The Spiders of China: An Obscurantist’s Personalized Review

Thursday, December 24, 2009

The Spiders of China

Language: English
Song Daxiang, Zhu Mingsheng, & Chen Jun
Publication date:

Number of Pages: 640 pages with 330 figure plates + 4 color plates
Hardcover, US $89.00

ISBN: 7-5375-1892-0

Over Thanksgiving I received an early Christmas present that not many readers of this blog will have on their wish lists. For me, however, The Spiders of China sits at the intersection of several personal interests: I am a bibliophile, an aficionado of fine spiders, amateur sinocologist, and I get my thrill-of-the-hunt from tracking down those little pieces of information that no one else seems to care about. I am also the man who has everything (as of today, even a new grandson). What else is left to get me?

I obtained my first foreign-language spider book in 1976, when I mastered enough Italian to go into a Rome book store and ask, "Dove si trova un libro di ragni?" From our Berlin stop on that same trip I brought home Leben am seidenen Faden: Die rätselvolle Welt der Spinnen. Colombia and Brazil share a paucity of spider books, but many of their species show up in the well-done Arañas de Chiapas, my trophy from a trip no farther than Tucson.

Thus, in 2004, when I was preparing to visit China, one of my first activities was to make a list of books I wanted to find. Amazon didn’t know these books existed, but I found The Spiders of China on the web at China Scientific Book Service.

Silly me, I figured it would be easier, more fun, and maybe less expensive to actually buy the book in China. (I also seem to recall some problem in getting the website to accept an order.) With that goal, in Shanghai, I made a visit to the largest book store I have ever seen, four or five stories high, with hundreds of thousands of books on display . . .

. . . but not The Spiders of China. I consoled myself with a thin paperback on the insect pests in sugar cane.

Later in my trip, I was more successful with another book on my list, not just finding The Edible Insects of China, but meeting author Chen Xiaoming, and getting an autographed copy. Yet I had to come home without The Spiders of China.

Nor was I able to find a copy during my short trip to Zhejiang in 2008.

However, what I did secure in last year’s trip was familial connections in China. I’m not sure how they managed the trick (one does not ask those details about a gift), but the gist of it is, I now have my copy of The Spiders of China.

From the introduction, I learned the Chinese word for Spider (蜘蛛 zhīzhū) means “knowing to kill the bad element.” That makes sense. I also learned that spiders have appeared in Chinese literature since about 1200 BC; and that my own favorite family, the jumping spiders (Salticidae), first drew mention in 1756.

I bonded with the Salticidae about 35 years ago, watching one explore a terrarium. They move with the studied concentration and graceful control I later saw on the streets in China, where Tai Chi enthusiasts exercise amidst passers-by.

Opening the new book, my first hope was to identify a Salticid I photographed on the campus of South West China Normal University, Beibei, Chongqing, where I taught English the summer of 2004.

Drawings in the book helped me quickly settle upon the genus Harmochirus (Wikipedia lists nine species, from Africa to Japan), for which the book offered two, H. brachiatus and H. insulanus.

A quick web search suggested my spider looked more like brachiatus, but also disclosed two new species described since 1999, H. pineus and H. proszynski. I discovered that the Chinese arachnologist most familiar with Harmochirus was Dr. Li Shuqiang, so I sent Dr. Li my photographs. He graciously confirmed both the identification as Harmochirus and my fear that these photographs would be insufficient for identification of species. The fact is, within a given genus, most species of spider can only be distinguished by the shapes of their genitalia. For this reason, The Spiders of China devotes some 300 pages to drawings intended to serve researchers who have specimens under the microscope. Alas, I took only pictures (see also this Nephila) in China, and preserved no specimens.

The other 330 pages, however, give a very useful introduction to the 56 families of spiders in China (a few of which are unfamiliar to me in America), and to their genera, for which a photograph is often sufficient for identification.

To which many readers may be thinking, “So what?”

Many years ago, at the end of a school year, our principal roasted the teachers with funny awards. Mr. Hollinger dubbed me the “Staff Obscurantist.” As I’ve thought about that over the years, I’ve concluded he hit the nail right on the head. I’ve spent my life intrigued by a long list of things that would interest few other people, whether in history, linguistics, botany, zoology, or anthropology. In the process, I’ve come to realize my unique challenge as a writer: steep myself in the obscure from a dozen different fields, and distill from them the details that can embellish a story and open up the subjects to readers who would otherwise not care.

To those of you who have read this far in a review of The Spiders of China, may I ask, “What kept you reading?”


I'm your wife. =)

Vicki Carroll said...
December 26, 2009 at 9:25 PM  


I'd enjoy a conversation with you, since we seem to have some overlapping interests. I teach writing as a day-job and also have been working on some major CW projects. I'm also involved in a rather esoteric application of entomology. You can learn more [and contact me through] my website.

SmallStock Food Strategies LLC

Dave said...
December 27, 2009 at 5:15 PM  

Dave, I just poked around @ your site and quickly saw a couple of things to copy to one of my research folders. I'm a guy with way to many hobbies, but my interest in edible insects goes back to sauteing paper-wasp larvae in garlic butter 30 years ago. In Colombia, some indigenous friends introduced me to winged leaf-cutter ants, fresh "on the hoof." I can't say either will soon replace a nice tilapia on my menu, but I applaud your efforts.

Brian said...
December 27, 2009 at 6:06 PM  

SO...why did I read this? My daughter says it's because I'm such a nerd, which I'm proud to be. But really it's because I know you, Brian, and it made me think of us all in Colombia, and jumping spiders, and Vince the spider-man visiting with his wife Barb, and lots more!

tracy brander said...
December 28, 2009 at 8:32 AM  

Those were such wonderful times, Tracy, shared with so many wonderful people. Having mentioned Vince Roth, you'll be pleased to learn his SPIDER GENERA OF NORTH AMERICA (1993) is referenced in THE SPIDERS OF CHINA. I always like to turn to the list of references and see if I have any friends there. Thanks for stopping by.

Brian said...
December 28, 2009 at 10:29 AM  

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