In the corner of the western seas, in the stagnant waters of a great morass, Truly was produced a qilin (ch’i-lin), 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 itts 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.
The poem and painting above were both created by Chinese artist Shen Du in the early 15th century. An interesting painting and poem, both amazingly depict what is clearly a giraffe in China. But how did the odd longnecked animal come to live in a land so far away from home (Africa)?
Before Columbus and the great European explorers, China ruled the waves. With a large coastline and sturdy yet swift ships, China was the most advanced naval power in the world. In the early 15th Century the Emperor commissioned a grand fleet consisting of hundreds of ships and 30,000 crewmen with the purpose of exploring the world, opening China to new commerce, and forging foreign relations with distant lands. The massive fleet was led by Zheng He. As a Muslim who had made the traditional religious pilgrimage to Mecca, Zheng He was more knowledgeable of the world than most men of his age. Over the course of two decades Chinese fleets would explore Indonesia, India, the Indian Ocean, the Persian gulf, the Red Sea, much of the Middle East, and the east coast of Africa. Zheng He brought back many exotic treasures to present to the Emperor, but among his most impressive was a large, tall giraffe acquired from trade in Africa. Never before had the Chinese seen such a strange and bizarre creature, which produced wonder and amazement to all who were fortunate enough to see it on exhibit. Those who had most interest in the Giraffe were Chinese mystics, philosophers, and scholars, who used the animal as proof that qilin (chi’lin), ancient Chinese mythical creatures, do exist. Which was further proof of the existence of heaven.