?


  1. Anti-snake powers: It turns out that there are species of squirrel that can turn away pit vipers by producing infra-red signals with their tails! The kind of story you'd credit to two hundred years of mis-transcriptions, and indeed I came across this in a novel, but the source is cited ("Ground Squirrels Use an Infrared Signal to Deter Rattlesnake Predation," Proceedings of the NAS 104).

  2. "Turn away pet vipers by producing infra-red signals with their tails" - now, that's something that Kircher would positively love!

    Ben cao gang mu in its brief entry on the Shi-she shu does not have the "repel" bit, though. All it says (in a modern translation by Luo Xiwen et al, Foreign Language Press, beijing, 2003) is this:

    Li Shizhen: The country Jibinguo contributed a kind of snake-eating mouse. It has a pointed mouth and a red tail. It can eat a snake. It is said when bitten by a snake, one should let a mouse sniff at the wound and then it will urinate on the wound. This will heal the wound. Comment: This is of course not heard of anymore today. It is recorded here for reference.

    So Kajdański must have gotten that idea from some other source (hopefully, as venerable as BCGM).