Twenty-four South African giraffe arrived last month at a zoo in Yunnan. Its manager reported rather matter-of-factly that the zoo wanted to expand the number of giraffe by reproduction so that the zoo would soon be heavily populated by the African mammals. Yet giraffe have a very unusual and important place in China. Centuries before China sought unicorns – the celestial animal – and happily embraced giraffe as their embodiment and as certification that heaven approved of China and Chinese ambitions.
The unicorn, the original celestial animal — the emblem of perfect virtue, good government, and harmony — had long been sought as a way of blessing T’ang, Sung, and Ming rulers and confirming that those leaders reigned under a “mandate of heaven.” Although its general shape was known, no one had ever seen or captured a unicorn, a single-, spiral-horned mythical animal resembling (it was imagined) an antelope. Nor had anyone in China ever seen a giraffe.
Thus, when the Ming navies ventured across the southwestern seas (the modern Indian Ocean) to Somalia, Kenya, and Tanzania between 1417 and 1431, exchanging embassies with the Islamic states of Pate, Malindi, and Kilwa, they were searching in part for unicorns with which to satisfy the virtuous aspirations of the Ming dynasty. Strapping several nervous and giddy giraffe to the masts of their large but precarious sailing vessels, they eventually returned home to China to present their unicorns, a.k.a. giraffe – who would know otherwise? – to the emperor. His satisfaction and delight knew no bounds.
The unicorns – the giraffe who had miraculously survived the voyage and the overland carriage to Beijing — embodied the “mandate of heaven,” so important to Chinese rulers and especially to the Ming dynasty. The Ming court exulted in its affirmation of the glories of the dynasty. “Amazing is this gentle animal,” wrote the leading court scribe, “of strange shape and wonderful form.” The Emperor, he explained, has truly “received from Heaven a great Mandate which is widely manifested. May the sacred Age be ten thousand years.”
Unfortunately, we do not know how long the giraffe survived in Beijing. But we do know that after the first decades of the fifteenth century the Ming rulers sent no more ships across the southwestern seas to Africa. Indeed, relations with Africa from about 1431 were entirely overland, along the Silk Road and then across Arabia, if they existed at all.
Yet even the T’ang dynasty (618-907) traded with Africa. A description of people who resemble the modern Maasai of Kenya and Tanzania remains from that period. We also know that China obtained ivory and ambergris (a perfume base) from Africa during T’ang times.
Later, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, the small Arab city states of the East African coast traded vigorously with China, even if via Arabian or what would now be Indian and Pakistani middlemen. They exported iron implements forged in Pangani and Malindi, rhinoceros horn, ivory, tortoise shell, pearls, aromatic woods, incense, and myrrh to China and imported early Chinese pottery. A Chinese text from the twelfth century also reports that Africa possessed camels and camel-birds – striped quadrupeds shaped like oxen – and mules with “red, black, and white stripes wound as girdles around the body.” The Chinese accounts, probably reported to them by Arab or Indian traders, may have been referring to ostriches, giraffe, and zebra. In any event, the nature of inner Africa was at least generally known in China 1000 years ago.
In Sung times (1127-1279) “barbarian” invasions from China’s north forced the emperors to venture onto the oceans, using the newly invented mariner’s compass to guide their comparatively large, maneuverable ships. Sung era coins and other items have been found as far away as Zimbabwe and Zanzibar. Subsequently, masses of Chinese porcelain and celadon have been discovered amid or under the ruins of the African city states of the thirteenth to sixteenth centuries. The trading relations were likely indirect, via India and Muscat in Arabia, and following the monsoon winds, but they existed.
When the Yunnan zoo received a shipment of giraffe it was hence continuing a long, complicated, and honorable Chinese connection to Africa, especially to its fauna. But it was also honoring and perpetuating trade ties to Africa that are at least a millennium old.