Giraffes in a Coal Mine
The appearance of giraffes sparked different--and very revealing--reactions in Europe and China.
The source: “Audience for a Giraffe: European Expansionism and the Quest for the Exotic” by Erik Ringmar, in Journal of World History, Dec. 2006.
In the 15th century, when Europeans were creeping down the west coast of Africa in tiny ships in search of spices and gold, China’s great eunuch admiral Zheng He had already visited Africa’s east coast in ships five times as large. Before Columbus set out with 88 sailors on the voyage during which he would discover America, Zheng led nearly 28,000 men to trade with even more distant Mogadishu. Yet it was Europe, not China, that found and colonized the New World. Historians have always attributed expansionism to an insatiable hunger for wealth, but the economic argument doesn’t explain why the motivation was concentrated in the West. Erik Ringmar, a professor at Taiwan’s National Chiao Tung University, finds a complementary explanation in an unlikely source: tales of pioneering giraffes.
Three rulers of dissimilar societies, republican Florence, imperial China, and Restoration France, were enthusiastic practitioners during the last millennium of the aristocratic hobby of rare animal collection. No species was more coveted than the tall, regal, and nearly silent giraffe.
The sultan of Egypt, seeking to ingratiate himself with the city of Florence’s first family, shrewdly gave Lorenzo de Medici a giraffe in 1486. It wandered along the city streets, raising its head to acknowledge admirers looking out from second-story windows. It inspired poets and appeared in numerous versions of The Gifts of the Magi—paintings of Oriental kings offering presents to the baby Jesus.
Crowds followed Lorenzo’s giraffe, which was considered the epitome of the exotic. They found it marvelous, and once they had seen such a creature, they wanted more. It was almost addictive, Ringmar writes. And it was in keeping with this spirit of the city that within a dozen years of the giraffe’s acquisition by Lorenzo, the Florentine explorer Amerigo Vespucci set off to explore the two continents that would bear his name.
Nearly 350 years later, a new French king, Charles X, received
his own giraffe from an Egyptian tomb robber and antiques dealer who was also seeking to gain influence. Charles X’s situation was quite different from Lorenzo’s. Charles was insecure, intent on restoring France’s absolute monarchy after the 1789 Revolution and Napoleon’s wars. The giraffe, promptly classified by French scientists as a Giraffa camelopardis, appeared to be a sophisticated and aristocratic figure, the ideal ornament for a royal zoological park.
Giraffa arrived in Marseille in 1827, was outfitted with a blanket of golden fleurs-de-lis, and marched the 500-odd miles to Paris. Initially, just as in Florence, Giraffa mania set in, with a new commercial twist. Bakers sold giraffe cookies, and giraffe spots appeared on wallpaper, crockery, soap, and furniture. But the fad quickly passed. Giraffa camelopardis was a curious toy, the kind of strange beast that provided entertainment to the lower classes or “lesser races.” The ability of the scientists to place the giraffe taxonomically was just another example, in the view of the French, of their superiority to other cultures and peoples—a sense of superiority that helped propel them to occupy Algeria three years later and to embark on other imperial ventures.
The Son of Heaven, Chinese emperor Yongle, acquired his giraffe secondhand. Admiral Zheng He accepted the creature as a gift to the emperor from the king of Bengal in 1414. Yongle’s giraffe, called a girin in its native Kenya, caused a stir among the Beijing populace when it arrived, but it didn’t faze his imperial staff. Chinese scholars, serving an empire around which they assumed all other nations circled in envious obscurity, were rarely unprepared. They determined that the girin must be a unicorn, or qilin, which was well documented in their encyclopedias as a mythological creature that had a horn, the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse. It was a benevolent omen. The emperor called it a reward for the abundant virtue of his father, and a sign that it behooved him, even more than in the past, to cling to virtue. And virtue was a Chinese quality, not to be found among foreigners.
Although Zheng He was bringing back exotic wonders and establishing diplomatic relations with distant lands, his voyages were controversial within the Chinese court. In the end, writes Ringmar, the inward-looking Confucian literati prevailed. Despite the excitement caused by the giraffe and the obvious benefits the Chinese derived from international trade, 19 years after the girin’s arrival an imperial decree was issued limiting foreign trade and travel. As a Confucian official wrote, Zheng’s expeditions “wasted tens of myriads of money and grain, and moreover the people who met their deaths on these expeditions may be counted by the myriads. Although he returned with wonderful precious things, what benefit was it to the state?” Five centuries would pass before China began to emerge from its insularity.
The giraffe can be seen as a tall version of the canary in a coal mine: It was an early signal of change whose arrival provided an acute reading of the nation’s outlook. The Chinese operated by allegory—the giraffe was a unicorn, which was a sign of heavenly favor, which could be sustained by uninterrupted allegiance to ancient Confucian virtues. The Florentines used analogy: A prince who could produce awe-inspiring exotica would himself inspire awe, thus propelling the city into an ever-widening search for the novel and alluring. The French made sense of the world by scientific rationality and classification. French scientific superiority allowed them to classify every known creature and thing, which was beyond the power of the inferior societies they considered themselves born to rule.