A giraffe in Beijing

The Chinese emperors were avid collectors of exotic animals. In their personal menagerie they had Asian species like elephants, tigers and camels, and African species like zebras and gazelles. In 1414 CE the imperial collection received its most exotic creature yet when a giraffe arrived in Beijing all the way from East Africa. Considering how difficult it is to transport such a large animal such a long distance, we may well wonder how it got there. It was Saifuddin Hamza Shah, the ruler of Bengal, who had decided to impress the emperor by giving him this gift which he in turn had received as a tribute from the ruler of Melinda 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. Presenting it as a gift was a way for the officials to ingratiate themselves with the emperor.

Despite the excitement caused by the giraffe, all foreign trade and travel was outlawed by imperial decade only a decade later. New decrees in 1449 and 1452 CE restricted foreign commerce even further. 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 like 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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