Hsigo, the imaginary flying monkeys of Chinese mythology

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If you do a web search for "Hsigo", you will find thousands of references and hundreds of images.  I won't give specific references, because they're all complete and utter nonsense, but you can read detailed descriptions of these fake, mythical Chinese monkeys — including pseudo-learned discussions of their name — in works like the following:  Erudite Tales, Creepy Hollows Encyclopedia, Mythical Creatures Guide, Encyclo, Societas Magic, Monstropedia, etc., etc.  Hsigo are supposedly flying monkeys with bird-like wings, the tail of a dog, and a human face.

There's even a very brief Wikipedia entry for Hsigo, but I know a top Wikipedia editor who is endeavoring to liquidate that totally fictitious article as a first-step toward eliminating "Hsigo" lore from the Web and hopefully from circulation elsewhere as well.

It all started with a typo. See "'Hsigo', the viral OCR typo".  This detective article is really quite entertaining and edifying.  It ends with a reference to what our Language Log colleague, Geoffrey Nunberg, calls "the 'metadata train wreck' of Google Books".

If you want to see how such false entries begin and how hard it is to weed them out, read through the documentation below.  I have been given permission to quote from Talk:Hsigo; WP is all CC-BY-SA 3.0 Unported License.

The Revision history is interesting (you can click through the links and check differences).

An anonymous IP (24.16.165.234, clicking "Geolocate" at bottom shows Bremerton WA) started the article on 1 January 2005

"RandyS0725" added the only ref on 23 December 2012

On 14 May 2013, another anon IP (72.194.66.67, Lake Forest CA) copied some silliness from this site or this site that the WP copyvio robot "XLinkBot" detected and deleted the same day.

You can also find useful data under "External tools" here and here.

Here are some statistics (only a dozen page views per day).

Besides the giggles provided by Googling for "hsigo", the more serious question becomes:  how many other OCR ghost-words exist in the metadata?  My friend randomly came across this page and only saw the mistake because he has studied Chinese transcription systems and monkey mythology.  If he had not caught it at this already somewhat advanced stage, who knows how deeply the Hsigo would have become embedded in human consciousness.

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39 Comments »

  1. G said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 6:32 am

    Interesting that an OCR error should spawn a new mythical creature, but given the nature of "imaginary flying monkeys", does the origin by itself invalidate their existence? I have the impression that much of folklore is based on similar misunderstandings and confusions. (I'm thinking for example of demonology, where I vaguely recall that a number of the fiends originated in Biblical misreadings. Similarly there are phantom saints produced by unintentional reduplication by scribes writing lists and collating accounts.)

    A mistake by Tolkien has made "hobgoblin" a term for particularly large, ferocious goblins in modern fantasy works, contradicting earlier folklore (he also gave us "wight" as a term for a wraith-like monster, but that seems to have been a deliberate innovation based on Germanic cognates). And certainly there are words that arose from misunderstandings (e.g. "helpmeet"), misspellings or etymological errors ("pwn", "rarebit").

    So if Hsigo monkeys get established in pop culture, which it seems like they're already well on their way to being, they'll be no less "real" for having started out as a computer glitch. Of course, respectable references should provide their actual origin rather than the spurious folkloric one.

  2. Rodger C said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 7:05 am

    This reminds me most forcibly of "ginkgo" as a misreading of ginkyo.

  3. mollymooly said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 8:00 am

    The hypothesis that hsigo is an OCR for Chinese hsiao is entirely speculative until someone shows a Chinese word somwhat like "hsiao" with a meaning somewhat similar to "flying monkey". Prof. Mair is highly qualified to offer such candidate words. The Wikipedia page offers none.

    For my current state of ignorance, there are other possible origins, e.g.:

    - a pure hoax originating on Wikipedia. The article dates from 2005.

    - Apparently there was a monkey-man character named Hsigo in the Andromeda TV series "Last Call at the Broken Hammer" in 2001, which predates Google books. Maybe someone assumed this character's name was of Chinese origin whereas it was actually maybe coined by the writer of the episode.

  4. flow said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 9:01 am

    @Roger C

    YES! that's a famows one. we should introduce another term that names these kinds of mistakes caused by people, next to 'OCR ghosts' that denote words originating from mistakes made by a machine. maybe HCR ghosts? ginkgo words?

  5. JS said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 2:22 pm

    @mollymooly
    Exactly. As the "hsigo" is also said online to "resemble an owl" or have "the wings of an owl," the best guess I can generate at this point is xiao1 梟, a pseudo-mythical owl-like bird of prey (the same character is apparently used to write fukurou 'owl' in Japanese…).

  6. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 4:54 pm

    @JS

    I was thinking of the same creature, the xiāo 梟, and sooner or later would have added this note.

    http://www.sibagu.com/china/strigidae.html

    http://taotao-project.org/dictionary/%E6%A2%9F/

    http://ctext.org/dictionary.pl?if=en&char=%E6%A2%9F

    http://www.zdic.net/z/1b/js/689F.htm

    http://books.google.com/books?id=mhQ9B0aRWEIC&pg=PA68&lpg=PA68&dq=%E6%A2%9F+owl+chinese+mythology&source=bl&ots=i1jzD59ElE&sig=Ol6mSB-X_8YnkxlehlCzHBls8yo&hl=en&sa=X&ei=jLhdUsGwIc-l4APl3oCoCA&sqi=2&ved=0CEYQ6AEwBA#v=onepage&q=%E6%A2%9F%20owl%20chinese%20mythology&f=false (Huainan Zi; it devoured its own mother)

  7. Ken Brown said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 4:56 pm

    Its nothing new. In British legends its quite possible that the whole mythical land of Lyonesse started as a spelling mistake. And maybe some other para-Arthurian places and people as well.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

    From Vladimir Menkov:

    @flow

    Another 19th-century "ginkgo word" is Rafetus, the name of agenus of giant soft shell turtles:

    http://vmenkov.blogspot.com/2011/04/call-it-spade.html

  9. ErikF said,

    October 15, 2013 @ 6:29 pm

    Don't forget the somewhat famous "dord" that was in the Merriam-Webster dictionary for a while (http://www.merriam-webster.com/video/0027-ghostword.htm)! The only difference is that errors in electronic media generally don't have the shelf life of errors in permanent media.

  10. Jean-Michel said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 12:46 am

    Apparently there was a monkey-man character named Hsigo in the Andromeda TV series "Last Call at the Broken Hammer" in 2001, which predates Google books. Maybe someone assumed this character's name was of Chinese origin whereas it was actually maybe coined by the writer of the episode.

    The "Hsigo" in Andromeda wasn't any sort of "monkey-man," he looked like this. 2001 seems a little too early to be naming fictitious creatures based on an OCR error, so in all likelihood "Hsigo" was just invented de novo as a generic "alien"-sounding name, and was only coincidentally the same as the later monkey-owl version.

  11. Alex said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 6:26 am

    I noticed an error of the very same sort last year (or if not OCR at least misreading): the Wikipedia page Fear of flying gave as a name of this condition the nonword pteromerhanophobia. If the second R were a C, pteromechanophobia, that would at least analyse into Greek-derived scientific morphemes as 'wing-machine-fear'. But even the corrected word seems to be in currency among word-collectors rather than psychologists, so best just root the whole thing out, I figured.

    When I spotted it it had already been there for six years oozing out onto the wider web, though. Still now Google offers to correct the C to an R.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 6:37 am

    From a colleague:

    I also thought about classical xiao "owl" (our male cat's name), and about mythical shanxiao 山魈 "mountain demon; mandrill", but couldn't find any monkey business. The comment about "Hsigo" coming from WP in 2005 is wrong because GB lists (but doesn't show!) the earliest usage as J. C. Cooper's Symbolic and Mythological Animals (1992).

    http://books.google.com/books?id=QZ_fAAAAMAAJ&focus=searchwithinvolume&q=hsigo

    We need someone with access to this book (or 1995 reprint) to see if it cites any reference.

  13. Rodger C said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 7:43 am

    @Ken Brown: My favorite example of that is "Astolat" (as in the Lady of …), which is a misreading of "Altclut," i.e. Dumbarton.

  14. mollymooly said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 10:06 am

    More misreading etymologies on this languagehat thread.

  15. JS said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 4:49 pm

    Google Books' scan of Cooper's Symbolic and Mythological Animals (1992), differently searched, yields the complete entry for Hsigo:

    "A Chinese composite creature, having a man's face, a monkey's body, and wings." (p. 133) link link

    As for sources, the term "Chinese" does appear in the bibliography, once in the context of the entry

    Doré, Henri, Researches into Chinese Superstitions, Shanghai, 1914.

    There's a pdf of this 1914 English translation here and on connected pages, but don't know if hsigo/hsiao might be found therein or in another book consulted by Cooper…

  16. JS said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 5:06 pm

    Cooper's bibliography also mentions Werner, E.T.C., A Dictionary of Chinese Mythology, New York, 1961, so there's another candidate.

  17. Jean-Michel said,

    October 16, 2013 @ 10:42 pm

    Researches into Chinese Superstitions is a vast work that encompassed 18 volumes in the original French and 13 in English. A search of the volumes available on archive.org turns up no references to a "Hsigo," nor to any creature described with the word "hsiao."

    A citation from 1992 would pretty much rule out an OCR error, though a misreading or a printer's error is still probable.

  18. JS said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 12:05 am

    A creature called the xiao1 囂 (perhaps ultimately kin to the shan1xiao1 山魈 mentioned above) is mentioned a couple times in the Shan hai jing, in "Xi shan jing" in particular adjacent to a bird said to resemble a xiao1 梟 'owl':

    有獸焉,其狀如禺而長臂,善投,其名曰囂。有鳥焉,其狀如梟,人面而一足,曰橐

  19. JS said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 12:07 am

    (^ display issues)

    A creature called the xiao1 囂 (perhaps ultimately kin to the shan1xiao1 山魈 mentioned above) is mentioned a couple times in the Shan hai jing, in “Xi shan jing” in particular adjacent to a bird said to resemble a xiao1 梟 ‘owl’:

    有獸焉,其狀如禺而長臂,善投,其名曰囂。有鳥焉,其狀如梟,人面而一足,曰橐X,冬見夏蟄
    There is a beast there, it’s form like a monkey and having long arms; it’s name is xiao1 囂. There is a bird there, it’s form like an owl (xiao1 梟), with a human face and a single leg, called Tuofei(?), appearing in summer and dormant in winter…

    Especially given identical Romanizations, these two might have been conflated in Werner or elsewhere such as to result in Cooper’s brief description?

  20. JS said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 12:09 am

    ^ "appearing in winter and dormant in summer," for what it's worth

  21. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 12:41 am

    JS: I couldn't find any relevant hits on "hsiao" in Werner at Google Books, though it has a number of hits on names with that spelling. Also nothing relevant for "hsigo", "owl", "monkey", or "wings".

  22. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 5:45 am

    Just checked a paper copy of Werner in my basement and found nothing relevant under "hsiao" or "hsigo".

    I think that JS may have nailed it with the xiao1 囂 from the Shan hai jing.

  23. Sally said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 9:44 am

    For flow –

    These could be called "ocres," as a tip to OCR, monstrous ogres, and the fact that they muddy the etymological waters.

  24. JS said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 11:35 am

    Nuts… are you guys really looking in Werner's Dictionary (which I don't believe is available on Google Books), or maybe his Myths and Legends of China instead, which Cooper doesn't seem to reference?
    I'm out of ideas, though, as the full text of Cooper's bibliography doesn't show online…

  25. Victor Mair said,

    October 17, 2013 @ 11:21 pm

    I also have Werner's Myths and Legends of China in my basement library, but it yielded nothing for our search. Also checked William Frederick Mayers' The Chinese Reader's Manual, C. A. S. Williams' Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs, Wolfram Eberhard's A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought, and several other volumes. No luck.

  26. Jerry Friedman said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 12:43 pm

    JS: Remind me not to search late at night when I can get confused about what book I'm looking at (though searching Werner's Myths and Legends wasn't actually a bad thing).

  27. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 5:19 pm

    Modern XIAO?

    http://www.bigfootencounters.com/articles/chinamonkey.htm

  28. Victor Mair said,

    October 18, 2013 @ 7:03 pm

    Investigations on HSIGO and XIAO / HSIAO are ongoing. I expect further breakthroughs. If they happen within the next week, they'll probably appear here, but if they take longer, we might need a new post to announce them.

  29. Milan said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 5:30 pm

    I don't think the Wikipedia should be removed. After all the Hsigo is a mythical creature, not in the Chinese folklore, granted, but in the great new folklore of the Internet Community. That nobody actually believes they exist surely is an interesting twist in comparison to conventional mythology, but it shouldn't prevent us from recognizing that traditional and on-line mythology are essentially the same thing.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    October 19, 2013 @ 6:10 pm

    curiouser and …

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Hsigo#Go_figure

    This shows that the HSIAO, looking very much like the HSIGO, is in Borges' Book of Imaginary Beings (published in 1957)!

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Book_of_Imaginary_Beings

  31. Matt Anderson said,

    October 21, 2013 @ 9:33 am

    This is a bit late, but the foremost modern annotator of the Shan hai jing, Yuan Ke 袁珂, argues that xiāo 囂 here (written 嚻 in most editions of the Shan hai jing) is an error for náo 夒, which is defined in the Shuo wen jie zi as 'a greedy beast; it is also said that it is a mother ape which looks like a person' 貪獸也。一曰母猴,似人 (náo can also be written 猱). Náo is much better attested as the name of an ape than xiāo, which is a relatively common graph/word, but which, outside the context of the Shan hai jing, as far as I can tell, never writes the name of a kind of monkey but always something to do with noise/hubbub/etc.

    Yuan Ke argues that náo and xiāo would have sounded similar (Schuessler reconstructs them in Old Chinese as *nû and *hâu (with an additional reading of *ŋâu for , an alternate reading of 囂), respectively. These are not incredibly close, but a connection is definitely conceivable; both are, for example, placed into the traditional Middle Chinese háo 豪 rime group. Yuan Ke also argues that the graphs, in the forms 夒 and 囂 also quite resemble each other, so that the combination of phonetic & graphic similarity resulted in xiāo 嚻/囂 being mistakenly written for náo 夒.

    I don't think this argument is conclusive, but I think it does make a lot of sense. And, if it is correct, it means that the character for xiāo was a "typo" in the first place… from 夒 mistakenly to 囂 on to 嚻; and from there, from hsiao > hsigo.

  32. Victor Mair said,

    October 21, 2013 @ 8:15 pm

    From a Wikipedia editor who is working on the HSIGO and XIAO articles:

    =====

    Matt’s information will be useful for the "Xiao (mythology)" article; I love LL crowdsourcing. I was going to come back to the article and note that sources like Hanyu da zidian give ao as the correct pronunciation for mythical 囂. How now, nao and ao?

    Anyway, the attached scan [VHM: omitted here] of the original entry from the English translation (which, d'oh!, I remembered was in our guest room) cites the Tai[ping] Guangji. Hurley and Sis don't give Borges' reference. Please post this and see if any LL readers might know what pre-1957 translation he might have used.

    "The Hsiao is a bird similar to a hawk, but it has the head of a man, the body of a monkey, and the tail of a dog. Its appearance presages harsh droughts." (Chapter entitled "Fauna of China")

  33. Jake Nelson said,

    October 23, 2013 @ 1:26 am

    From the Dungeons & Dragons 1st Edition Rules Cyclopedia (1991 version):

    Hsiao (Guardian Owl)
    The hsiao (sh-HOW) are a race of peaceful cleric-philosophers who inhabit woodlands and forests. Hsiao look like giant owls with broad feathered wings and large intelligent golden eyes. These creatures live in trees, making earthen nests and tunnels high above the forest floor.

    The hsiao know and work closely with other woodland creatures (including actaeons, centaurs, dryads, elves, treants, and unicorns), and may call on them for aid. Their goals include the preservation of woodland wilderness against intrusions by dangerous humanoids. They will not interfere with passing PCs who do no damage to the woodlands or the races of the forest.

    Most of these avian clerics are 4th level; 25% are higher levels (as given above; maximum level is 15th). Although able to physically defend themselves with their sharp claws and beak, these creatures depend on their spells and the assistance of their woodland allies for protection. The hsiao are known to some druids, though their philosophies (alignments) obviously differ greatly.

    No one knows where these creatures come from, but their alignment and clerical powers suggest that they were created to serve the ends of Lawful Immortals.

  34. Jake Nelson said,

    October 23, 2013 @ 1:30 am

    Since a 1992 work was being referenced, it seemed relevant. Worth noting, I know of no other references to the Hsiao in D&D, and as far as I know they were never reprinted in any of the dozens of monster manuals for later editions (which is a bit unusual).

  35. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

    @Jake Nelson

    Thanks for the reference. My son was an avid player of D & D around that time, so I should ask him if he remembers the HSIAO in it.

  36. Victor Mair said,

    October 26, 2013 @ 10:48 pm

    Here’s a funny $25 Hsigo “spell” and a progress report from Wikipedia:

    http://shop.creepyhollows.com/product.php?productid=2554

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Talk:Xiao_(mythology)#Update

  37. TK Mair said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 9:38 am

    After a few minutes of websearch, I have found out a few interesting things about this topic.

    First of all, without any websearch, upon briefly reading this post, I immediately thought of the infamous flying monkeys from Frank L Baum's Wizard of Oz. This features prominently into the ending of my post.

    So, Dungeons and Dragons was first created in 1974, with almost 98% of the in-game's cultural setting being derived from a European, Medieval milieu quite like the fantasy world of JRR Tolkien's devising. The remaining 2% could be something like the common western fantasy conceptualization of something like Sinbad and the 40 thieves. Now, over the next 20 years – when (IMHO) the world interest in D&D rose and peaked, and has since then been diffused into video games, other role playing games, card-trading games, fantasy and sci-fi movies, and internet browsing – many other milieus were developed for D&D settings. (Yes! I would maintain that some of the creative interest of the world body in D&D has gone into INTERNET BROWSING. Why – because at basic D&D is a social and intellectual diversion from going out and about in the physical world. Does that sound at all like Internet Browsing? OK, I digress…)

    So the additional D&D milieus developed by countless authors include one in 1986 called Kara-Tur – an Asian setting. To a non D&D person, this work would basically look like a large hard-cover bound book with a lot of source information about a fantasy world. D&D people saw this book would know it as one of dozens of similar set-up books with different kinds of specialized information.

    Wikipedia here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kara-Tur

    Kara-Tur does NOT seem to be the origin of the Hsigo association with flying monkey monsters and D&D. I do not have a copy of Kara-Tur, but I'm sure there would be a section of the book that had a "Monster's Compendium" – that would list out monsters that inhabited that books milieu. The internet does not provide the answer as to whether Hsigo are featured in the Kara-Tur Monster's Compendium. Only browsing an actual copy of the book could confirm – my guess is it does not.

    What does seem to be the origin of a D&D association with Hsigo is this little blog page, which was created by an amateur (meaning – did not get paid to do it) D&D enthusiast.

    http://savevsdragon.blogspot.com/2012/02/new-oebx1e-monster-hsigo-flying-monkey.html

    And NOTE : Prominently featured in this short blog is the sentence describing the picture of the "Hsigo"

    "This creature from Chinese legend supposedly inspired Frank L. Baum's flying monkeys in his Oz books."

    So if anyone's intersted in doing some more Internet Browsing :) :) :) – You might want to try to find out if there's any Asian/Chinese inspired influence on Frank L. Baum's fantastical Flying Monkeys.

  38. julie lee said,

    October 28, 2013 @ 2:48 pm

    @JS:
    Thanks for your comment on hsiao. I do believe the word hsigo was a misreading or typo for the word hsiao.

    @TK Mair:
    Thanks for the info. linking Frank L. Baum's flying monkeys in his Oz books to Chinese legend. Yes, inspiration can come from the most unlikely places. By chance I was reading the National Geographic Nov. 2013 cover story on the great "storm-chaser" and meteorologist Tim Samaras, who died in a tornado . Samaras devoted his life to chasing tornadoes and studying them. He said it was reading about the tornado that blew Dorothy away in "The Wizard of Oz" that inspired him to dedicate his life to tornadoes. He said that for him the tornado was the most interesting thing in "The Wizard of Oz".

  39. Randy Smith said,

    May 12, 2014 @ 2:14 am

    Oh, gosh. I'm the RandyS0725 you included in your article. And I have to say, I'm not sure if being the only one to add a reference to that inaccurate page is to be seen as an honor or a disgrace. Darn it, I always try to add good, viable content, when I can, to the Wikipedia pages, but as it turns out, that information was just as bogus as if somebody had just come along and spammed the page. How embarrassing. It seems like I'll have to vet even my book sources more closely than I have been. Anyhow, it's good, at least, that the error has been found and corrected. Cheers. :)

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