The Peculiar Story of Giraffes in 1400s China

During China’s short-lived golden age of exploration, two giraffes came to the imperial court

A painting depicting a tribute giraffe and a handler sent to China in the 15th century. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of John T. Dorrance, 1977-42-1.

Civilizations around the globe have puzzled over how to explain the giraffe.

The ancient Romans called it a cameleopard–seeing it as a combination of a camel and leopard. To Emperor Yongle of China in the early 1400s, it was (possibly) a qilin, a mythical creature that has been compared to a unicorn in Western mythology.

This happened during China’s brief, medieval golden age of exploration under the reign of Yongle, the second Ming emperor. The emperor is remembered for beginning construction of Beijing’s Forbidden City, Rachel Nuwer writes for, but he also bankrolled a series of exploration and trade expeditions, seven in total, that made it as far as the Cape of Good Hope in what is today South Africa. 

On the fourth such voyage, writes National Geographic, Admiral Zheng He’s “Treasure Fleet”—an astonishing fleet of ships that remain the largest wooden ships ever built—brought back, among other things, a giraffe, setting the stage for a fascinating and mostly-forgotten cultural exchange. Zheng had met up in Bengal with envoys from Malindi, which is now part of Kenya. “The men from Malindi had brought with them as tribute giraffes, and they gave one of those giraffes to the Chinese, who took it home,” writes Sarah Zielinski for Science News.

The emperor “was in the habit of receiving exotic animals, including birds, as gifts from foreign countries—elephants and rhinoceroses from Champa, bears from Siam, parrots and peacocks from Javan and ostriches from Aden,” writes historian Sally K. Church ”—and there were was even a special part of the imperial grounds in Nanjing, the jin-yuan or forbidden gardens, where they were kept and cared for.”

But the giraffes were obviously something special, Church writes. Of all the animals that the emperor received, the giraffe was the one he asked a court artist to paint. 

The result is an image of a giraffe as seen through the eyes of the Chinese court—as a qilin. Though Church points out that “traditional representations of a qilin look like a cross between a deer or horse and a lion or dragon," not very giraffe-like, there were enough similarities.

As Zielinski writes, the giraffe met or nearly met a number of criteria associated with the qilin: it had skin-covered horns (supposedly the qilin had just one horn), a body like a deer with cloven hooves, and a brightly colored coat. 

There’s no concrete evidence for the reason behind this interpretation, Church writes. The giraffe was presented to the emperor as a qilin, she writes, but he probably wasn’t fooled into thinking it was a real qilin. “Playing down the association between the giraffe and the qilin, he articulated the orthodox Confucian view that it is more important to maintain good government than to be concerned with supernatural signs,” Church writes.

But qilin were an auspicious sign–so although the emperor downplayed the potential qilin and the second giraffe that joined it a year later, he didn't stamp out the rumor entirely.   

“Chinese exploration ended in 1433, nine years after Yongle’s death, when isolationism once again took over Chinese policy,” Zielinksi writes. No word on what happened to the giraffes–but let’s hope it ended well.

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