Millions of Chinese viewers can’t stop watching them live, and a score of drones follows them day and night. The fifteen elephants, three calves, three juveniles, six females, and three adult males, marauding southeast China and heading north—trampling on their path crops, tea trees, and rice fields, roaming towns, ignoring roads and cars—are an unstoppable sensation for the nation.
They have trekked over 300 miles across the country since escaping from a nature reserve in Yunnan last year. They are considered cute, adorable, almost larger pandas for the ultra-sentimental Chinese. Some 500 people work full time to keep them safe and feed them on their path.
Still, it wasn’t always like this.
A museum in Chengdu, capital of Sichuan, neighboring Yunnan, a modern steel and glass-covered space displays huge stacks of hundreds of elephant tusks dating back 3,000 years.
Some are enormous, over two meters long, signs of truly gigantic animals that inhabited the area and were hunted with dedication and a sense of mission by locals. Around 1000 BC the region was on the edge of the Chinese cultural cradle centered further north, around the Yellow River.
But even in what was the basin of Chinese civilization, elephants were very central. The pictogram xiang 象 meaning “elephant” came to mean the verb “to seem like” or “to represent,” probably because ivory was used for early carvings of figurines.
Elephants in that world were so significant that historian Mark Elvin saw the struggle against them as the advance of Chinese civilization in its space around the rivers.
In his 2004 The Retreat of the Elephants, Elvin traces how the expansion of intensive Chinese agriculture went hand in hand with the reclaiming of forests and the fight against these giants that trampled fields and crops.
The ancient wild jungles where the pachyderms reigned were the space to be conquered by exterminating trees and animals perhaps even more than by water management. Elvin seems to challenge the old notion of China as simply a river empire like others, as Wittfogel proposed in his theory of hydraulic despotism. The landmark theory has informed the perception of China in the world, also for Chinese.
Perhaps, however, ancient China was very different from other contemporary old river-management kingdoms.
Sumer, Babylonians and also Egyptians possibly struggled to wrest arable land from the desert beleaguering a fertile plain periodically flooded around one or two rivers. Hydraulic empires of the Hindu, conversely fought the wild jungles, with the help of elephants, which were harnessed for war but also for heavy duty toil.
China perhaps uniquely fought the jungle, like the Indians, but against the elephants which were expelled from the Chinese world, to the point of not getting a place in their 12 animals’ calendar.
Elephants, dragons of their forest empire, were enemies to be destroyed and expelled from the sphere of civilization, not competitors to be tamed. For this reason, they were never subdued and bred even as war machines, as was the case in India and also by the Greeks and Phoenicians, that used them almost as modern tanks against the Romans, for instance.
The result is that within 30 centuries the mastodons that once populated all the space up to the borders of present Mongolia were confined to the extreme south of the country. They are extremely rare now.
The small herd of elephants marching towards northern China today after millennia of retreat then seems like a revenge of history or the environment.
It seems a deep, factual reflection on so much past history that Chinese authorities are not chasing them away but following them with curious surprise.
Their slow advance, followed with interest and amazement, towards the north, towards their territories of thousands of years ago, seems to be a sign that something very deep is happening in China.
Does China feel that it must learn to live with elephants and their jungles? Does it feel that there is something to rethink in its 3,000 years of historical tradition that has come down to the present day? Or what is it?