At the beginning of the 15th century, Ming China sponsored several naval expeditions to India and Africa. The court sought to establish a Chinese presence throughout the Indian Ocean and put a man named Zheng He in charge. Zheng He would successfully captain seven voyages ranging from Sumatra to Somalia. The expeditions were moderately successful and while Ming China did not become the dominant presence they hoped, Zheng He was able to trade with several different nations and periodically graced the court with exotic gifts and tributes.
Perhaps the most celebrated of Zheng He’s packages came from the kingdom of Bengal, near what is today Bangledesh. There he acquired a giraffe from the plains of Africa (which had, itself, been a gift to the Bengal court) and in 1415 presented it to the Chinese emperor, Yongle. There, the giraffe was taken to be a living example of the qirin, a mythological animal that was said to herald good luck, auspicious beginnings, and sagely wisdom (a fine gift to an emperor whose name meant eternal happiness). The animal was supposed to be horned, hooved, and so graceful that it did not even bother the grass as it walked. Certainly the quiet, peaceful, yet imposing giraffe would have reminded them of it.
The painting above was created by a court spectator named Shen Du (1357-1434) and contains the following poem.
In the corner of the western seas, in the stagnant waters of a great morass,
Truly was produced a qilin, 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.