Beijing used to domesticate 5,000 elephants in ancient times, and the emperor traveled in an elephant carriage

Elephant house, a house where elephants live. This place is not in Beijing Zoo, but in the north of Beijing Xingshou Town; not in the present day, but in the Yuan Dynasty more than seven hundred years ago.

According to the Yuan Dynasty's "Yazin Zhi", the elephant room where elephants were domesticated in the Yuan Dynasty was in the area north of the Jinshui River at Haiziqiao (Di'anmen Wanning Bridge). Later, in addition to the elephants from Yunnan, Burma, Chamchung (South Central Vietnam), Jiaotui (North Vietnam), and Chenla (Cambodia) also paid tribute to the Yuan Dynasty. There were more elephants in the capital city, and the elephant room was not enough. So, the elephant training base was relocated to the north of Qincheng Village, Xingshou Town, Changping District today, where four elephant houses were built. By the late Qing Dynasty, the elephant houses were abandoned and the mountain people were scattered there, gradually forming four natural villages. At the end of the 1950s, these natural villages were integrated into one administrative village, which is now known as Xiangfang Village.

Beijing used to domesticate 5,000 elephants in ancient times, and the emperor traveled in an elephant carriage

The Picture of the Departure of the Police and the Entrance of the Tour (partial), National Palace Museum, Taipei. The picture shows the Jiajing emperor traveling with a carriage pulled by an elephant.

Xiangfang Village and Qincheng Village, one to the north and one to the south, are only 20 to 30 meters apart, as if they were neighborhoods separated by a wall. A north-south asphalt road connects the two ancient villages, and on both sides of the road are stalls selling clothes, shoes and hats, vegetables and fruits, and various daily necessities. There is an iron gatehouse at the entrance of Xiangfang Village and a similar gatehouse at the entrance of Qincheng Village, with the gatehouse of Xiangfang Village facing south and the gatehouse of Qincheng Village facing east.

The former elephant house becomes an ancient village

There is a junction not far from the village of Elephant House, next to a rectangular low wall. The wall is constructed with cement, which is covered with white tiles. Due to the wind and sun, the tiles are chalky white, and above them are two mottled red letters - Elephant House. Judging from the location of the low wall, this is obviously a signpost, but it indicates not the village of Elephant Room, but Elephant Room. Are there any more elephant houses as buildings in this area? No. The elephant house where the elephants were domesticated has long since disappeared, and all that remains is a place name. But the concept of "elephant house" is deeply rooted in the minds of the locals, perhaps because of the legend of the elephants hidden in the place name.

Beijing used to domesticate 5,000 elephants in ancient times, and the emperor traveled in an elephant carriage

Back then, when the elephant house was moved out of the Imperial City, why was it chosen in the north of Qincheng Village? Because there are many springs there, only the main spring has four or five, and countless small springs. What is especially valuable is that geothermal heat makes the springs there hot springs. The hot spring water gushing continuously forms a vast water area of more than 6,000 square meters, which villagers call Qinchenghai. The Yuan Dynasty's "Xazin Zhi" records: "Gengzi year, the elephant room abolished. Now raised in the north of Qincheng, there are warm springs." Qincheng North, that is, north of Qincheng Village. In the Northern Wei and Sui dynasties, it was called Qincheng, and was once renamed Qincheng in the Liao dynasty, and was renamed Qincheng in the Jin, Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties, and was renamed Qincheng again in the Republic of China, and is still in use today. The water of Qincheng, which originates from the North Shenling (locally called Dahai Liang), is formed by the confluence of hot springs, creating a unique warm and humid microclimate in the area. The lush vegetation provides ample food for the elephants, and the abundant water source makes the elephants' drinking and bathing problems easy to solve, which is undoubtedly a perfect place to tame the elephants.

As I traveled through the villages of Xiangfang and Qincheng, the villagers still talked about the Qincheng Sea with great interest. The water of Qincheng, which was recorded by the Northern Wei geographer Li Daoyuan in his "Water Classic Commentary", is the Qincheng Sea. I think the name Qincheng has a more poetic meaning. Back then, the shores of that water were covered with water celery, a wild vegetable that was not only highly productive but also tasty.

Tracing its history, Qincheng evolved from the ancient city of the cantonment and garrison, which was built in the Han Dynasty. Located on the alluvial fan in front of the Yanshan Mountain Range, Qincheng can reach Shanggu County of the Han Dynasty in Huairou District and Yanqing District to the northeast, and Yuyang County of the Han Dynasty in Miyun District to the east, while Shanggu County and Yuyang County belong to the frontier. Therefore, barrier cities were built in this military stronghold to defend against the invasion of nomads from the north. The function of the barricades was twofold: first, to reclaim the land and cultivate the fields to achieve self-sufficiency of military food; second, to defend the city against danger in case of war. At that time, on the alluvial fan of the Yanshan Mountains, the ancient city of Hu Yu and the ancient city of Qincheng, one to the west and one to the east, guarded the gateway to Shanggu County in the northwest and Yuyang County in the northeast of the Han Dynasty.

A villager told me that back then, Qincheng was located on the mountainous terrace northwest of Qincheng village. The "Barrier City" is the official term, but folk call it Tu Cheng Zi or Tu Gang Zi. Today, it is a residential area.

Just as Qincheng disappeared, it left behind a place name - Qincheng Village. When Xiangfang disappeared, it also left a place name - Xiangfang Village. Although the Elephant Room did not exist in the north of Qincheng Village for a long time, it left a deep imprint.

The emperor travels by elephant

The Yuan Dynasty had two capitals, one was Dadu, the present-day Beijing area, and the other was Shangdu, located on the banks of the Lightning River in northwest Duolun County, Inner Mongolia. Every summer, the Yuan emperor went to Shangdu to escape the summer heat and did not return to Dadu until the cooler autumn months. The procession of the trip was vast, and the emperor's luxurious ride was particularly notable because it was equipped with livestock other than cows and horses, but elephants. The elephants carried that luxury ride called the elephant carriage, which is a huge wooden sedan on the backbone of four elephants, the sedan with flags and umbrella cover, lined with gold silk cushions, wrapped in lion skin, each elephant equipped with a harness. The History of Yuan records that "the elephant force is the most huge, on to and from the two capital, by public opinion elephant driving."

Beijing used to domesticate 5,000 elephants in ancient times, and the emperor traveled in an elephant carriage

Kublai in an elephant carriage by a Western painter

In addition to traveling to and from the two capitals, elephants also played an essential role whenever the court had a major event. The Italian traveler Marco Polo recounted the pomp and circumstance in his travelogue: "The emperor's elephant procession numbered as many as five thousand heads, all clad in elephant clothes embroidered with gold and silver threads with bird and animal designs, and set up in procession, and on the back of each elephant were placed two boxes full of metal cups and plates and other utensils for the court. The procession of elephants was followed by a procession of camels, which passed in procession in front of the emperor in a spectacular manner." A huge procession of five thousand elephants could not be realized without enough elephants, so four elephant houses were built at once in the northern part of Qincheng village in Changping to tame the elephants on a large scale.

Early Mongolian khans traveled in a good ear (palace tent) drawn by six horses. The first time I saw a woman, I was a little bit of a nuisance. The first thing you need to do is to take a look at the actual carriage. If you have a narrow pass, the emperor will be alone in an elephant or sitting in an elephant chariot drawn by two elephants. In short, the emperor was inseparable from the elephant, especially Kublai.

It is said that the reason why Kublai loved to ride in the elephant carriage was because he was fond of this animal. The elephants are physically heavy, but they are gentle and spiritual, and are intelligent mammals, second only to dolphins and primates that are close relatives of humans in intelligence. Moreover, elephants are affectionate, they express their feelings through different sound waves, with trunks, ears and tails to convey information to their companions, and the elephant herd is always full of friendly atmosphere. As a herd animal, the herd belongs to a typical matriarchal clan structure, usually with 8 to 10 members, and the leader is a highly respected female elephant. The elephant group is stable, and members rely on each other for food and defense against foreign invasion. The average life expectancy of elephants is 60 to 70 years, and some can live to 80 or even hundreds of years, so they are known as the "mammalian life span".

The work of elephants in the court was mainly to act as a ceremonial guard. Daily morning court, the ministers in the court room waiting for the driver, the elephant is in the courtiers and generals must go through the East and West Yi gate and stand opposite each other, and the trunk together, that the time has not arrived. After the quiet whip, the elephant will trunk down, the elephant slave led away after the elephant, civil and military officials to line up for the court. The domesticated elephants knew the law and followed the rules. If they are late for duty, they will curl up on the ground and ask for punishment; if they hurt someone by accident, they will voluntarily lie on the ground and ask to "receive the scepter", and then bend the knee to thank the scepter; if they are demoted, they will automatically stand in a position lower than the original position to show the lower status.

This character of the elephant was better than many ministers of the court, and perhaps this was the reason why Kublai favored the elephant.

Elephant tusks were once unearthed in Xiangfang Village

According to "Changping County Geographical Names", "The village (Xiangfang Village) once unearthed ivory tusks." Now, the place where the ivory was unearthed in the north of the village is built into a platform with cement, and the edge of the platform is surrounded by a wooden fence, and inside the fence is a golden elephant and a maple tree. For ornamental reasons, the leaves of the maple tree are artificially decorated. Below the platform stands a square stone tablet with white characters on the ink surface, briefly introducing the origin and history of the village of Elephant House, stating that the ivory was unearthed in 1979 and the discoverer was named Yang Zensheng.

Beijing used to domesticate 5,000 elephants in ancient times, and the emperor traveled in an elephant carriage

The place where the ivory was excavated in Xiangfang Village Photo: Yue Qiang

It is not surprising that ivory was unearthed from a place where there were four elephant houses. Buried by the dust of history, there must be many lesser-known stories besides the ivory. The elephant houses had two tasks, one was breeding and the other was domestication, the latter being more difficult than the former. The domestication of a wild elephant into a humane, muzzled, disciplined, and ritualistic member of the royal regalia often took years of effort on the part of the elephant trainers. After the domestication of the elephant because of direct service to the emperor and noble status, in the court to enjoy titles, some even like the great general sealed food a rank of the locals. Each elephant had a servant, and the servants served the elephants as if they were masters. However, the status of the elephant tamer is extremely humble, known as the elephant servant or elephant slave. Behind each domesticated elephant, there is a history of the blood and tears of the elephant tamers.

Beijing used to domesticate 5,000 elephants in ancient times, and the emperor traveled in an elephant carriage

Kangxi Southern Tour" has an elephant guard of honour

After the Yuan Dynasty, the Ming and Qing Dynasties also used elephants as a means of transportation and a court honor guard. So, how did the elephant room decay? It is said that the immediate cause of the closure of the Elephant Room was an elephant-training accident. That day, an elephant in training was unexpectedly frightened, suddenly fury, with the trunk rolled up the jade chariot thrown into the air, and the elephant tamer thrown into the wall caused serious injuries. This happened in the spring of Guangxu ten years (1884), shocked the court. Since then, the elephant out of the royal ceremonial team, the elephant room is no longer tamed young elephants. After the old elephants died one by one, the elephant house was abandoned and the elephants' glorious years in Beijing came to an end.