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The Elephant in Cross-Cultural Perspective: From Han to Tang Dynasties in Chinese History

By Wang Yongping
School of History, Capital Normal University, Beijing, 100089

As the largest mammal on land, elephants are usually divided into the two types: the Asian elephants and the African elephants. Asian elephants are mainly distributed in South and Southeast Asia, India, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and other countries. The Xishuangbanna region in southwest China??s Yunnan province has a small population of wild elephants. African elephants are distributed throughout the entire African continent with the exception of the Saharan desert.
Since very early on, the elephants have been part of domestic livestock and employed in riding, routine work and war. Later, people also used the elephant for various performances, giving rise to a kind of elephant dance.
The elephant was not at all a strange animal to the Chinese. Back in ancient times, the Peking Men living in Zhoukoudian near Beijing, the Dali Men on the Weibei grasslands of Shaanxi, and the Dingcun Men in the middle reaches of Fenshui River and the grass valleys of Shanxi, all witnessed roaming elephants. This means that elephants had a wide distribution in ancient China.
In pre-Qin times, both the Yellow and the Yangtze river areas were habitat for wild elephants. A legend goes that a younger brother of the sage emperor Shun was named Xiang, literally meaning the elephant, and while the emperor was personally engaged in farm work, he also used the elephant. Archeological remains of elephant tusks and bones of the Xia and Shang dynasties (about 3,000 to 4,000 years ago) have also been unearthed at the Dingjiabao reservoir in Yangyuan county of Hebei province, a place about the same latitude with Beijing. Around the Yellow River, wild elephants were more widespread. The Shang people were very good at taming wild elephants, and would occasionally put them to work and war.
But with the changes of historical geography, particularly the gradual expansion of human activity, the East Asian mainland saw less and fewer wild elephants. When Shang was giving in to Zhou, wild elephants were still seen in southern Shandong, but by mid-Western Zhou, it is already very difficult to find traces of the elephant in the north. By the Spring and Autumn period, the elephants?? habitat has been moved to the lower reaches of the Huaihe River. During the Warring States period, the elephants moved further south to Qinling Mountains, south of Huaihe and the Yangtze. In other words, elephants were basically disappeared from the Central Plain.
During the Han and Tang dynasties, with economic growth, prosperity, rising national strength and population, the elephant habitat further shrunk. With rare exceptions, elephants could only be spotted in pockets of land near or south of the Yangtze and Qiantang rivers, concentrating in Lingnan, Annan, and Yunnan.
The Han Empire was centered around the Yellow river, where elephants were long extinct. Tamed elephants were regarded as a rare animal, basically imported from foreign lands, especially Southeast Asia, which often contributed tamed elephants to the Han and Tang emperors.
The import of tamed elephants from foreign lands started as part of Sino-foreign cultural exchanges. During the reign of Emperor Wudi of Han, the imperial envoy Zhang Qian was dispatched to open the well-known Silk Road, which led to the import of a flood of foreign treasures including tamed elephants and blood-sweating horses. It is recorded, for example, that ??tamed elephants came from southern Vietnam,?? ??capable of saluting in a circus at the will of the tamer.?? This is one of the earliest records of foreign donated elephants. The southern Vietnam (203-111 BC) included parts of present-day Guangdong, Guangxi, and northern Vietnam, where wild elephants were widely distributed. The Eastern Han saw more elephants imported. In 63 AD, for example, elephants and rhinoceros were donated by countries south of Yongchangshire ?C present-day Yunnan and northern Burma. In 202 AD, tamed elephants were donated by the state of Yutian (today??s Hetian of Xinjiang). Yutian was a desert oasis and no producer of elephants; so it??s most probable that the donations originally came from India. This is a rare case of western tributary states donating elephants. Among the unearthed figural stones or bricks belonging to Eastern Han are also found variegated scenes of taming elephants. The tamers are often shown to be Huns with iron hooks, a practice which was also believed to have been imported from Southeast Asia. Both Buddhist classics and the scientist Wang Chong mentioned this, a fact reminiscent of an already established practice.
South Asian subcontinent is the main origin of Asian elephants, and the early inhabitants of ancient India had long mastered the techniques for taming elephants. Buddhism, born in India between the 6th to 5th century BC, was full of imageries and stories of the elephant. The use of elephants in warfare was also common. Stories go that when King Alexander of Macedonia marched into India and engaged in a battle with King Polawas in 325 BC, the latter had a special troop of 200 elephants. Arian in his Alexandrian Expedition records that he had seen dancing elephants in India with his own eyes. Alexander??s eastern campaign thus opened a new chapter in East-West cultural encounter. Subsequently, Zhang Qian??s westbound travel along the Silk Road set off a new upsurge in cultural exchange. In 1982, archaeologists from Xinjiang found a carved door plank at the Niya ruins in Minfeng county. The plank belongs to the Jin dynasty and shows a man leading an elephant covered with an embroidered blanket. The costume matches archival records, an indication that the elephant came from South Asia as a tribute by way of the Silk Road. This means that with Buddhism, Buddha-related elephant stories came trickling in, together with elephant taming techniques.
During the Three Kingdoms period, elephants were used for performances in the Kingdom of Wu. King Sun Quan once sent elephants as a gift to the kings of Wei and Shu respectively, two for each, which gave rise to the famous story of Cao Chong (son of Cao Cao, King of Wei) Weighing the Elephant. Of course, those elephants originally came from Southeast Asia. In 340 of Eastern Jin, the King of Linyi also donated to the emperor an elephant, which ??knows how to kowtow and pray.?? In the reign of Houliang of the Southern Dynasty, two elephants were employed in war. A Sui record also says that during the war, the King of Linyi tried to attack the Sui armies with elephants.
The Northern Dynasties also have records of receiving tamed elephants from foreign lands. In 460, the 1st year of Emperor Wencheng of Northern Wei, there was a tamed elephant imported from the Kingdom of Juchang. It is not known where this Juchang state was located, but it was at least an elephant producer in South Asia and the elephant came by way of the Silk Road. After relocating his capital to Luoyang, Emperor Xiaowen had a special place built for hosting white elephants from South Asian countries.
The emergence of the Tang Empire led to more frequent elephant donations from Southeast Asia, in particular from the Kingdoms of Linyi (also known as Huanwang or Zhancheng) and Zhenla (Wendan). One statistics show that donations of elephants from Linyi were as many as 17 times; Zhenla, twice; Shanbo and Zhanbei, once each. 746 AD, the 5th year of Emperor Xuanzong (Tianbao), saw a donation of elephant from Li Bo of the Huci Kingdom at the dispatch of the Persian Emperor. But the timing is not exactly correct, for it was nearly a century away from the demolition of the Sassanid empire of Persia by the Arabs. On the basis of that, the American sinologist Edward H. Schafer deduces that the so-called ??Persia?? involved in the elephant donation most probably refers to an isolated city in Khurasan or Hezhong. The fact is, ancient Persia was no producer of elephants, but it kept an elephant troop, which were believed to have been captured from India.
The import of tamed elephants from other lands exerted a substantial impact on the Tang society. Two important poets, Du Fu and Du (or Xu) Xie, each composed an Ode to Tamed Elephants from Yue, in response to a topic given for imperial examinees, and later collected into Quan Tang Wen, an important anthology of the Tang period. Both poems mentioned ??swarms of people, men and women?? ??crowding just to take a look?? at the elephant performance.
The arrival of foreign elephants added much fun to the Tang Chinese social and cultural life. The Tang government set up special pens and leisure management agencies called Xian Jiu to take charge of the imported elephants. Because many of these elephants were capable of dancing, it was possible to organize large scale performances. The Tang court did indeed sponsor a lot of these elephant dancing performances on occasions of royal gathering or other convivial activities, which reached a climax during High Tang. In fact, elephant dancing, especially one titled ??Elephants Saluting Young Kids,?? was traditionally listed as a routine performance from Han to Tang.
The Anshi Rebellion had a strong negative impact on the traditional elephant dance performance. In mid Tang, however, with the restoration of peace, elephant dancing was renewed. In 771, the Kingdom of Wendan alone contributed eleven elephants. The then prime minister Chang Yan, after watching a show of elephants, composed a poem which says ??Rhinoceros and elephants line up to dance.??
By the time Emperor Dezong ascended the throne, the Tang court boasted a total of forty-two elephants. Yet the reform-minded emperor was no lover of rarities and games, so he decreed that all tamed elephant and rhinoceros, gamecocks, birds, and dogs be repaired to mountains and forests. That same year, the Emperor gave the topic On Releasing Tamed Elephants for imperial examinees to elaborate on. Later, renowned poets like Yuan Zhen and Tang Dezong also wrote poems in connection with this incident. For better or worse, the incident had the effect of dwindling further elephant shows, which were rarely seen except on really important festive occasions, until it finally came to an end.
Besides historical archives, there are also a number of pictures showing tamed elephants and entertainers. In the Sanyuan temple of Tibet, for example, there is a fresco showing a man locked in a show of strength against an elephant; another scene has the elephant stand up on its front legs and proboscis. Similar thematic paintings are found among the Dunhuang Grottos. In Cave 290, there is a painting of the Northern Zhou showing a man holding an elephant, and in Cave 61, one finds two such paintings. These paintings also attest to the popular game of elephant taming in late antiquity.
It is worth mentioning that among all tamed elephants, the white ones were particularly favored by the Tang people. White elephants were a rare species among Asian elephants, mostly from Southeast Asia. We now know that their whiteness was basically a result of albinism, but perhaps just because of this whiteness, they became a target of worship among local people, rarely allowed to work. Those artificially bred white elephants were often exchanged as gifts among good-neighborly monarchs. The dancing elephants that the Tang court possessed were basically from such donations, which the Tang rulers took as a sign of blessedness, which leads to peace and prosperity both in the family and in the state. According to Chinese tradition, such blessedness comes from Heaven and manifests in natural transfigurations, as when river waters become crystal clear, the mountains yelling ??May ?? live ten thousand years??, river waters suddenly assume five colors, sea waves cease in calm tranquility, and so on. These transfigurations were regarded as Heaven approving the ruling emperor??s virtue and governance. These transfigurations were further scaled on the basis of their greater or lesser blessedness. The appearance of white elephants ranked high up on the scale as the top sign of blessedness, paralleling that of the dragon and phoenix. That explains why the Tang rulers attached so much importance to important white elephants.
In short, the import of tamed elephants from foreign lands from Han to Tang dynasties epitomizes the vibrant civilizational interaction and peaceful coexistence of that period. On one hand, the elephants?? arrival is a symbol of the prosperity and openness of the Chinese empire from Han to Tang. On the other hand, the charming naivety and loyal integrity of the elephant have so impressed the Chinese that they often associate it with such aspirations as peace, luck, blessedness, etc. In fact, the Chinese character for the elephant, Xiang, is often homonymically equated to ??auspiciousness?? and ??peace?? respectively. Besides, research on imported elephants during this period yields insights to vicissitudes of the East Asian continental climate, vegetation, hydrology and so on during this period.


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