Water Monkey: The Fantastic Beast of Cyberspace

Mao Yinglun

It was a cozy evening, you were lying back on the sofa, scrolling through the seemingly endless For You page of TikTok. Suddenly, something caught your attention, this disturbing video popped up on your screen—an ape-like animal covered in black slimy fur swimming in a dark river. In the background, creepy music was playing, and a deep man’s voice introduced the story of this mysterious creature, the ‘Water Monkey’.
Fig 1. Wuzhiqi, Song dynasty, 12th century AD, cast iron - Ethnological Museum, Berlin.

End notes
[1]  Archive of Water Monkey stories on Tianya can be found on this website: http://book.sbkk8.com/gushihui/shuiguiguigushi/

    Carried by water flows and word of mouth, Water Monkey, or 水猴子, has been drifting in the long river of history. One of the most recognized origins of the Water Monkey is in a book of Chinese mythologies from the Han Dynasty (4th century BCE), The Classic of Mountains and Seas, in which it was called 无支祁. Some scholars think it is related to Makara, a legendary sea creature in Hindu mythology: An ape-like monster, living in the Huai River, that often disturbed the river and caused floods. It was eventually defeated and sealed by the sage king who tamed floods, Yu the Great (大禹), at the origin of the river (fig 1).

    As years went by, the image of the Water Monkey became more and more vivid. In Chinese folklore, it is often described as a half-human half-beast creature with long fur, sharp claws, and turtle shells. It inhabits rivers and uses its immense strength to drag animals and humans into the water, where it feeds on their blood and viscera.

    Stories of the Water Monkey were long nurtured and shaped by bodies of water. It was born in the Huai River and continuously transmitted and evolved where rivers pass. The body of water is undoubtedly a place of mythmaking and, moreover, a medium that archives these myths. Changes in currents, waves, and flows are not merely hydrology, but grooves on records that bring back ancient tales. The dam and irrigation networks are not just infrastructures, but the ending or a twist in the stories. Bodies of water also carried the storytellers who traveled from one river village to another, bringing with them the fantasies of the Water Monkey. Between each of their narratives, the story was passed on and shed a new light.

    “Ocean had mermaid … and we had a sea of silicon.” In his novel Count Zero, William Gibson, through the words of the character Finn, unfolds the paradigm shift brought about by omnipotent information technology. He explains how this shift has created a "universe of hallucination" that enables infinite possibilities for fantastic creatures. In the information age, the container of mystic tales like the Water Monkey is not only seen in physical landscapes and bodies of water, but also in cyberspace formed by ubiquitous data computing, transferring, and storing.

    If we try to trace the figure of the Water Monkey in digital time, just as we might search for the roots of Slender Man or other internet horror legends, we need to dig through old blogs on Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). At the dawn of the Millennium, there were not many in China who had access to the World Wide Web, meanwhile, an online forum initially used for exchanging stock information eventually became the largest BBS platform in China: Tianya (天涯社区). At first, the main users of the forum were those who had easy access to computers, like university students. Later, with the growing popularity of the internet, new users from all backgrounds swarmed onto Tianya, while more content was posted about internet folklore and celebrity gossip. Around 2010, there was a large number of posts about urban legends and supernatural events on the Tianya forum, many of which appeared in the Lotus Horror Story (莲蓬鬼话) section, where many stories about the Water Monkey were documented.

    Though BBS has grown  outdated and Tianya has disappeared in the waves of the internet, we can still find stories of the Water Monkey in archives left behind [1]. Most begin with the line, "When I was young" or "In the countryside," and the storytellers are no longer merchants or missionaries who travel between continents, but migrant workers who move between rural and urban spaces. People meet up in online forums instead of village centers, and they upload and share word of mouth myths to boards on the cloud. For those workers, the homeland is somewhere that feels distant and disconnected, and tales of the Water Monkey act as a through line between those distant memories and their dwellings in big cities. The existence of the Water Monkey, for them, is proof of those nostalgic stories.

    Fig 2. NAAM YAI - Thailand Biennale, Krabi, Thailand (https://www.toriwraanes.com/naam-yai)

    With the rise of short-form video platforms, the dissemination of folktales has gradually shifted from text-based to image-based. As the saying goes, seeing is believing; people are more likely to trust what they have witnessed with their own eyes. From blurry images filmed on a wild river to videos showing artworks exhibited by cliffs in Thailand, short-form clips of phantoms are attracting users and slowing down their swiping speed (fig 2). In the meantime, with the help of recommendation algorithms from platforms like TikTok, content about the Water Monkey is now reaching its targeted grassroots viewers more easily,  spreading faster, attracting more attention, and becoming more tangible. Based on these viral clips, streaming service providers have produced a series of Water Monkey-themed web films. These movies are packed with hyper-realistic horror scenes generated by computers, and they are well-received by those who cannot afford the time and the expense of going to a cinema (fig 3).

    Fig 3. Scene From The Film Folk Strange Talk: Water Monkey (https://youtu.be/LLpq4KfyM94?si=84XZXAz3rZridHA-)

    However, the moment that the Water Monkey finally became an internet meme came when an editor of Chinese National Graphic, Chenliang Zhang, started to comment on viral videos of the Water Monkey, making it a staple of his posts (fig 4). According to Zhang, the Water Monkey has made people feel “the charm between trueness, illusion, and absurdity in our world.” The comeback of the Water Monkey has indeed shown a trend of re-enchantment in the digital world. 

    The 19th-century sociologist Max Weber described modern society as a "disenchanted world," a concept related to the processes of rationalization and secularization that have been brought about by advanced technology. According to Weber, one can now "master all things by calculation," which has weakened the forces of mystery. This may explain why myths are disappearing from our physical world, but the new trend of re-enchantment in cyberspace has provided an interesting contrast. The return of the mystic largely stems from the Great Divide of Nature and Culture, which comes from the attempt to form a mechanistic understanding of the outside in terms of the Naturalist ontology. While in a digital environment, virtual rituals and mysterious creatures are reintroduced to mend this rupture between humans and non-humans.

    Fig 4. A Post on Water Monkey by Chenliang Zhang on Douyin (Chinese TikTok) (https://v.douyin.com/iNfWGUpx/)

    On the one hand, digital mysteries often serve as a rational explanation for ‘hyperobjects’—the massive and unsettling entities of the Great Divide epoch. These ‘hyperobjects’ typically arise from technological advancements, and sometimes the links between them are evident. In the 1950s, the Water Monkey was thought to have been sent by the Soviets to harvest human organs in order to build atomic bombs. This exemplifies people’s fear of the Cold War ‘hyperobjects’—the potential nuclear disasters and wars caused by the development of nuclear technology. However, in more cases, the link is implicit, and ‘hyperobjects’ are products of the Anthropocene, like climate change and water pollution. They have greatly increased the uncertainty of our living environment and pose a direct threat to human bodies. We are living in an age of catastrophe with constant threats from crises we cannot know, where bodies of water have become increasingly unpredictable, and more floods and droughts have come. Consequently, myths carried by bodies of water have resurfaced. The Water Monkey, once worshiped and appeased through sacrifices, has returned to the digital realm as a metaphor for the crises plaguing our planet.

    On the other hand, the existence of digital mysteries also serves as a carrier of experience and memory, reconnecting the divided subjects of Culture and Nature. Facilitated by data, algorithms, and streaming technology, digital media has provided a new environment for myths and mysteries to spread among geographically distant individuals. Creations centered on the Water Monkey in cyberspace embody the Symbolic order and are reaching a wider audience. These creations evoke the deeper collective memory of viewers, especially those who come from similar rural backgrounds. By drawing on familiar symbols, these texts and moving images foster solidarity and shared identity within cultural communities, while deepening individuals' sense of connection and belonging to the far-away terroir of their hometown.

    The renaissance of digital folklore also derives from a symbolic turn from the written tradition to a form of oral culture in the information age. Online content of the Water Monkey exemplifies this phenomenon, containing a linguistic form that the historian Walter J. Ong referred to as "Secondary Orality." According to Ong, new media technologies such as television, radio, and online literature have brought about a "Secondary Orality" that shares similarities with the primary oral culture born with ancient Greek mythologies. This new orality involves the generation of mystique and a strong communal sense, and it exhibits the same variability as its predecessor. However, it strikes a key difference: it primarily exists in written and printed forms on electronic devices.

    Through these temporary symbols, this multimedia-based oral culture transmits experiences and memories, rather than abstract concepts, among audiences. The restoration of orality brings about an ontological shift that has made the resurgence of mysticism possible. In the meantime, "Secondary Orality" has joined with the symbolic system of digital folklore. Together, with the ever-evolving information landscape, they constantly attract users' attention and modify their subjectivity and connection with the outside world, fostering the re-enchantment of the digital realm.

    Information technologies have reshaped the existing industrial civilization, which also provides the magic power of reviving myths and attracting more traction to the realm of the supernatural. Popping its head out from the digital landscape of text and video clips, the Water Monkey weaves together the experiences and memories carried by bodies of water with the threats posed by Anthropocene ‘hyperobjects’. This encounter adjusts individuals' perceptions and amends their relationship with the natural world. Amplified by the symbolic system of "Secondary Orality," the Water Monkey's slimy silhouette morphs in cyberspace, highlighting the digital re-emergence of mythical creatures and the intricate interplay between technology, storytelling, and our connection to the world around us.