November 20, 2006


Erik Ringmar in December's issue of the Journal of World History approaches one of the most interesting questions in World History- why China didn't want to explore the world, but Europe did- by looking at different countries and how they reacted to the first import of giraffes into their midst. He takes three giraffes- one that was exported to the Florentine Medici regime in the 15th Century, another that arrived in China in the same century and a third that arrived in France in the 19th Century. From the reactions to these relocated giraffes, Ringmar hypothesizes three models of looking at the outside world- the first medieval Florentine of exoticist curiosity, the second Confucian of analogising the world to refer to China and the third scientific of using the giraffe to constitute an instance of a new law. From these three outlooks, he argues warily we might suggest why China didn't attempt to conquer the world- with neither the curiosity of the Florentines nor the universalism of the European scientist, the outer world simply became an extended metaphor for the Middle Kingdom.

There is much to rejoice in in this delightfully lighthearted article. But there are also things to criticise. He himself recognises that three giraffes or even three reactions to three giraffes do not a history of civilisation consist, they indicate but do not prove. More seriously, Ringmar is too happy with a postmodernist view of the world, too happy with Florentine medievalists and too unhappy with western scientists to completely understand the importance of his giraffes. Western science was never a method to exclude people, rather by universalising knowledge it was far more inclusive than the Florentine or Chinese model. The key difference between the two fifteenth century giraffes and the 19th Century one, is that whereas in principle noone who was not Florentine or Chinese could understand or appreciate the Florentine or Chinese reaction to the giraffe there, in 19th Century Paris, noone who was not a scientist could understand the reaction- science as it knows no colour boundary is a far more inclusive category than Florentine or Chinese which definitely did know colour boundaries. Furthermore by separating out a good enlightenment led by Diderot from a bad scientific enlightenment, Ringmar fails to understand how both enlightenments were the same enlightenment. As Isaiah Berlin made clear the monist attitudes of the enlightenment were held by reformers like Diderot as much as by conservatives like Paley. A racist scientific movement did exist, but perhaps it is a testament to the strength of universalism even in Paris in 1829 that its racism faded as we enter the twentieth century.

The most important and least stressed (obviously its comparative history!) part of Ringmar's article though is how similar our giraffes were. Not in themselves, though no doubt they were similar giraffes (probably slightly confused at being involved in a historiographical experiment let alone at travelling several thousand miles to be stared at!) but in the reactions they provoked. Ringmar's work shows us thousands of human faces, delighted and excited, staring at these giraffes, trying to work them out. The mechanics of astonishment seem to be culturally indeterminate- though the elite understandings of the giraffe may not be. There is something as well in his idea of an inward looking China and an outward looking Europe during these centuries- though warnings from hoary history Proffessors about generalisations flood through my mind at that point (Tang China was definitely more adventurous than dark age Europe etc etc)- and maybe its worth stressing in that context the fact that the Florentine and French regime were involved in an international competition which the vast and swelling Chinese empire never was involved in until the 19th Century, or never involved in with as many other developed states. This is a wonderful article and a true breath of fresh air to find amidst all the scholarly articles which take themselves too seriously- for anyone who is interested in the curious detail and even the comparison of curious details in history go over and read particularly in this article curious details illuminate the whole of a vast question- that's what a farsighted giraffe would do I am sure.

Incidentally if people want to think more about some of the issues raised here (though not unfortunately the travel journals of Giraffes- unfortunately the Internet which doeth all things has not yet provided that essential resource)- Radio 4 did a fascinating program on Chinese science earlier this year- for those merely interested and amused by our giraffes striding through history- we ought to remember as a last thought what Ringmar's research shows- the French were right, a giraffe is a giraffe and more interestingly so is a human a human, the funny thing is that giraffes see humans and humans see giraffes in much the same way when they are introduced for the first time.

LATER AND THANKS TO DAVE IN THE COMMENTS I ought to say as well that beyond giraffes, Ringmar has his own blog which is one of the best on the net- really good fun- though by having such a blog he has selfishly ruined the perfect ending to my article- anyway its well worth a read and has lots of good stuff on it- including a post about a new book which I am sure takes the whole subject of the west, Europe and China onto a new level- my guess is that its a level so high that Erik is the first to survey it, apart from that is the giraffes.

MUCH LATER- on a similar theme I've just written an article on Bits of News which analyses a different approach from Ringmar's to the problem of the reasons for China's relative disinterest in global empire in the early modern period.


El Dave. said...

Erik Ringmar, a former professor of mine, has a blog at and is writing a book on blogging, which has its own blog at

Gracchi said...

Great I'll go have a look- his article is definitely fun.

El Dave. said...

Erik's a great guy. Good lecturer and writes some really interesting stuff; his angles are always unique and are generally a better read than most academics.

Gracchi said...

Having read the article he comes through as a good guy with a nice sense of humour- his blog is also well worth reading having looked at it.