A Short History of Flying Cows

Category: General
Published on Saturday, 05 November 2005 08:00
Written by Brian Barron
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Birdie, birdie in the sky,
Dropped some whitewash in my eye.
I didn’t scream, I didn’t cry,
But, boy, I’m glad that cows don’t fly!

Or do they? As some Trampers can attest, they do in Hong Kong.

Flying cows are one of the more magnificent representatives of the fauna in the territory, although few these days have had the good fortune to come across them in the receding wild areas of Hong Kong into which they have been retreating over the years as “civilization” encroaches on their former range. This is a brief account of their remarkable history here for those who have not yet encountered them.

No one is certain how long flying cows have been in Hong Kong. However, there is tantalizing evidence that they have been here since before the days of recorded history.

On the southwestern tip of Lantau Island, near the village of Fan Lau, there is a mysterious stone circle, which local archeologists have dated to a time approximately three thousand years before the present day. Originally believed to have been a prehistoric boy scout campfire site, some experts have recently conjectured that the circle may in fact have been an enclosure for flying calves captured by local villagers. Although apparently supported by the remains of petrified cow pies found within the enclosure, it must be admitted that this thesis has come under some criticism from experts in other quarters, who have pointed out that a flying calf could easily have flown over the low stone walls.

Less controversial, and located near Shek Pik reservoir (not far from Fan Lau), is a remarkable petroglyph carved into the rocks above the reservoir. Although badly weathered after being exposed to the elements for nearly three millennia, the image of a winged creature can be clearly made out on the face of the stone. Is this the first pictorial representation of a flying cow in the territory? Some experts believe it is.

The first written reference to flying cows appears in the reign of the Han Dynasty (ca. 3rd century BC to 3rd century AD) emperor, Wu Di. The reference is now to be found in a compilation of Han Dynasty records for this region of Guangdong, The Gazetteer of Panyu County. It is drawn from a memorial sent by a court official, Jia Wen, known for his strict Confucian rationalism. Jia Wen, who was sent by the emperor to report on the state of the remote and recently conquered barbarian tracts on the fringes of his empire, describes a trek made through what is believed to be present day Shatin valley where, through an interpreter, he was told by local villagers of the remarkable flying beasts who inhabited the hills above them. “I have heard of the cowherd who meets the weaver girl in the heavens above us in mid-autumn,” notes Jia Wen skeptically, “but never of the flying cow.”

After this brief reference this is no further written record of flying cows for five centuries, a period during which the empire divided into many fractious kingdoms which long contended with each other for supremacy.

Then, in the Tang Dynasty (ca. 7th century to 10th century AD), the aviatory bovines make another appearance in the writings of the poet-official, Dou Fu. Better known for his fondness of wine than his poetry, Dou Fu had been sent in exile to the remote and pestilent territory around Hong Kong by an emperor offended by Dou Fu’s behaviour at court. In a poem contained in a more obscure compendium of Tang Dynasty poetry, Three Hundred Other Tang Poems, and written during Dou Fu’s first years of exile we find the following depiction of our bovine friends:

On an autumn night, cold and clear,
Cup after cup we raise to our lips,
Drowning our sorrows in amber wine,
Thinking thoughts of our old hometown.

Across the bright round moon a shadow crosses --
Flying cow, ah! Flying cow, ah!
Won’t you take a message to my emperor?
Beg him to bring me home!

Shortly after these verses were written, Dou Fu is believed to have been sent further into exile in what is now Vietnam on account of his bad poetry, and we hear no more from him of flying cows.

Three centuries after the fall of the Tang, a new dynasty, the Song (ca. 11th to 13th centuries AD) found itself battling for survival against the onslaught of the Mongol hordes. From this chaotic time, a romantic tale of heroism and adventure has been passed down. It describes the flight by sea of the last Song emperor from the Mongol armies, which were hotly pursuing him to the south. Nearing the Pearl River delta, the boy emperor’s ships were wrecked by a ferocious gale. All aboard would have perished, but the for chance passing of a flying cow named Daisy who, seeing the hapless refugees below her on a morning flight after the storm had subsided, stooped down to pluck up the boy emperor and the last surviving members of his entourage one by one. She set them down on the shores below Castle Peak, where they found refuge from the elements in a hillside cave and paid grateful homage to their four legged, two winged rescuer. However, the tale has a tragic end. Unable to find food on the barren hills about them, the boy emperor and the cads in his entourage soon began to look upon their benefactor, Daisy, in a less grateful light, and Daisy’s story ends in an imperial barbecue.

The Ming Dynasty (ca. 14th to 17th centuries) represents a watershed period in the history of the flying cows, in which we find the first records of the divisions of the flying cow community into the different groups and sects that remain with us to this day.

It is during this period, for example, that we find the first reports of Taoist practices among the flying cows at Pat Sin Ling. Ming period specialist, Dr. Geoffrey Waylaid in Singapore, has uncovered an obscure report on the early years of this Taoist sect in a memorial to the Ming court made by an anonymous local official. According to the report, which is to be found in the Unverifiable Records of the Ming, the Pat Sin Leng cows were visited by a Taoist recluse from Hunan Province during the reign of emperor Jing Tai. This recluse, by the name of Fei Niu, introduced the cows to Taoist rites and explained to them the mysteries of the Taoist immortals and the secrets of everlasting life. The sect has continued to reside on Pat Sin Leng since that time, where they pass their days levitating above the peaks and amusing themselves by suddenly appearing before startled hikers and performing magic tricks.

The transition from the Ming to Qing Dynasties (1644 to 1911) saw the region thrown into turmoil as residents were removed from the coastal areas while the Qing armies battled the last remnants of the Ming “loyalists”. After the resettlement of the coastal region and a period of relative tranquility in the reign of the emperors Yong Zheng and Qian Long, the region descended once again into chaos and piracy. During this period, one group of flying cows inevitably drifted into the malignant ways of piracy and brigandage. Putting the boots (or rather the hooves) to a band of human pirates who had previously occupied the area, they eventually settled on the remote end of the eastern peninsula which stretches out beyond Sharp Peak above Sai Kung where, to this day, they continue to skulk in the hills and prey on unwary hikers who happen to fall into their ambushes.

During these times of rampant piracy, when foreign traders were also smuggling opium into the region with the connivance of local merchants, an itinerant German preacher by the name of Gutslax first appeared on the south China coast. Garbing himself in local costume and acquiring fluency in several regional dialects (including three dialects of cow), he traveled up and down the coast between Guangdong and Zhejiang seeking to convert locals to his evangelistic Christian faith. Finding little success among the wary peasants and fisher folk of the region, he turned his attention to a group of flying cows near Tai Lam, who soon fell under his spell. One particularly impressionable cow listened raptly to Gutslax’s sermons. Soon after Gutslax’s departure from the area, this cow slipped into what seemed a life threatening fever. For days he tossed and turned on his straw bed, calling out feverishly to what he called his “divine father” and “divine brother” in his dreams. When he eventually emerged from this catatonic state, he began preaching what appeared to be a quasi-Christian, quasi-spiritualist millenarian doctrine to any of his fellow flying cows who would listen. Soon, he found himself surrounded by a group of fanatical followers who were prepared to follow him to the ends of the earth to fulfill his wild prophecies. To them, he became known as “God’s Chinese Cow”. To his family, who remained more skeptical of his preachings, he continued to be known as “Milkweed”. (“He was always an impressionable, silly calf” his father is reputed to have said.)

Milkweed soon began calling on his disciples to follow him north on a mission to topple the Manchu dynasty and found a Heavenly Kingdom of Beefy Peace. Marching northward with his followers, however, he was stopped and turned back by British officials (who had only recently taken possession of Hong Kong and the Kowloon peninsula) at Boundary Street for failing to have proper papers. Frustrated in their attempt to overthrow the Manchus, Milkweed and his followers turned instead to Lantau, where they finally established a less radical monastic sect and built a series of missionary huts on the top of Sunset Peak (where they continue to reside to this day, occasionally heading downhill to the Trappist Monastery for a milking).

And such is the history of flying cows in Hong Kong, at least as much as this brief history can cover in the short space provided. For those who wish to acquaint themselves personally with these marvelous (but sometimes dangerous beasts), a trek into the hills with the Trampers is all that is required.