The Unicorn & the Eunuch; Saviours of the Ming Dynasty

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The animals came in six by six, hoorah hoorah. The animals came in six by six, hoorah hoorah. The animals came in six by six, the qilin, dragon, turtle and phoenix…

It is well known that money does not grow on trees, but in a fairytale world, all sorts of impossibilities ring true. Such is the case with the “chao”, the paper money of the Yuan Dynasty. While it is accepted wisdom that the Chinese invented banknotes, their topiary origins are almost completely unknown.

That’s thanks to Shi Shi, the Mulberry Fairy. She lived in Suzhou in a very tall Mulberry tree and her main job was to protect the secret that those chao bank notes were actually made from the bark of mulberry trees.

Indeed, it was a somewhat whimsical kingdom that the Ming Dynasty’s first emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang, inherited. A magical place, ruled not only by one man, as it would turn out, but also a unicorn, along with their trusty sidekick, in the form of a eunuch.

Eunuchs were a big deal in Ming Dynasty China. In his 1961 journal article, “Eunuch Power in the Ming Dynasty”, Robert B. Crawford writes, “Given the nature of autocracy, it was logical that power would be delegated to those the emperor felt would represent only the interests of the imperial family. Eunuchs appeared to meet this criterion”.

None were more qualified than Zheng He, the navigator and fleet commander given the tremendous responsibility of envoy to the nation, over seven voyages in the early 14th century, from Nanjing to as far as the east coast of Africa. Depending on who you believe, there may well have been another, eighth voyage that saw Zheng reach the Americas a good 50 years prior to Christopher Columbus.

He had been dispatched by emperor Zhu Di. Only Zhu Di had a problem; that his ruling was regarded by some as illegitimate.

You see, Zhu Yuanzhang outlived his successor, and so Zhu Di found himself and his siblings playing second fiddle to their nephew, Zhu Yunwen. When the upstart began throwing his weight around a little too much, namely by executing some of his uncles, Zhu Di saw a chance and made a successful grab for power.

With an army of several hundred thousand men, Zhu Di raided Nanjing, set fire to the palace, and, claiming that the emperor had died in the fire, sat himself upon the throne.

All should have then been right with the world, but Zhu Di was unsettled. As the fourth son, his claim to the throne was weak at best. Something else bothered him too, that Zhu Yunwen may have survived the palace fire and escaped China. That little conniver might well have been spilling his guts to half of Asia by then.

Zhu Di hit upon a plan; he would build a mighty fleet of ships, right here in Nanjing. These magnificent vessels would be the largest sailing ships ever made. They would sail the seven seas, ostensibly in the name of free trade and exploration; to bring back untold riches that would empower his great nation and secure his legacy; but also to possibly unearth the hiding place of Zhu Yunwen, and to whip his loose mouth firmly into shape, i.e. shut.

To command such a fleet upon many voyages would require someone of unswerving loyalty. Zhu Di figured one of those eunuchs would be just the man, so to speak.

A few years later, about the time Zhu Di was getting really nervous and constantly looking under his sedan chair, Zheng was once again back on the high seas, now on his fourth voyage, in 1414, and about to port in Bengal for an international conference of envoys.

There it transpired, the delegation from Malindi, now part of Kenya, had brought with them, to the disconcerting delight of the other envoys, a herd of giraffes, intended as tributes to other nations among efforts to establish friendly ties, or rather, avoid all out wars. Zheng was presented with one of the giraffes, and returned to Nanjing.

Now, emperor Zhu Di was well used to receiving animals as gifts from those looking to curry favour with Chinese nobility. He had seen it himself and witnessed same as a youngster, as he observed those kowtowing to his grandfather. Bears, parrots, peacocks, you name it, he had seen just about it all, and in fact, had grown rather cynical of such pithy offerings.

Then he saw the giraffe.

Zhu Di was impressed to the extent that he asked a court artist to paint the hitherto-unseen-in-China beast, for he was perplexed to say the least.

You see, the giraffe shared many of its characteristics with those of the mythical “qilin”, the Chinese equivalent of a unicorn. According to Confucius mythology, the qilin should have the body of a deer along with cloven hooves and the tail of an ox. The giraffe had all three.

But it were the curious horns that really got Zhu Di’s pulse racing. He was then reminded of how a royal aide had actually had the audacity to introduce the giraffe as an actual qilin as it disembarked from Zheng’s ship. Now Zhu Di had since done his research, and he knew now that giraffes could also have a skin covered horn in the centre of its forehead, in addition to those on each side, once again, just like the qilin.

The penny dropped. Or rather, the Mulberry dropped. Zhu Di realised that this somewhat ridiculous creature was key to his clinging to power. Who in their right mind would take on an emperor of China in possession of a real life unicorn? No one.

And so it came to be. The days and years passed, with the giraffes gaily bounding free in the Yongle enclave, what is now Nanjing’s Mingugong, the model for Beijing’s Forbidden City that would be Zhu Di’s crowning achievement.

And he did it with his trusty qilin by his side.

Had that giraffe’s fate been never to walk down Zheng’s gangplank in Nanjing, we might today be looking at a very different China.

 

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Editor-in-chief and Music Critic, Frank Hossack, has been a radio host and producer for the past 34 years, the past 25 of which working in media in China, in the process winning four New York Festivals awards for his work, in the categories Best Top 40 Format, Best Editing, Best Director and Best Culture & The Arts. 贺福是我们杂志的编辑和音乐评论员,在过去的34年里一直从事电台主持和电台制片的工作。在中国有近25年的媒体工作经验。工作期间他曾经四次获得过纽约传媒艺术节大奖,分别是世界前40强节目奖,最佳编辑奖,最佳导演奖以及最佳文化艺术奖。