A giraffe in Beijing

In 1414 a giraffe arrived in Beijing all the way from East Africa. Considering how difficult it is to transport such a large animal by sea, we may well wonder what a giraffe was doing in China.

The Chinese emperors were avid collectors of exotic animals. In their personal menagerie they had Asian species like elephants, tigers and camels, and African like zebras and gazelles, but no one in China had ever seen an animal such as a giraffe. It was Saifuddin Hamza Shah, the ruler of Bengal, who decided to impress the emperor by passing on a giraffe which he in turn had received as a tribute from the ruler of Melinda, Malindi, in today’s Kenya. The animal was picked up by a ship detailed from the fleet that Zheng He commanded in the Indian Ocean and subsequently transported to Beijing. When it arrived the giraffe caused general amazement. Checking their encyclopedias, Confucian scholars decided that it must be a unicorn, a mythological creature that traditionally was said to have “the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse,” and to be of such a gentle disposition that “it only ate grass and never hurt a living being.” When they learned that the animal in the Somali language was known as girin, that settled the matter. To Chinese ears, girin sounded very much like qilin, the Chinese name of the unicorn. The appearance of a qilin was regarded as proof of the virtue of the reigning emperor.

Despite the excitement caused by the giraffe, it was only a decade later, in 1433, that an imperial decree came to limit all foreign trade and travel. New decrees in 1449 and 1452 restricted foreign commerce even further, and each new law had increasingly severe penalties attached to it. The ban was eventually extended to all coastal shipping so that “there was not an inch of planking on the seas.” In the end the anti-commercial attitude of the Confucian scholars defeated the entrepreneurial curiosity of eunuchs such as Zheng He. Restricting international trade was a way for the Confucians to impose their outlook on the country, but it was also a way to enhance their power at the expense of their opponents at court.

External links:

In Our Time, “Ming Voyages”

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