The Sacrifice of the Hanged Monkey

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by Minsoo Kang

Minsoo Kang is the author of Of Tales and Enigmas: Stories and the history book Sublime Dreams of Living Machines: The Automaton in the European Imagination, and translator of the classic Korean novel The Story of Hong Gildong. His fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Shanghai Steam, and The Year’s Best Horror and Fantasy (2007) among others. He is currently an associate professor of history at the University of Missouri — St. Louis.

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[The first chapters of The Crane Falls, the Falcon Rises: The True Chronicle of the End of the First Era of the Sublime Rule and the Beginning of the Second Era were destroyed in the burning of the Eternal House of Endless Knowledge. It was not the practice of historians of the time to number the chapters of their works, so it is unknown how many of them have been lost. The extant text begins here.]

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[interpreted?] the failure of the colony in the realm of the Hanged Monkey as evidence of the weakness of the imperial system. But it should be remembered that the event took place during the height of the Sublime Rule’s dominance in the West and the North, and the decline of its grip on power there did not begin until the middle of the Third Era. In other words, the precipitous collapse of the colony was an anomalous occurrence at a time when the empire was enjoying a virtually uninterrupted string of military and political successes across the region. Furthermore, even when the hegemony of the Sublimes fell apart, no other occupied territory was lost in the same manner as the realm of the Hanged Monkey. So the story is of interest not for the insight it sheds on the eventual downfall of the once supreme power, but rather for the unique nature of the colony’s fate, the significance of which scholars have found both unfathomable and tantalizing.

By the end of the First Era, the military might of the Sublime Rule, in its sheer size as well as technological capability, so far outstripped that of any land in the swampy West and the rocky North that its expeditionary forces rarely had to engage in actual fighting with the various peoples it encountered. Atop the outer wall of the capital of the realm of the Hanged Monkey, its royalty, ministers, and generals watched in terrified awe as the great invading army arrayed itself on the field beyond like an undulating ocean of spears and flags. The Sublimes then made an extravagant show of their fearsome weapons and tamed monsters from all corners of the empire that struck fear into the hearts of the natives like a lightning bolt from a cloudless sky. After the grand display, an envoy was sent to the quaking rulers of the realm to deliver the terms of their inevitable surrender.

In accordance to the principles of “Benevolent Domination,” the recognition of the supremacy of the Sublime Ruler would allow them to maintain much of their political, social, and cultural status quo. The king of the realm of the Hanged Monkey would remain its titular monarch, his laws would remain in effect as long as they did not conflict with imperial statutes, his priests would continue to worship their deity, and his people would carry on their lives pretty much as before. The only conditions that would be imposed were the establishment of a commandery under a military prefect, a tax in the form of a twice-yearly tribute, and the sending of a contingent of soldiers to join the imperial army. Resistance, on the other hand, would result in the complete destruction of the capital and its inhabitants, and the enslavement of all the people of the land.

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[The chronicle neglects to mention the problem of language in such interactions between the Sublimes and the people they subdued. Of course all communication was conducted through interpreters, most of merchant background whose occupation made the familiarity with multiple tongues a necessity. The historian probably left them out because their role was essential in the actual events but not in their recounting. While this may be an understandable act of narrative simplification, it creates the false impression of an implausible world in which people of many lands somehow speak the same language, as can be found in many unsophisticated works of fantasy.] 

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The king agreed to the terms of submission without hesitation or objection from his ministers and generals. So it appeared that the Sublimes would achieve yet another bloodless conquest in the North. But then a minor mishap occurred that might have planted the seed of the eventual calamity that would befall the realm.

Just as the imperial army began marching toward the main gate of the capital and the rulers of the realm hurriedly prepared to welcome the conquerors, a side gate opened and a group of a few dozen men in bright yellow robes came charging out with a war cry. They swung clubs and sticks in the air and flew a standard with the image of their god, the Hanged Monkey whose name was Bob. They were the clerics of the Temple of the Hanged Monkey, led by a hoary high priest who assured them of the imminent intervention of Bob who would sweep away the foreign army as a gardener wields his broom to weep away so many dead leaves of autumn. In response, the Sublimes dispatched a squadron of men armed with fire-spewing weapons who rode out on giant hamsters and incinerated the priests, reducing them all to heaps of smoking ash in an instant.

When the generals of the imperial army entered the capital, the mortified king hurried to them and explained that he had nothing to do with the actions of the priests, that they had been a group of crazed fanatics who had launched the suicidal attack on their own accord. Given the utterly senseless nature of the act, the generals decided that he was telling the truth, but they also agreed that the king had to be punished in some way for failing to keep his priests under control. As it was well known that the Sublimes had no qualms about razing entire cities, ruining vast lands, and eradicating the populations of those who dared to defy them, it came as a relief to the rulers of the realm that they were merely ousted from the royal palace to seek accommodations elsewhere.

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[There is no doubt that the priests who led the short-lived fight against the Sublimes truly believed that the Hanged Monkey whose name was Bob would intervene on their behalf. There is, however, the possibility of another motivation for the desperate act. Historians have pointed out that in the decades before the coming of the Sublimes, the priesthood took advantage of a weak royal family to systematically take over the reins of power in the realm. By the time of the conquest, the kingdom functioned more or less as a theocracy, with the monarch as only a figurehead. So the leadership of the Temple of the Hanged Monkey had much more to lose than the royalty in submitting to the Sublimes. That may have led to the high priest’s conviction that Bob would surely answer his call to unleash his divine wrath upon the invaders. This notion is supported by the fact that after the royal family was ousted from the palace, there was no mention of their involvement in the events that followed, testifying to their ineffectuality and irrelevance. In fact, they disappear completely from history at that point.]

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The Sublime generals duly selected one of their own to be the prefect of the newly established commandery, an ambitious scion of an illustrious martial clan who regarded the appointment as an essential stepping stone to greater things. A small portion of the army was left under his charge to garrison the capital before the expeditionary force moved on to conquer new lands. The prefect, along with his officers and bureaucrats, moved into the former royal palace, which was capacious enough to be turned into their command center as well as living quarters. Everything proceeded smoothly in the following months as they prepared to enact a general census and land survey for the purpose of tax collection, and to see about recruiting local soldiers to join the imperial army.

Early one morning, the prefect was awakened by a great din of people shouting outside his chamber’s window. When he got up and looked out in annoyance, he saw that there was a crowd gathered at the Temple of the Hanged Monkey, which lay right next to the palace. The prefect summoned an aide and ordered him to go and find out what the commotion was about. He returned as the prefect, in a foul mood from having gotten insufficient sleep due to the disturbance, was finishing his breakfast. The mystified aide informed him that the priests of the temple, those who had not taken part in the hapless resistance, were in the middle of a heated theological dispute which was apparently of great interest to the public, as many inhabitants of the capital had gathered to hear them. Upon further inquiry, the prefect found out that their argument was over the nature of the Hanged Monkey whose name was Bob, who began as an ordinary monkey but was elevated to divinity after his hanging. One group of priests believed that Bob possessed the potential for divinity from the beginning, a special quality which was activated by the gods when they raised him from the dead. In other words, even before he became a god, he possessed a kind of proto-divine essence. The opposing group of priests insisted that Bob was a wholly mortal monkey before his deification, and that the true miracle of his transformation lay precisely in the fact that he was once nothing but a small, weak, shitting, pissing animal. The entire capital was in the grip of this disputation which was carried out by the priests with a great passion that verged on a strange kind of desperation. As the prefect learned that morning, they were not content to discuss the matter in a calm and orderly manner as the two groups continued to shout their arguments at each other throughout the day.

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[As scholars of religions have pointed out, such passion in theological arguments always points to a subtext, of some matter that cannot be spoken of directly or admitted to overtly, a matter often of power and impotence, wealth and poverty, life and death. It has been suggested that the priests were tormented by guilt and confusion over the demise of their peers. Those who had challenged the Sublimes had perished quickly at the hands of the invaders, but they had proven themselves to be the strongest in their faith. Those who had not participated saw themselves as weak, cowardly, and beset with doubt. Their dispute was really over how they must live and carry on as the remaining guardians of their religion. It has also been suggested that their theological disagreement was really over whether they too should rebel against their conquerors. Should they believe in a great potential within themselves (the proto-divinity of Bob before the hanging) that would be activated to lead them to victory against the seemingly invincible Sublimes? Must they trust in that and fight to prove themselves true believers? Or should they admit to their current weakness and powerlessness (as Bob was once nothing more than a weak and powerless monkey) and wait for the right opportunity to make a great and useful sacrifice that would compel a divine force to raise them from their subjugation and humiliation? Perhaps the Hanged Monkey had not intervened in the initial calamity because that was not the right time for resistance. While all that is in the realm of pure speculation, it is reasonable to consider such a hidden agenda as their disputation was conducted with a fervor far beyond that of a mere academic exercise.]

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The irritated prefect dispatched an officer with a squadron of soldiers to the temple. Abiding by the principle of “Benevolent Domination,” he sent the message that he would not concern himself with the internal affairs of the temple as long as it did not interfere with imperial business, but they really had to quiet down. That did not stop the priests’ arguments, but their noise subsided enough for the prefect to enjoy a quiet evening and a good night’s rest.

When the prefect woke up the next morning, he was surprised to hear the priests still at it, making him wonder if they had been disputing all night long. As he lay in bed listening, their voices went up and down, sometimes on the verge of shouting until they suddenly quieted again, as if someone reminded them of the prefect’s warning. It went on like that for the rest of the day. At one point in the afternoon, however, the priests apparently forgot themselves and became loud once again, but just as the prefect was about to send another squadron with instructions to beat up a few of them and destroy some artifact in the temple, their noise subsided once more.

After a few days of this, the prefect was woken again before dawn by their shouting, which enraged him. He leapt out of bed and ordered the assembly of a contingent of a full hundred before putting on his armor. He went down to the temple where he and his men violently pushed and kicked their way through the crowd. When they reached the altar of the Hanged Monkey, the priests who led the two sides of the theological dispute immediately prostrated themselves before the prefect and begged his pardon for the disturbance they had caused. But he ignored them and looked around until he saw the ancient stone statue of the Hanged Monkey standing behind the altar. He took an iron mace from a soldier and proceeded to smash the statue to pieces, with the priests watching in abject horror. First came off Bob’s head in a noose, then his loosely hanging arms, his tail, and his distended belly. Only after the holy image was reduced to rubble did the prefect address the priests.

“You stupid savages with your stupid god! The Hanged Monkey? There is no Hanged Monkey! Whether he’s called Bob or Bill or Coco or Momo or some other idiotic name. You would know that if you had the least spark of intelligence in your primitive minds. Animal gods, elemental gods, geographical gods, none of them are real. Just infantile fantasies of infantile people. The world is a machine, don’t you know! A great self-moving machine. The Creator designed it so that it can run itself. He made it so he could behold its beauty and perfection for all of eternity. He is watching even now, but from a place far, far from here. He doesn’t answer prayers, he doesn’t intervene in our affairs, and he doesn’t give a shit about your stupid argument about your stupid monkey god.”

He then looked up and spread out his arms.

“Hanged monkey god!” he shouted. “Yes, I am addressing you, Bob, you ridiculous phantasm. I am the conqueror of these savage people who worship you, who grovel before your image. If I am wrong, if you are not some delusion in their childlike minds, then strike me down. Strike me down right now! I dare you, you filthy, shit-eating animal! Prove me wrong, and prove your worshippers right. Strike me down!”

He then waited for a long moment as all in the temple kept absolutely still and silent.

“Ha!” the prefect finally said. “See! Hanged monkey god. Ha ha.”

He then walked out of the temple, followed by his men.

Back at the palace, the Sublimes did not hear a single sound coming out of the temple for the rest of the day. Deep in the night, however, the prefect woke up to a world of smoke and fire.

When he was roused by an aide to the smell of burning and noise of chaos outside, he immediately thought that he had pushed the natives too far that day, that they had risen up in response to his desecration of the temple. As he quickly got up and put on his heavy armor once again, he worried mainly about how all that would impact his career. He knew that the revolt would be easily crushed with weapons of fire, lightning, and dissolving liquid, and that he would then mete out punishment to the people that would be severe enough to make them too fearful and demoralized to try anything like that again. But he would also have to submit a full report of these events to the Ministry of Colonial Affairs of the West and the North at the capital of the Sublime Rule. And there would be questions of whether he had failed to properly apply the principles of “Benevolent Domination,” resulting in this situation. He would have to explain things in a way that the bulk of the responsibility would be deflected from him, but even if he succeeded at it, it might still prove to be an obstacle in the way of his future ambitions.

Cursing in frustration, he went down to the main gate of the palace, where he was met by his officers who had assembled the entire garrison. One of them, however, reported to him of the strangeness of what was happening outside the walls. All the priests and a great crowd of other people were gathered, but they were not attacking the palace. They were divided into two groups that were fighting each other.

When the gate was opened and the prefect and his soldiers marched out, they saw that the Temple of the Hanged Monkey had been set ablaze and the area around it had become a battlefield in which priests and laymen alike were attacking one another with knives, axes, clubs, and shovels. In fact, they were going at it with such rage and ferocity that it was turning into a bloodbath. As the Sublimes watched in amazement, the prefect himself not knowing what to do, the natives killed one another with such efficiency that soon there was only one priest of gigantic stature left alive, the blood that covered his yellow robe and fell from his knife glimmering ominously in the last dying fires of the destroyed temple.

A sudden realization came to the prefect, so he stepped toward the last priest.

“You there!” he called out. “Was this about the argument over your god? Did you fight because the two sides blamed each other for what happened today? For what I did to the image of your god?”

The priest looked at the prefect with empty eyes for a long moment before he answered. “All this is a sacrifice. A sacrifice to the Hanged Monkey whose name was Bob.”

He then plunged his blade into his own throat.

After the shock of what had occurred wore off, the prefect was about to order the cleanup of the bloody mess when he saw another fire erupting in a nearby building, then another, then another, until the whole city was on fire. It would take him days to fully comprehend what happened, that all the people of the realm of the Hanged Monkey packed their things, set fire to their houses and fields, and abandoned the place in a matter of hours. By the time the new day dawned, the entire land was turning into a smoke-covered wasteland. And when the people left, they did not travel together but families and individuals scattered in all directions and in a great hurry with no destination in mind. When imperial soldiers stopped some of them, they said that they were fleeing a cursed place that was no longer fit for people to live in, one that they had to get away from as fast and as far away as possible. They became a lost people, dispersed refugees wandering aimlessly across the world who did not even try to preserve the memories of their original home and culture. Soon there was no more city, no more realm, and no more people to rule over. The imperial colony failed because it ceased to exist in the course of a single day.

The imperial army eventually left and returned to the metropole of the Sublime Rule. After an exhaustive inquiry into the fall of the realm of the Hanged Monkey which resulted in no clear understanding of the events, the case was closed and the former prefect of the commandery was demoted from his rank of general. He was assigned as a mid-level officer to a garrison in a far and peaceful province in the Tranquil South where he lived out the rest of his life in melancholy mediocrity.

In the commentaries to the Basic Annals of the First Era of the Sublime Empire, no less than four Grand Historians have [asserted?]

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[The rest of the chapter was damaged at this point, and the following chapter begins with a narration of the events in the swampy West. While it may frustrate the reader to be deprived of the insights of the Grand Historians, it must be noted that they were not privy to recently discovered documents on the realm of the Hanged Monkey. Among them, the one that is of greatest interest is a record of the story of the god known as the Hanged Monkey whose name was Bob. While it may not provide a satisfying explanation of the fall of the realm, and may even bring further mystification, it offers a new perspective on its strange fate.]

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Before the coming of the first woman, and her subsequent creation of her male companion and the other woman, a great ball of fire fell from the heavens. The ever greedy and hungry god of the sea swallowed it whole, but it was such a great fiery thing that it caused the god to let out a powerful fart that cracked the earth open. Out of the crack a monstrous wolf escaped from the fiery depths and wreaked havoc upon the world. As it ran furiously about, it pissed fire out of its gigantic penis, burning up everything on land so that nothing could grow, and boiling the waters of all the rivers until they turned into steam. The strongest and bravest animals of the land tried to stop the beast, but it burned or ate all who dared to challenge it. The gods, seeing the wanton destruction of their beauteous creation, finally intervened, but they too were unable to stop the raging creature. While all the remaining animals fled, a lone monkey named Bob, who had seen the destruction of his entire family and tribe by the wolf’s fire, courageously carried on the fight. Although he was but a small and weak monkey, he was also smart and quick. He chased the wolf by swinging from one tree to another before jumping onto its back to torment it. He pulled at its tail, and when the beast snapped at him with its great teeth, he made his escape by leaping to a tall tree. He chased the wolf again, then jumped back down on it to rip out some fur before leaping to another tree. He repeated the action, spitting in the wolf’s ear, poking it in the eye, and scratching its nose.

The enraged wolf realized that the only way it could get the nimble creature was to destroy all trees. So he went from one to another, pissing fire at their trunks and setting them on fire. Eventually Bob found himself trapped in the last tree in the land. The beast was about to set fire to it also, when it realized that it was very hungry. So it decided to wait for the monkey to try to make his escape so it could eat him. The tree was full of fruits, but that provided no comfort for Bob as he knew them to be very poisonous.

The wolf stood by the tree in patient watch until night fell and it grew tired. It lay down and closed its eyes to sleep, but it kept its ears open so that it could pounce if the monkey came down. Next morning, it woke up to find that Bob had apparently given into despair and hanged himself on a low branch. The wolf rejoiced at the sight and jumped up to swallow the dead monkey whole.

When the sun reached the highest point in the sky, the wolf suddenly felt sick. Its stomach churned in agony until it expelled so much feces that it fertilized the land and made things grow again. It then sweated so much that it replenished the waters of the rivers. It then lost all its fur, the strands of which flew into the air, planted themselves in the land and turned into trees to replace all the ones that had burned. As the great beast then lay down to die, it realized the cause of its demise. The monkey had eaten all the fruits of the last tree before hanging itself so that the wolf would become poisoned when it ate him.

The gods were so impressed with the monkey’s sacrifice which saved the world that they gathered his remains from the belly of the dead monster and returned him to life by endowing him with divinity. And so was born the god known as the Hanged Monkey whose name was Bob.

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