05 December 2006

What Giraffes Can Tell Us about Zeitgeist

The December 2006 issue of the Journal of World History (Project Muse subscription required) contains an extraordinary article about the effects of a particular exotic creature in three different times and places.

Renaissance Europe
By the Renaissance, people looked at exotic animals with new eyes. In general there was a great desire for new visual experiences; people took an enormous joy in looking at the unexpected, the monsters, prodigies, and the freaks. Even though people refuse to give a farthing to "a lame beggar," as William Shakespeare put it, "they will lay out ten to see a dead Indian" or a "painted fish." The emphasis was on the marvelous. When suddenly seeing something that surpassed the expected in beauty, diversity, or abundance, the mind was overwhelmed. People were first astonished, then delighted, and finally excited. Clearly there was something highly addictive in this mixture of emotions. It piqued people's curiosity, and once they had seen a little, they wanted to see more. Obviously, in terms of height and sheer impact, there was no more marvelous, or more curious, animal than a giraffe....

The giraffe situation improved dramatically in 1486 when a real example of the species was presented to Lorenzo il Magnifico by Al Ashraf Kait-Bey, the Mamluk sultan of Egypt. The Florentines were on good terms with all Muslim rulers, but above all with the Turks because they were at war with the Venetians—Florence's main Italian rival—and because the Turks favored the Florentines as trading partners in the eastern Mediterranean. Yet this particular giraffe came from Egypt, and this for a particular reason. Since 1467, the Mamluks had been in open revolt against the Turks who occupied their country. The giraffe was an attempt to establish good diplomatic relations with the Florentines in order to make them intervene on their behalf in the inter-Muslim conflict. As far as the Mamluks were concerned, the giraffe played much the same role in their foreign policy as pandas did in the foreign policy of China in the 1970s.
Bourbon France
In 1827, after an interval of some 350 years, another giraffe appeared in Europe, this time in Paris. This giraffe was also a gift from the ruler of Egypt, and it too was a pawn in a diplomatic game. As always, the giraffe produced a lot of excitement wherever it went. Reacting to the tall and composite creature, the French too came to reveal just how they thought about the extra-European world, and this at a time when the country was about to embark on its first imperialist venture. Only three years later, fighting a cruel and genocidal war, France invaded and occupied Algeria. The question is what, if anything, the animal can tell us about these subsequent events....

Making sense of these reactions, it is clear that the giraffe appeared just at the intersection of several interpretative possibilities. Most ordinary Frenchmen reacted much the way ordinary people always have—with wide-open eyes and slack jaws. What was unprecedented, however, was the degree to which this spontaneous curiosity was commercially driven. In the course of the eighteenth century, a mass market was for the first time created in consumer goods, clothes, and knickknacks, and, to fuel demand, this market constantly required new fads and fashions. In the summer of 1827 the giraffe played this part. It was turned into a product that people did not see as much as consume. Like contemporary celebrities, you came closer to it, and experienced it more fully, by means of the merchandise associated with it. Yet, as with all commercial fads, the public's interest in the giraffe was fickle, and before long they turned to other attractions. Three years after her arrival in Paris, Honoré de Balzac noted, the giraffe was visited only by "retarded provincials, bored nannies and simple and naïve fellows."
Ming China
The Chinese are interesting for our purposes both for what they could do and for what they did not do. Their overseas explorations preceded those of the Europeans, their convoys were far larger, and, before the middle of the fifteenth century, they ventured farther afield. Then the expeditions suddenly stopped. In a series of increasingly draconian decrees, overseas travel was restricted and eventually outlawed completely. The question is why. Again we have a giraffe to help our analysis along. A giraffe arrived in Beijing in 1414, not long before the first of the antiexpansionist decrees was promulgated....

The animal, when it arrived, was treated as a sign of the benevolence of heaven, and as such it had to be interpreted by scholars before its meaning could become clear. Fortunately Chinese literati were highly skilled at interpreting signs. From the earliest times, scholars had spent much of their time reading the cracks in tortoise shells or the patterns formed by yarrow stems, and a set of imperial astronomers was constantly at hand watching the night sky for omens. Unusual sightings were immediately identified as portents and vested with huge political significance. Whatever happened was quickly interpreted in terms of the established canon. Hence Chinese scholars were never all that surprised.

The giraffe, when it appeared, was treated as such a sign. Checking with their encyclopedias, the scholars determined that it must be a unicorn, a mythological creature that traditionally was said to have a "horn in its head made out of flesh," "the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, and the hooves of a horse," and to be of such a gentle disposition that "it only ate grass and never hurt a living being." As they saw it, this description fitted well enough with the beast standing before them—giraffes, after all, do have horns, a curiously composite body, and a gentle nature. When the Chinese literati, in addition, learnt that the animal in the Somali language was known as girin [now pronounced geri], that settled the matter. To Chinese ears, girin sounded very much like qilin, the Chinese name of the unicorn. [In modern Mandarin, the q is pronounced much like English ch, but in earlier times--and in regional varieties of Chinese--the q would sound more like English k. Sino-Japanese also preserves the k sound in Kirin.--J.]
SOURCE: Erik Ringmar, "Audience for a Giraffe: European Expansionism and the Quest for the Exotic," Journal of World History 17 (2006): 375-397 (footnotes omitted)

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