Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Blessed by bats (Taiwan Business Topics)

In Western societies, bats are viewed with distaste and occasionally fear. Many people find their fur and tiny teeth repulsive. Unlike birds, bats are never brightly colored. It is fair to say they resemble demons or gargoyles, and they have long been associated with vampires. Some of those who suffer from chiroptophobia (a clinical fear of bats) worry they may be bitten by a blood-sucking species. Just three of the world’s 1,200-plus bat species feed on blood, however, and they are found only in Latin America.

In Chinese tradition, by contrast, bats are esteemed. Images of bats decorate many old buildings, among them the Lin Family Garden in New Taipei City’s Banqiao District. Patricia Bjaaland Welch, in her book Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, explains why: “Because both fú meaning ‘bat’ (蝠) and the sentiment fú meaning ‘good wishes’ (福) share the same phoneme... a depiction of a bat has come to represent good luck.” 

In Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs: An Alphabetical Compendium of Antique Legends and Beliefs, as Reflected in the Manners and Customs of the Chinese, C.A.S. Williams is emphatic: “The bat is by no means regarded with aversion as in other countries. On the contrary, it is emblematic of happiness and longevity. The conventional bat is frequently employed for decorative purposes, and is often so ornate that it bears a strong resemblance to the butterfly.” Williams goes on to say that bat symbols in mansions are often painted red – an auspicious color – and that five bats shown together represent the “Five Blessings” (五福, wǔfú), a recurring motif standing for wealth, health, virtue, reaching an old age, and dying a natural death. 

The National Palace Museum collection includes a number of items adorned with bat patterns, including glazed vases from the 1735-1796 reign of Qing Dynasty Emperor Qianlong.

The Compendium of Materia Medica, a late 16th-century Chinese book on herbal medicine, links bats with longevity, stating: “In the caverns of the hills are found bats a thousand years old, and white as silver, which are believed to feed on stalactites. If eaten, they will ensure long life and good eyesight. The blood, gall, wings, and so on, are therefore prescribed as ingredients in certain medicines.” Of course, no bats live for a millennium, but some have been known to survive for almost 40 years, far longer than other small mammals such as mice and shrews.


Bat feces play a role in modern Chinese herbal medicine. Known by the Mandarin euphemism yèmíngshā (夜明砂, literally “night brightness sand”), they are believed to clear the liver and help with eye ailments such as night blindness and cataracts. The oft-repeated claim that bat droppings are an ingredient in some brands of mascara is erroneous. Bat feces, however, like seabird guano, are rich in nitrogen and thus an excellent fertilizer. 

Bats are mammals; like humans, they give birth to live young and nurse them with milk. Bats have considerably bigger brains than birds of the same body weight, and whereas birds have hollow bones, the bones of bats are filled with marrow.

Just as Taiwan amazes those who appreciate birds and butterflies, the island boasts a bat population of stunning diversity. Most bat species eat insects or fruit. Taiwan has an abundance of both, so it is no surprise that the island is home to an impressive number and variety of Microchiroptera (microbats, which are generally small and insectivorous), as well as three kinds of Megachiroptera (flying foxes, also known as megabats).


Taiwan has 35 bat species, confirms Wu Chung-hsin, associate professor of life science at National Taiwan Normal University and chairman of the Bat Association of Taiwan (BAT). Eleven of these species are endemic, meaning they are found nowhere else on Earth. Japan, which has 10 times Taiwan’s land area, has 36 types of bat. The United States has 45. Unfortunately for people curious about the island’s bats, less has been written about them than Taiwan’s birds, Lepidoptera (the insect order that comprises moths and butterflies), or even its snails...


This is the second of the three articles I wrote for the travel and culture special of the American Chamber of Commerce in Taipei's monthly magazine. The photos are courtesy of the Bat Conservation Society of Taipei. The entire article is here.

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