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Legendary Giraffes and Bloody Horses

From peaceful trade to full-scale war, animals played a big role in ancient China’s diplomatic relations

By Song Yimin Updated Dec.1

China’s largest base for Akhal-Teke horses, Urumqi, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, December 2014

On August 21, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo in Washington, DC celebrated the first birthday of panda cub Xiao Qi Ji, which translates to Little Miracle. The zoo had held an online contest where the public could vote on a list of names. He “shared not one but two delicious fruitsicle cakes with his mother, Mei Xiang,” the zoo said on its website.  

The cub’s birth comes as a little miracle during the Covid-19 pandemic and amid tensions between China and the US.  

Qin Gang, Chinese ambassador to the US who took office three weeks prior, said in a video posted on his Twitter account that the panda cub “truly added a splash of color to the exchanges between Chinese and American people.” He wished “good health, happiness and more miracles” for the cub.  

The first pair of pandas arrived at the National Zoo in April 1972, three months after former US president Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China.  

Panda Politics 
The first live panda arrived in the West in 1937 in the US. It was taken there by Ruth Harkness, a fashion designer and New York socialite. She traveled to China to continue her late husband’s search for a living panda. William Harkness had died of throat cancer in Shanghai. She eventually acquired a male panda cub and named him Su Lin. Brookfield Zoo in Chicago bought Su Lin for about US$8,800. Su Lin died in 1938.  

Giant pandas soon captivated imaginations in the West. By 1941, nine pandas were brought to the US. Floyd Tangier Smith, known as “Panda Man,” brought six living pandas to the UK between 1936 and 1938. Some pandas died on the long journey.  

In 1868, French priest Armand David saw a panda skin in a villager’s home in the mountains of Sichuan Province in China’s southwest. He enlisted a hunter to trap a panda, which he planned to ship to France. But the panda died when it arrived in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. He later had it stuffed and gave it to Henri Milne Edwards, a zoologist at the French National Museum of Natural History in Paris. Edwards thought it resembled a red panda, just bigger, so he called it a giant panda. It was later determined they are from different taxonomic families. Giant pandas are more closely related to bears than red pandas. 

In the 1940s, China’s nationalist government led by the Kuomintang realized the importance of protecting pandas and prohibited foreigners from hunting them. After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, pandas became a diplomatic gift.  

Historically, animals have played significant roles in China’s diplomatic relations. Sometimes they were gifts, like pandas. They also started wars.  

Qilin Sightings 
Lions were gifted to Chinese emperors from Central and West Asian kingdoms along the Silk Road in the late 2nd century BCE. The beast became an important symbol in Chinese culture, although its stylized image is more cute than ferocious.  

Another animal that once served as a national gift was the giraffe, as ancients believed it to be a qilin – a mythical and auspicious creature on par with the unicorn in Western cultures.  

In 1412, a Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) diplomatic delegation arrived in the Bengal Sultanate, today’s Bangladesh, to offer the emperor’s condolences for the death of the former king and recognition of the newly crowned one. The delegation saw giraffes there, and was told they were called giri in the local language. To them, this sounded like qilin. It also loosely resembled the mythical creature, which has a deer’s body and the tail of an ox. The leaders of the delegation, Hou Xian and Yang Min, may have told the new Bengali king of their theory because when the Chinese delegation returned to China two years later, he made sure to gift one to Ming Emperor Yongle.  

Emperor Yongle was very happy. The qilin symbolized a dynasty’s prosperity and good governance. While the Ming was prosperous under Emperor Yongle’s rule, he had usurped the throne from its rightful heir, his nephew Jianwen. He thought having a qilin would legitimize his claim. He ordered his court artists to paint the animal and scholar Shen Du to write an article extolling the event. Several reproductions still exist. One is kept in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, while another was auctioned in Tokyo in 2015.  

As giraffes are native to Africa, the Bengali king may have regifted giraffes he received from African kings.  

Since 1405, Emperor Yongle sent a huge fleet to explore the western Pacific and Indian Ocean, kicking off China’s short-lived age of exploration led by famed explorer Zheng He. In 1413, Zheng He’s fleet set sail for his fourth expedition, and reached as far as the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa.  

Zheng He met with envoys from Malindi, a kingdom in what is now Kenya, who brought with them many exotic gifts – including giraffes. They gave one to Zheng He, who presented it to the emperor in 1415. The following year, Malindi sent another giraffe to Emperor Yongle as a gift. The 7th, and also the last expedition ended in 1433.  

War of the Heavenly Horses 
In the late 2nd century BCE during the Western Han Dynasty, Zhang Qian, imperial diplomat to kingdoms in Central and West Asia, told Emperor Wu about a breed of very strong horses in a kingdom called Dayuan in the Ferghana Valley, which stretches through Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan today. They ran much faster and longer than Chinese horses, and were said to run so fiercely they sweated blood.  

The legend has a bit of science behind it. The horses have very fair, almost transparent looking skin. This makes their blood vessels more defined and visible. The sweat glands around their neck and shoulders have developed to tint their sweat with a reddish hue, which darkens their hair, creating the illusion they are bleeding. This inspired the Chinese name, han xue ma, or “horses that sweat blood.”  

They are now called Akhal-Tekes, a Turkmen horse breed known for its unmatched speed and endurance.  

Emperor Wu, who enjoyed horses and had an extensive stable, was immediately fascinated. Strong horses were also strategically important for his army, which at the time was fighting the nomadic Huns and their fierce cavalry mounts. He not only thought the horses in Dayuan could give him the edge he needed in battle, but also believed they were magic. He called them “heavenly horses.”  

He sent a delegation to Dayuan with treasures, including a full-scale statue of a horse made of gold. But the Dayuan king refused and dismissed the Han delegation.  

The Dayuan had their reasons: The horse was not only a precious resource, but the kingdom was also a Hun ally. In addition, Dayuan was so far from the Western Han that it did not fear retaliation. The Western Han envoy, Che Ling, was angry and shattered the gold horse in the Dayuan king’s presence. On his way back to the Han border, he was killed and the treasures were looted by Dayuan soldiers.  

Emperor Wu was furious. He ordered general Li Guangli, the brother of his favorite concubine, to attack Dayuan. But it was very difficult to supply Li Guangli’s troops over such a long distance, and the army was forced to retreat before they even arrived. By the time they reached the city of Dunhuang on the western edges of the dynasty’s borders, most of his soldiers had died of hunger, thirst or fatigue. Li Guangli requested to call off the campaign. Emperor Wu was furious and prohibited Li and his remaining troops from entering Yumen Pass, a crucial outpost to the east of Dunhuang.  

Then the emperor mobilized more troops supplied by trains of cattle, horses, camels and mules, and ordered Li Guangli to launch what was a successful attack on Dayuan.  

The Dayuan king, known as Wu Gua in Chinese historical records, was later killed in a coup by the aristocracy who surrendered to the Western Han. Li Guangli brought dozens of “blood-sweating horses” back to the Western Han, along with about 3,000 other good horses.  

A depiction of a qilin with a eulogy by Shen Du, anonymous, Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), collected in the Palace Museum in Taipei

Imperial guardian lions are a traditional Chinese architectural ornament and are usually found in pairs guarding gates of important places. Chinese people think that a lion, a divine beast in Chinese culture, can drive away evil spirits

Silk for Stallions 
However, far from their endemic habitat, breeding proved difficult and good stallions were in high demand. But as the Dayuan campaign showed, war was not a long-term solution. Trade along the Silk Road was a much more viable way for China to acquire stallions from Central Asia. Instead of resorting to violence, silk was exchanged for stallions. Silk later became a gift symbolizing peace between nations.  

Silk is produced by a tiny animal, silkworms. As silk was China’s most important export for thousands of years, silk-making was a carefully guarded secret. Silkworms and their habitat, mulberry trees, were banned from export. Its origins were so secret that ancient Greeks and Romans once speculated that silk was made from golden fleece that grew on a special tree in China. A few hundred years after Silk Road trade began in the late 2nd century BCE, they finally learned of silk’s wormy origins. But exactly how silk production was smuggled out of ancient China is still a mystery.  

Just as silk symbolizes peace, pandas are given as national gifts. In the late 1950s, “panda diplomacy” became a popular tool for China’s foreign relations. But in 1984, China changed its policy. Pandas are now loaned to countries and include expensive monthly fees.  

While no longer endangered thanks to conservation efforts, the IUCN still classifies pandas as a vulnerable species outside of captivity. Calls from within China to cease panda diplomacy came to a height in 2019, when a female panda on loan to Thailand since 2003 died from heart failure. The panda, Chuang Chuang, was obese, causing many online to question the conditions and quality of food at the zoo in Chiang Mai.  

Regardless, the persistent popularity of pandas around the world still proves an effective means to fostering diplomatic relations. Hopefully they will bring peace and help to avoid future conflicts.