Apr 3, 2019Cassowaries, ginseng, sable fur. What do these things have in common? They were among the things bouncing around in my mind as I was reading for tomorrow. They must have also inhabited the minds of Qianlong and his court officials.
In 1774, the Emperor wanted realistic paintings of this exotic flightless bird that had captivated Europeans for two centuries. The text or 'inscription' written to accompany the drawings were selected extracts from Claude Perrault's anatomical reports (written 1671-76) of the cassowary in Louis XIV's menagerie at Versailles. Qianlong too had an impressive menagerie of his own in Beijing—both as a display of imperial wonder and as a project of attaining 'universal knowledge' of the world outside the expansive stretches of his empire.
Ginseng was a precious commodity, prized for its supposed medicinal properties by all who were involved in the global ginseng trade in the eighteenth century. English colonists trekking across the Appalachian mountains were chewing on ginseng roots to regain virility. Soon enough, it was discovered that the plant—long believed to grow only in a tiny region of the world, between Manchuria and the Korean peninsula—also grew naturally in the upper parts of North America.
Sable fur. And sometimes squirrels too. I'm not going to get into this in detail because I have too much to do tonight. But the relevant question is: around when, and how, did an empire of silk become an empire of fur?