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When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (2020) is a fantasy novella by Nghi Vo that provides various instances of ‘entanglements’ between humans and animals, depicting the complications and possibilities that arise from such inter-species encounters. The novella portrays an initially hostile encounter between a group of humans and tigers in the wilderness which ultimately leads to the construction of a narrative contact zone as both relate their (competing) versions of a piece of shared cultural history, a famed queer love story of a woman scholar and a tigress. In the novella, seemingly simple acts like venturing into the forest or the mountains result in confrontations with the untamable natural and animal order, resulting in localised yet productive disruptions of patriarchal, andro-centric, and anthropocentric discourses. Nghi Vo thus presents human-animal encounters as spaces of potentiality through the depiction of Chih's encounter with the tigers as well as the embedded human-tiger love story of Dieu and Ho Thi Thao. In this paper, I employ Critical Animal Studies (CAS) and its sub-field human-animal studies as a theoretical framework to approach human-animal encounters in the text. Broadly, CAS challenges anthropocentric approaches by highlighting their “epistemic violence”[i] which operates by erasing and subjugating animal lives and narratives to human-centric discourses. It advocates for the irreducible “subjectivity, interests, and agency”[ii] of non-human animals and de-centres the human.

In her seminal book, When Species Meet, Donna Haraway argues that human-animal encounters are “a possible introduction to other-worlding”[iii] even as they are inevitably “risky project[s]”[iv] that may bring about unpredictable, messy, and unlooked-for outcomes. Following Haraway’s reformulation of Mary Louise Pratt’s concept of ‘contact zones’ to understand fraught inter-species encounters, I approach the human-animal encounters in the novella as instances of such a contact zone between two discrete orders, the human world and the wild. According to Haraway, “contact zones are where the action is, and current interactions change interactions to follow. Probabilities alter; topologies morph; development is canalised by the fruits of reciprocal induction. Contact zones change the subject—all the subjects—in surprising ways”[v]. For her, these inter-species contact zones, or entanglements, are transformative for all participants so that fostering a stance of openness and curiosity for the other often results in experimental and productive exchanges. Haraway’s understanding of human-animal entanglements as spaces of possibility and mutual ‘becoming’ is central to this essay. I also borrow from CAS the dichotomy of urban spaces and the wilderness, and understand the wild as “spaces and animals not… under human control”[vi] thus conceived as foreign and dangerous in the human order. The journey(s) across anthropocentric urban spaces and the wild mountains in the novella foreground shared human-animal intimacies and alliances, and portray the wilderness as a potent conceptual construction that affirms the irreducible vitality and agency of the nonhuman world.


Human-Animal Encounters

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (2020) is a fantasy novella by Vietnamese-American author Nghi Vo and is the second book in Vo’s Singing Hills Cycle which follows the cleric and story-gatherer Chih on several adventures. Set in the empire of Anh, inspired by Asian mythology and history, the novella constructs a rich fantasy world that is quasi-mythological. Cleric Chih is a chronicler hailing from Singing Hills, an abbey that collects local histories and narratives and is dedicated to preserving and documenting the past. In When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (henceforth Tiger), Chih is travelling on an archival mission in the northern countries, through the snowy wilderness of the mountains, accompanied by a scout from the mammoth corps, Si-yu, and her mammoth companion, Piluk. On the way to a way station in the wild forest, the three are ambushed by tigers, and in a suspension of the normal, human order, new possibilities for human-animal encounters emerge. The novella holds together two narratives, both of which are concerned with the question of what happens when humans encounter animals in the wild (or when the tiger comes down the mountain). The first one, set in the present, shows the disruption of the cleric’s journey by a group of wild tigers and their subsequent attempts to distract the tigers through storytelling until help arrives. The second narrative is the embedded story of the legendary tiger Ho Thi Thao and her human lover Dieu which is narrated alternatively and collaboratively, by Chih and the tigers, who present the human and tiger version of this tale respectively.

I identify this encounter between the tigers and Chih as a significant human-animal encounter, which takes place in a dangerous and fraught contact zone between the human world and the wilderness ruled by wild, powerful beasts and an inhuman natural order. According to Mary L. Pratt, contact zones are “social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other”. It can produce “rage, incomprehension”[viii] and, as seen in Tiger, perhaps even rare “exhilarating moments of…understanding”[ix]. As Haraway writes in When Species Meet, human-animal encounters bring to the fore fraught entanglements between species and the task of dis-entangling and making sense of such encounters is never simple: “[w]hen species meet, the question of how to inherit histories is pressing, and how to get on together is at stake”

The exchange between Chih and the tigers is set in a liminal space, in an uninhabited barn in the wilderness at nighttime amidst “thick boreal forests”[xii], where the tigers “[wait] beyond the shelter of the barn”[xiii], as if from across an imaginary spatial boundary. By travelling into the heart of the mountainous forest, Chih and Si-yu are far from human civilisation and in a dangerous, hostile zone. Although neither Chih nor Si-yu are strangers to human-animal assemblages – on archival missions, Chih is usually accompanied by their neixin bird-companion, Almost Brilliant, and, likewise, Si-yu and Piluk form a mutually-dependent unit in the mammoth corps – the tigers evoke a wholly inhuman order whose wildness is especially threatening to human norms and practices. Vo constantly foregrounds the otherness of the tigers and the landscape, as if they belong to “a different order [than] human subjectivity”[xiv]. The tigers’ sudden appearance is registered as a breach in the normative order of the human world which draws strict demarcations between the human and the wild: “like something tearing through the stretched and scraped skin between the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit”By giving the tigers and several other animal life-forms in her novella the ability to speak, Vo re-imagines a natural world that is irreducible and dynamic: it cannot be “turned [...] into ‘stone’, that is, into inert [and silent] objects”[xvi]. In the fantastical world of the novel, the tigers are not simply non-human animals: they can transform into human form, speak human languages, have names, a separate cultural identity, a sense of species histories, and have sensory and physiological capabilities beyond the understanding of the normal, anthropocentric order that Chih is familiar with. Even when they are speaking human language, there is something unsettlingly “inhuman”[xvii] about the tigers. As the novella constantly iterates, they are inescapably other: “She [the tiger] was a handsome woman, but the animal impassivity of her eyes and the way her teeth looked a little too large for her mouth gave her a menacing look, the tiger sitting in wait beneath her human skin”[xviii].

The three tigers, Ho Sinh Loan, Ho Sinh Hoa, and Ho Sinh Cam, are sisters, with Sinh Loan being the eldest and the queen of the Boarback mountains in the northern regions of the empire (a fact that is contested by the humans). In a desperate Scheherazade-like bid to save their lives and defer until help arrives from the scouts, Chih offers to relate to the tigers the story of Ho Thi Thao, a legendary tiger and warrior who fell in love with and married a human woman, as it was known by humans and as recorded in the archives of Singing Hills. According to Chih, this version of the story had passed through various transmissions across an extended period, resulting in a distorted narrative form: “[It] came down to us long after they [Dieu and Ho Thi Thao] were both dead, through a travelling actor who told it to a literate friend. The distortion of some fifty years, a natural storyteller, and a monk…can be immense”[xix]. The narrative is set in the past and relates the story of how the scholar, Dieu, encounters the heroic tiger in human form as a priestess while travelling through a “landscape of war and contested territory”[xx] to reach the capital city of Ahnfi to become an imperial scholar.

Dieu and Ho Thi Thao’s story exists in a fragmented form for both the humans and tigers, though a few common motifs emerge in both versions of the narrative even as they abound with contradictory details and narrative shifts. A roughly condensed version of both narratives runs thus: a chance encounter between a travelling human scholar and a legendary tiger in the wilderness develops into a romantic entanglement which is subsequently complicated as the pair enter the imperial capital and concludes with both Dieu and Ho Thi Thao eventually abandoning human civilisation and its paradigms to turn to the wild forests to live together, presumably ending with a happily ever after. For both humans and tigers, this story has been transmitted and re-told multiple times, existing now as a famed legend of human-animal intimacies in the distant past. Dieu and Ho Thi Thao’s love story constitutes another human-animal encounter in the text and it is clear, even in the wildly divergent versions presented by Chih and the tigers, that it is a transformative entanglement for both Dieu and Ho Thi Thao as it re-orients them towards cross-species intimacies and illuminates ways in which the intersection of patriarchal and anthropocentric paradigms restrict women’s, animal, and queer lives. Far from being frictionless, however, their love story is presented as a sequence of misunderstandings and misjudgments in which human and animal biases, values, and customs clash. Significantly, it is the strictly demarcated and hierarchical imperial city, a space hostile to both Dieu as a queer, under-privileged woman and Ho Thi Thao as a wild animal, that propels them towards a recognition of cross-species commonalities and possible intimacies. Vo presents this symbolic and legendary narrative of past human-animal entanglement and mutual becoming as a narrative contact zone which Chih, Si-yu, and the three tigers must dis-entangle to make sense of their own present.


Narrative Contact Zone: Disentangling Inter-species History

The embedded queer love story of the legendary Ho Thi Thao and the scholar Dieu exists in a fragmentary form for both humans and tigers, illustrating that despite inter-species intimacies in the past, in the present there is an inability for each to fully understand the other. What follows is a dialogic exchange in which both Chih and the tigers swap their versions of the narrative, offering explanations and disagreements, filling in gaps, and bringing to light the other’s biases and discrepancies. Chih’s openness and willingness to engage with the tigers’ perspective, and to record the hitherto silenced and unrecorded version of Ho Thi Thao’s story illustrates a stance of respect for the non-human animal world; a stance that can de-centre anthropocentric perspectives and can provide space for the more-than-human.

In the version recorded by humans, Dieu’s perspective is centred and Ho Thi Thao emerges as a whimsical and oftentimes violent beast as previous human chroniclers could not account for the tigers’ unique behavior and cultural customs. In the version known to the tigers, it is Ho Thi Thao who occupies center stage, and little is known or understood about Dieu’s background and motivations. Both narratives are limited and one-sided, illustrating that despite successful, though rare, coexistence in the past (represented by Ho Thi Thao and Dieu’s symbolic human-animal marriage), in the present there is an inability to fully re-imagine past entanglements and shared inter-species experiences.

In the human version, the narrative begins with twenty-eight-year-old Dieu’s decision to participate in the imperial examinations in Ahnfi and she subsequently sets out on a long journey across the empire. After an initial encounter with the tiger warrior in her human form in the forest, Dieu is disturbed by Ho Thi Thao’s true identity and tries to shake off the tiger and her attentions. Despite this, Ho Thi Thao follows the scholar into the imperial city. It is in the city that Ho Thi Thao and Dieu’s story reaches a climax. The city is a fraught space when considering human-animal encounters; by definition “[it] has no place for wild creatures, unless they are carefully domesticated or enclosed”[xxi]. Vo describes the imperial city as a patriarchal and hierarchical space where success and prosperity are guaranteed only if one belongs “to one of the six great families, ideally as an able-bodied eldest boy, ideally without a single mark on your skin and without a taste for esoteric magic or radical politics”[xxii]. Narrating the tiger’s version of the narrative, Sinh Loan describes the imperial capital in a similar vein as “the city of cages”[xxiii] foreshadowing the eventual entrapment of both Dieu and Ho Thi Thao in the city. Dieu also notes the strict hierarchies and stratifications governing the imperial capital and human territories at large in which inter-species intimacies and crossings are forbidden:

[S]he knew the written law of heavens, and they were emphatic—people had their place, and so did the beasts. . .The emperor lived in his palace […] the scholar lived in the halls of knowledge, and the corpse lived in the grave. The animals the law called friendly… lived in the world of men, whether it was a palace or a barn. The animals the law considered wild lived in the forest or the mountain.[xxiv]

The story as it is narrated by the tigers and Chih differs in significant ways, especially Dieu and Ho Thi Thao’s time in the city. In the version narrated by Chih, Dieu realises the danger that human law and order pose for the untamed tiger, and, afraid that Ho Thi Thao “would do something terrible”[xxv] and risk her freedom, she decides to save Ho Thi Thao by drugging her and having her transported back to the forest in a cage. However, as Dieu heads to the imperial examinations, she realises that her entanglement with the wild tiger has changed her irrevocably; she can no longer uphold or even justify “the law of the land” or “the written law of the heavens” that scholars must endorse. Her brief entanglement with the untamed Ho Thi Thao completely unmoors Dieu from an anthropocentric moral order, leading her to fully abandon her dreams of the “red robes lined with black”[xxvi] reserved for the scholars. Dieu’s rejection of her scholarly calling points to her disengagement with anthropocentric paradigms of order and knowledge. Chih narrates her re-orientation as follows:

[Dieu] thought of the constellation that she had lived and moved in, the one that she had accepted, the one under which she slept and the one to which her heart had already been given, and there was no emperor involved. There was only a flash of orange and black, the slow blink of eyes like jade.[xxvii]

This version of the narrative concludes with Dieu eventually deciding to shun the human world, freeing Ho Thi Thao from captivity, and escaping into the wilderness with her. However, the ending is the most contested part of the story: in the story known to the tigers, Dieu abandons Ho Thi Thao; the tiger is weakened from lovesickness (not captivity); and, most significantly, in this version, it is Dieu who finds herself enslaved “in a golden cage”[xxviii] in the city and is subsequently freed by Ho Thi Thao. In this version, the façade of the city that had enthralled Dieu fades, and instead of opportunity, Dieu finds herself confined in the ‘golden cage’ of a bridal carriage in her scholar’s robes. The patriarchal and anthropocentric order of the city, then, becomes an inimical and constrictive space not just for wild animals but also for women. Unlike the conclusion to the human version which valorises and centres the perspective of Dieu, in this version Ho Thi Thao saves Dieu from captivity and an unhappy marriage and, together, the two “[run] all the way back to the Boarback Mountains”[xxix].

Chih’s narration is frequently interrupted by the tigers, who offer details, commentary, and revisions about Ho Thi Thao, and explain rituals and practices unknown to humans. Significantly, the vice versa is also true and the human version also allows the tigers insight into Dieu’s background and perspective. At a critical point, when the tigers completely reject the recorded version of the story, Chih offers an exchange of narratives, so that truth can surface out of a collaborative effort, informed by both human and animal perspectives – and what emerges is an openness: “‘It is the only version of the story I know,’ Chih said. ‘Tell me another, and I’ll tell that instead’”[xxx]. This openness and understanding of one’s limitations is the necessary prelude for any successful, mutually transformative, human-animal encounter. Throughout the text, Chih acts as a “reflexive human”, which Kay Peggs describes as “a move of the ‘human’ from the center to the margins and back again, a displacement or de-centring of the unreflexive and oppressively self-centred human by an exposed, self-reflexive human who is critically engaged”[xxxi].

The legend of the tiger-human love story then becomes a shared, though obscure, cultural history, known to both Chih and the tigers (in wildly divergent ways) and offers significant possibilities for creative human-animal relationships and futures. In a dialogic exchange in the contact zone, both Chih and the tigers swap their versions of the narrative, offering explanations, disagreements, filling in gaps, and highlighting the other’s biases and discrepancies. It is a process that is full of friction and negotiations, with the threat of violence always at the brink, and yet it is ultimately productive. Talking of human-animal encounters, Donna Haraway states that “a great deal is at stake in such meetings, and outcomes are not guaranteed… no assured happy ending or unhappy ending”[xxxii]. After Chih’s narration concludes, the tigers once again entertain the possibility of eating the humans, though the violence from before is ebbed and is replaced by a curiosity:

“[…] I hope you took very good notes, because now we are going to eat you.” Sinh Loan said shortly.
“Oh don’t,” exclaimed Sinh Cam, and her elder sister turned to her in annoyance […] “I’ll go down and get us a cow from the lowland farms […] Only I want to hear the cleric tell us another story.”[xxxiii]

At this moment, however, the northern scouts come to the rescue of Chih and Si-yu and, after a brief flurry of violence, drive away the tigers back into the dark mountains: anthropocentric order is re-imposed. Compared to Chih, the northern mammoth corps (which Si-yu is a part of) view the tigers as dangerous beasts who must be brought under the order of human law and a scout announces that “probably a bounty will be set on their hides before too long”[xxxiv]. Now reinstated into the human world, Chih is significantly destabilised by the powerful human-animal encounter and feels “a pang of regret at the fact. It wasn’t as if bounties weren’t set on human outlaws as well as tigers, but it seemed… a shame, perhaps. If they hung Sinh Loan’s skull on the ice wall at Ingrusk, the only place she would live on was in the archives of Singing Hills”[xxxv]. Even though the fraught contact zone ends in the re-emergence of hostility and violence between the wilderness and the human order, in a small, localised way, in the individual encounter between Chih and the three tigers, something is gained. Chih’s openness and willingness to engage with the tigers’ perspective, and to record the hitherto silenced and unrecorded version of Ho Thi Thao’s story illustrates a stance of respect for the non-human animal world; a stance that can de-centre anthropocentric perspectives and can “include the more-than-human”[xxxvi]:

“Why are we talking to tigers?” asked Si-yu.


Chih’s Dis-anthropocentric Narrative Practice

As evident from other novellas from the Singing Hills Cycle, Chih’s practice as a story-gatherer is attuned to the silences and gaps that emerge in processes of narrative transmission, recontextualisation, and retelling. In such a scheme, a singular narrative truth is an impossibility and this realisation steers them towards seeking alternate versions and keeping an eye out for contradicting details. In the encounter with the tigers, Chih opens up the recorded version of the narrative available to them by encouraging, even anticipating, narrative interruptions and contradictions, by taking notes, making revisions, shifting narrative focus, as well as adopting a curious and receptive stance that welcomes the complications arising from a narrative contact zone in which multiple and heterogeneous narratives clash. At several points, Chih pauses in their narrative to ask, “Well, then? What’s the real story?”[xxxviii] This act of pausing in the middle of narration is significant as it figuratively and verbally makes space for other voices to chime in, correct, participate, and even contradict the recorded version. It complicates strict demarcations between the narrator (the apparent narratorial authority) and the audience and thus effectively de-centres the human by allowing animal voices to completely deconstruct and then reconstruct human-centric narratives. Significantly, neither the humans nor the tigers are shown to possess an original or authoritative version of the narrative, and it is only in such collaborative and dialogic encounters that human-animal relations and entanglements can be dis-entangled. Through this dialogic exchange of narratives, both the human and tiger versions of the original legend are transformed and recontextualised as both groups offer explanations about previously obscure conventions, phrases, or happenings, illuminating new aspects and nuances of the human-tiger love story. At several points, Chih discovers that certain oblique and elusive references in the human’s recorded tale are allusions to tiger customs that were previously unknown to humans and that make sense only after an inter-species dialogic exchange has occurred.

At the start of their encounter, Chih offers Ho Sinh Loan “[h]istory and your place in it”[xxxix] by being willing to collect the tigers’ narratives alongside human ones in the archives of Singing Hills, thus placing hitherto absent animal narratives and perspectives alongside human ones. Chih acknowledges the tigers’ “non-human cultures, subjectivities, histories, and material lives”[xl] without subsuming them into human structures or narratives. This stance of openness towards non-human voices is the basis of Chih’s dis-anthropocentric narrative practice as a story-gatherer and archivist. Chih’s dis-anthropocentric practice also informs the structure of the novella as a whole. The narrated tale of Dieu and Ho Thi Thao’s love story is quite literally broken apart into fragmented sections with frequent interruptions, additions, revisions, and commentary, and made permeable as it invites human and nonhuman voices as they engage in the narrative contact zone.



In the last chapter, Chih sums up their adventure: “I needed to get through the pass and then south to Kephi. Si-yu was kind enough to escort me up to the way station, and then…tigers”[xli]. ‘And then…tigers’ succinctly sums up the two narrative strands in the novella. Chih’s journey through the mountains was unexpectedly disrupted by a human-animal encounter, and, similarly, Dieu, who left home envisioning a bright future in the distant imperial city of Ahnfi, is instead waylaid into an intense human-animal entanglement that completely transforms her. The presumed superiority of the human order is challenged and the animal order emerges as a disruption, which can bring about freedom from anthropocentric paradigms, as in the case of Dieu who escapes the anthropocentric, androcentric, and heteronormative institution of marriage in the imperial capital which is presented as nothing more than a “golden cage”[xlii]. In Tigers, Vo tries to reconcile the human world with wilderness and wild animals by envisioning two human-animal encounters. These encounters or entanglements are complicated and do not bring about any large-scale restorative possibilities. However, it is the particular, localised, and engaged encounter(s) between human and tiger, “not Man and Animal in the abstract”, that engenders the potential for better “multispecies future[s]”[xliii]. Vo encourages an ethics of inclusion that “enables us to listen”[xliv] to non-human voices and to recognise in them something of our own shared, entangled histories – and only then can humans and animals “[continue] to share a future”[xlv]. This de-anthropocentric practice is translated into Chih’s open and dialogic textual practice that allows for interruptions, annotations, commentary, revision, and digressions and thus makes space to accommodate various, sometimes even competing, versions of the truth.

An artistic rendition of the author © Aman Erfan


[i] Atsuko Matsuoka and John Sorenson. Critical Animal Studies: Towards Trans-Species Social Justice (Rowman & Littlefield International, 2018), pg. 2.

[ii] Ibid., pg. 6.

[iii] Donna J. Haraway. When Species Meet (Minnesota UP, 2008), pg. 20.

[iv] Ibid., pg. 22.

[v] Ibid., pg. 219.

[vi] Garry Marvin and Susan McHugh. “In It Together: an Introduction to Human-Animal Studies” in Routledge Handbook of Human-Animal Studies, ed. Garry Marvin and Susan McHugh (Routledge, 2014), pp. 1-9, pg. 5.

[vii] Mary Louise Pratt. “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991), pp. 33–40,, pg. 34.

[viii] Ibid., pg. 39.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] When Species Meet, pg. 35.

[xi] Ibid., pg. 219.

[xii] Nghi Vo. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (, 2020), eBook, chapter 1.

[xiii] Vo, chapter 2.

[xiv] Marvin and McHugh, pg. 5.

[xv] Vo, chapter 1.

[xvi] Kay Peggs. “From Centre to Margins and Back Again: Critical Animal Studies and the Reflexive Human Self” in The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: From the Margins to the Centre, ed. Nik Taylor and Richard Twine (Routledge, 2014), pp. 36-51, pg. 37.

[xvii] Vo, chapter 3.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Ibid., chapter 6.

[xx] Ibid., chapter 5.

[xxi] Henry Buller. “Reconfiguring Wild Spaces: The Porous Boundaries of Wild Animal Geographies” in Routledge Handbook of Human-Animal Studies, ed. Garry Marvin and Susan McHugh (Routledge, 2014), pp. 233-245, pg. 235.

[xxii] Vo, chapter 4.

[xxiii] Ibid., chapter 9.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] Ibid.

[xxvi] Ibid., chapter 10.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Ibid.

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid. chapter 6.

[xxxi] Peggs, pg. 37.

[xxxii] When Species Meet, pg. 15.

[xxxiii] Vo, chapter 11.

[xxxiv] Ibid.

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Nik Taylor and Richard Twine. “Introduction: Locating the ‘Critical’ in Critical Animal Studies” in The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: From the Margins to the Centre, ed. Nik Taylor and Richard Twine (Routledge, 2014), pp. 1-16, pg. 17.

[xxxvii] Vo, chapter 3.

[xxxviii] Ibid., chapter 10.

[xxxix] Ibid., chapter 3.

[xl] Donna J. Haraway. “Otherworldly Conversations, Terran Topics, Local Terms” in Material Feminisms, ed. Stacy Alaimo and Susan Hekman (Indianna UP, 2008), pp. 157-187, pg. 162.

[xli] Vo, chapter 11.

[xlii] Ibid., chapter 10.

[xliii] When Species Meet, pg. 15, 27.

[xliv] Lynda Birke. “Listening to Voices: On the Pleasures and Problems of Studying Human-Animal Relationships” in The Rise of Critical Animal Studies: From the Margins to the Centre, ed. Nik Taylor and Richard Twine, (Routledge, 2014), pp. 71-87, pg. 71.

[xlv] Marvin and McHugh, pg. 5.













Aman Erfan is a postgraduate student studying literature in Lahore, Pakistan. She is currently writing her M.Phil. thesis on posthuman materiality in contemporary fiction by East-Asian women writers.
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