Giraffes in Imperial China

August 24th, 2009 | by Nick |

In the early 15th century China, briefly, set out to explore the world. Emperor Yongle sponsored a series of seven naval expeditions  to impose imperial control over trade, and impress foreign peoples in the Indian Ocean basin. These expeditions were commanded by admiral in the Imperial Chinese navy, Zheng He. On one expedition, Zheng acquired a giraffe in the kingdom of Bengal, which had been a gift from an East African ruler. The giraffe was sent to the Chinese court, where it was welcomed as a unicorn, an extremely aupiscious gift. He also arranged with the Indian court for another giraffe to be sent from Aficia (Somalia).

A pair of giraffes in Beijing in 1415 was well worth the cost of the expedition. In China they thought the giraffe (despite its having one horn too many) was a unicorn (ch’i-lin), whose arrival, according to Confucian tradition, meant that a sage of the utmost wisdom and benevolence was in their presence. Zheng meanwhile sailed to the East African nation of Somalia, where he obtained lions, leopards, ostriches, zebras, and other animals, which were viewed with amazement in China. Execellent article here

The African unicorn inspired a number of court poems and paintings. The above work was painted by Shen Du (1357-1434), who was a poet, painter, calligrapher, and a favorite of the Yongle emperor. The Chinese called the giraffe a qilin (ch’i-lin), an auspicious mythical animal. Shen Du also composed the following poem about the giraffe:

In the corner of the western seas, in the stagnant waters of a great morass,
Truly was produced a qilin (ch’i-lin), whose shape was as high as fifteen feet.
With the body of a deer and the tail of an ox, and a fleshy, boneless horn,
With luminous spots like a red cloud or purple mist.
Its hoofs do not tread on living beings and in its wanderings it carefully selects its ground.
It walks in stately fashion and in its every motion it observes a rhythm,
Its harmonious voice sounds like a bell or a musical tube.
Gentle is this animal, that has in antiquity been seen but once,
The manifestation of its divine spirit rises up to heaven’s abode. Here

I love the way the poem describes the giraffe’s gait

Its hoofs do not tread on living beings and in its wanderings it carefully selects its ground.
It walks in stately fashion and in its every motion it observes a rhythm,

Recommended books

When China Ruled the Seas: The Treasure Fleet of the Dragon Throne, 1405-1433 Taking the maritime story as its main theme, this book presents a fascinating picture of political and court life during the first several reigns of the Ming

Note: A rather nice children’s story tells the tale of imperial giraffes: Chee-Lin: A Giraffe’s Journey
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