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Monday, December 27, 2010


Hello; today I am starting a series of several parts; I`m not sure how many; it depends on my mental stamina, etc. It is about Chinese knowledge of the giraffe, quoting from the prolific and perhaps slightly eccentric Berthold Laufer, (a man after my own heart then) whose booklets on various diverse subjects such as Ivory in China (a key source of information on the black Chinese elephant with pink tusks in T`ang Dynasy China by the way) published in 1925, by the Chicago Field Museum of Natural History and the following marvels:

The Bird Chariot (1906)
Confucius and His Portraits (1912)
Arabic and Chinese Trade in Walrus and Narwhal Ivory (1913)
Was Oderic of Pordenone Ever in Tibet? (1914)
Bird Divination Among the Tibetans (1914)
Asbestos and Salamander (1915)
The Reindeer and Its Domestication (1917)
Chinese Baskets (1925)
Ostrich Egg-shell Cups of Mesopotamia and the Ostrich In Ancient and Modern Times (1926)
Geophagy [earth-eating] (1930)
The Domestication of the Cormorant in China and Japan (1931) (1)

In Ash and Lake`s Bizarre Books (1985 ed.) it is written `To the memory of Berthold Laufer (1874-1934), who did so much to add to the bibliography of bizarre books.' (2) And later `Merit Award for Books on Extraordinarily Specialized Subjects…Berthold Laufer of Chicago…the distinguished author of a veritable library of over 100 fascinating works, mostly published in Leiden by E. J. Brill or Chicago by the Field Museum of Natural History…` (3)

Granted, Laufer was writing a long time ago, (82 years ago in fact) but I still believe his information is worth recording here; I am not taking any position as to whether he was right or wrong; I am just recording what he said.

But on Chinese knowledge of the giraffe: The Giraffe was not known to the ancient Chinese, contrary to what is assumed by certain sinologues (4). This erroneous conclusion is based on the fact when live giraffes were first transported into China in the fifteenth century under the Ming dynasty, they were taken by the Chinese for the Kilin (k`i-lin), a fabulous creature of ancient mythology, and by way of reminiscence and poetic retrospection received the name k`i-lin. This,of course, does not mean that the ancient native conception of the Kilin was based on the on the giraffe, which in historical times was confined to Africa. In fact neither the description nor the the illustrations of the Kilin bear the slightest resemblance to a giraffe. The Kilin is said to have the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, a single horn, and to be covered with fish scales. Its horn is covered with flesh, indicating that while able for war,it covets peace. It does not tread on any living thing, not even on living grass…It is clear that the characteristic features of the giraffe which impress every casual observer – the extraordinary height, the long neck, the proportion of fore and hind legs-are not found in the Chinese descriptions of the Kilin and that several traits of the latter do not agree with the giraffe…The only points of resemblance made by the Chinese between the Kilin and the giraffe are their bodies being shaped like a deer, their tails being like that of an ox, and their gentle disposition. This identification, it should be born in mind, was established as recently as the fifteenth century when the first giraffes arrived in China. (5)

The Sü po wu chi, a book compiled by Li Shi about the middle of the twelfth century, apparently contains one of the earliest Chinese literary allusions to the giraffe. 'The country of Po-pa-li [Berbera, on the Somali coast of the Gulf of Aden] harbors a strange animal called camel-ox (t`o niu). Its skin is like that of a leopard, its hoof is similar to that of an ox, but the animal is devoid of a hump. Its neck is nine feet long, and its body is over ten feet high.'…African animals were transported to China as early as the thirteenth century under the Yüan or Mongol dynasty…In A.D 1289 the Chinese emperor was presented with two zebras from Mabar, [ i.e Malabar, on the S.W coast of India - R] and in the following year another envoy arrived from the same country and offerd two piebald oxen, a buffalo, and a tiger cat. The giraffe, as far as I know,is not mentioned in the Yüan Annals, although there is no reason why it should not have come along with the topi and zebra. Malabar, at that time was in close commercial relations with the ports of southern Arabia, and it was the Arabs who brought these live animals from the Somali coast to southern Arabia and thence transhipped them to India. (6)


1 R.Ash and B.Lake Bizarre Books (1985) pp 47-49
2 Ibid no page number
3 Ibid p. 47
4 Sinology the study of Chinese language,history and culture Concise Oxford English
5 Dictionary (2008) p.1346
6 B.Laufer The Giraffe in History and Art (1928) pp 41-42
7 Ibid pp 42-43

1 comment:

Dale Drinnon said...

Incidentally, Richard notified me of this project beforehand and I confirmed that I had heard of the matter from a different source, citing the Ming period contact with Africa and a book in my library that printed a slightly different version of the illustration shown here.