China and East Asia

A giraffe in Beijing

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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. It was well known that the Chinese emperors liked to collect exotic animals. In their personal zoo they had Asian animals such as elephants, tigers and camels, and African animals such as zebras and gazelles, but no one in China had ever seen an animal such as a giraffe. In an attempt to impress the emperor, Saifuddin Hamza Shah, the new ruler of Bengal, decided to pass on a giraffe he in turn had received as a tribute from the ruler of Melinda, today’s Malindi, in Kenya. The animal was picked up by a ship detailed from the fleet that Zheng He commanded in the Indian Ocean and transported to Beijing. When it arrived the giraffe caused general amazement. Checking their encyclopedias, the Confucian scholars decided that it must be a unicorn, a mythological creature that traditionally was said to have a “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. As one of the courtiers helpfully explained, “[t]his shows that Your Majesty’s virtue equals that of Heaven; its merciful blessings have spread far and wide so that its harmonious vapours have emanated a qilin, as an endless bliss to the state for a myriad, myriad years.”

Despite the excitement caused by the giraffe, it was only a decade later, in 1433, that an imperial decree limited 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 coastal shipping so that “there was not an inch of planking on the seas.” In the end the anti-commercialism 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 hated opponents.