Elephants in ancient China

Elephants were present in ancient China, as evidenced by archaeological findings and portrayals in Chinese art. They flourished in Central and Southern China before the 14th century BC and were assumed to be members of an extinct Asian elephant subspecies known as Elephas maximus rubridens. They used to be found as far north as Anyang, Henan, China. The elephant is mentioned in the Shijing, Liji, and Zuozhuan, among other ancient books. Elephant glyphs in oracle bone script and bronzeware writing are pictographic representations of an animal with a lengthy trunk. 

According to a study published in December 2011 by a group of Chinese experts, the elephant that lived in China during the Shang and Zhou dynasties could not have been a subspecies of the Asian elephant as previously assumed, but instead belonged to the genus Palaeoloxodon. P. namadicus was found all throughout Asia, but it’s uncertain whether the mystery elephants of northern China are P. namadicus remnants or a separate species. This result was obtained after researching Holocene epoch Chinese elephant molars and tusks, as well as ritual bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, all of which represent elephants with two ‘fingers’ on the tip of their trunk. Victoria Herridge and Adrian Lister, both experts in the field of fossil elephants, disagree with the assignment, claiming that the claimed diagnostic dental features are actually contrast artifacts caused by the low resolution of the figures in the scientific paper, and that they are not visible in higher-quality photographs. After the extinction of the Chinese elephant, elephants persisted in the southern provinces of China, but they are of a different subspecies, the Indian elephant. In Xishuangbanna, Yunnan Province, a natural population of these elephants still exists.

A small number of southern dynasties used elephants in warfare in China. In 506 BC, the state of Chu attempted to utilize elephants against Wu by tying torches to their tails and sending them into the enemy’s ranks, but the plan failed. The Liang dynasty utilized armoured war elephants carrying towers against Western Wei in December 554 AD. A barrage of arrows decimated them. The Southern Han dynasty is the only Chinese state to have maintained a regular army of war elephants. These elephants were capable of carrying a 10-person tower on their backs. During the Han invasion of Ma Chu in 948, they were successfully employed. The Song dynasty attacked Southern Han in 970, and their crossbowmen easily routed the Han elephants at the capture of Shao on January 23, 971. Elephants were not utilized in Chinese military after that.

During the Linyi-Champa Campaign and the Ming–Mong Mao War from 1366 to 1388, Chinese forces fought war elephants in Southeast Asia. Champa employed elephants to fight the Sui dynasty’s invading army in 605. The elephants were enticed into pits by the Sui army, which then shot them with crossbows. The elephants reversed their course and trampled their own troops. The elephants were routed by a variety of gunpowder missiles during the Mong Mao campaign.