The Chinese definitely had knowledge of the mammoth in modern times. The first literate Westerners to enter Siberia in the seventeenth century observed the local natives prospecting for fossil ivory and selling it to China. Besides being an artistic medium, mammoth tusks and other fossils were prized by Chinese apothecaries who ground them into powder and sold them as dragon bones and dragon teeth. This practice was so dependable that paleontologists in the 1920s sought out apothecaries to direct them to local bone beds. Many extinct species were discovered this way. Because medicinal properties were ascribed to many objects, Chinese medical tracts and herbal guides are one of the best sources for information about fossils and other exotic substances.
As to whether the Chinese actually traveled to Siberia and saw the source of mammoth ivory first hand is a hard question to answer. There no surviving accounts of Chinese journeyers in the North or even second-hand mention of such accounts. However, the Chinese did have some knowledge of the people further up the Pacific coast. The chronicles of the Eastern Zhou (770-256 BC) make references to the tribes in the Amur valley. Sources from the Han dynasty (202 BC - 220 AD) describe tribes further up the coast that suggest they knew about the Chukchi on the Bering Straits. Ivory artifacts from that period have been found on both the Siberian and Alaskan sides of the Bering Sea that appear to have been carved with metal tools. To the North and Northwest lived nomadic tribes of Mongols and Turks who were deeply involved with Chinese civilization since the earliest days. Although they acted as trade intermediaries with the tribes further north, they acted as a barrier to Chinese expansion into Siberia.
The animals that appear in Chinese literature that are most likely mammoths are usually referred to as giant rodents (shu). An uneducated person finding a mammoth carcass in the ground would try to compare it to an animal they knew. Most medium sized burrowing mammals are clearly what they are--rabbits, badgers, martens--but rodents come in hundreds of types and sizes, from the very tiny to the big enough to eat. It would seem perfectly reasonable to the discoverer of a mammoth to call it an unknown species of giant rodent.
In the Shen i king, a book written during the Han dynasty and credited to Tung-fang So, a minister to the emperor Wu (140-87 BC), the following passage appears: “In the regions of the north, where ice is piled up over a stretch of country ten thousand miles long and reaches a thickness of a thousand feet, there is a rodent, called k’i shu, living beneath the ice in the interior of the earth. In shape it is like a rodent, and subsists on herbs and trees. Its flesh weighs a thousand pounds and may be used as dried meat for food; it is eaten to cool the body. Its hair is about eight feet in length, and is made into rugs, which are used as bedding and keep out the cold." The ice sounds like a description of the Arctic Ocean and the large animal with long hair found in in the frozen earth is a good description of a frozen mammoth carcass. Tung-fang So also wrote that the k’i shu died when exposed to air or light. This belief was common among the Siberian tribes who sold ivory to the Russians from the sixteenth century forward. Did Tung-fang So have that kind of detailed information direct from northern Siberia at such an early date? If that is the case it means the Siberian traditions survived unchanged for almost two thousand years even though there was considerable movement among the peoples of Siberia during that time. Could the information have survied and traveled the other direction, from Chinese merchants, familiar with the Shen i king, to each later tribe that controlled the ivory prospecting grounds?
T’ao Hung-king, in the fifth century, wrote a pharmacopia entitled Ming i pieh tu. In the eighth Ch’en Ts’ang-k’i wrote a work called Pen-tsao Shi-i on the omissions of previous pharmacopias. Both included sections on the fen (an animal which moves in the ground) also known as yin shu (hidden rodent). They told their readers that there were two types of fen, the common small mole and the other fen, which was the size of a water buffalo. The best candidates for a buffalo sized mole are the mammoth and the woolly rhinoceros.
At this point, an interesting fact to notice is that none of the Chinese sources have mentioned ivory yet. This doesn't necessarily mean that the various shu are not mammoths. Although European naturalists had enthusiastically studied the mammoth since about 1700, it wasn't until the twentieth century that they knew how the tusks were positioned. The reason for this was that they had never recovered a skull with the tusks still attached. Though generous bounties were offered for mammoth remains, the Siberian natives never reported them until after they had removed and sold the tusks. It's possible that a similar process was at work in rural China.
Philipp Johann Tabbert, enobled as von Strahlenberg, was a Swedish officer captured by the Russians in 1709 and sent to Tobolsk, Siberia to wait out the end of the war. For officers of the nobility, POW status wasn't particularly onerous in the eighteenth century. They were usually sent to a distant province where they were boarded with someone near to their class (as usual, things got worse as you went down through the ranks). In Strahlenberg's case he stayed with governor and they became close friends. The governor allowed him considerable freedom to explore his intellectual interests. His captivity lasted twelve years. By the time it was over he had enough material to write a comprehensive study of the geography of Siberia and the anthropology, languages, and customs of some of the native tribes (published in English as Russia, Siberia, and Great Tartary). He drew what was the most detailed map of Siberia that had been seen (he was the first to show the Ural Mountains as the border of Europe). He also had a lot of time to think about mammoths. In one passage of his book, Strahlenberg quotes Pen-tsao Kan-mu, a Chinese tract on herbs written by Li Shin-Chen and published in 1578.
The beast Tien shu is mentioned in the ancient ceremonial written in the fourth century BC, and is called fyn shu or In shu, i.e. "the self concealing mouse." It is found in holes in the ground, has the appearance of a mouse, but is as large as a buffalo. It has no tail, and is of a dark color. Its strength is very great, and it digs itself into holes in the ground in hilly and woody places. Another writer says the Fyn shu frequents only dark and solitary places, and dies when it sees the rays of the sun or moon. Its feet are very short in comparison with its bulk, so that it travels only with difficulty. Its tail is about a Chinese ell long*, its eyes very small, and its neck crooked. It is also stupid and inert.
Parts of Li Shin-Chen sound familiar to the sources we have already seen, especially the Shen i king.
You have to pause and marvel at the unlikeliness of all this. How does a German officer in the service of the Swedish king, being held prisoner in Siberia become aware of the contents of a Chinese herbal guide written one-hundred-fifty years earlier? It's possible that a copy of Pen-tsao Kan-mu made its way to Tobolsk. In the eighteenth century, the city was the capital of Siberia and the first stop on the trade route to China. Or, as is more likely, did Strahlenberg learn about it after he returned to Sweden, while he was writing his book?
Some non-rodent traditions exist. A fourteenth century work by T’ao Tsung-i explains the origin of khutu, a material used for knife handles: “Ku-tu-si is the horn of a large snake, and as it is poisonous by nature, it can counteract all poisons, for poison is treated with poison.” During the same period, Arab and Persian writers reported that their Chinese informants had told them that khutu came from a fish, a tree, or a giant bird. Some of the Muslim eyewitness descriptions of khutu are clearly mammoth ivory. Whether the second-hand Chinese descriptions of khutu also refer to Mammoth ivory is an open question.
The Kangxi emperor in his natural history brought many of these materials together and commented on them in the light of the new knowledge that he had acquired from his Jesuits and others.
The books say that in the very cold regions of the north ice forms to a thickness of a hundred feet and melts not even in the spring or summer. This region is now known actually to exist. Again, the Yuan kien lei han [a thirteenth century encyclopedia] contains the following statement: "The k’i shu, which is described as reaching the weight of ten thousand pounds, is found even at the present day. In shape it resembles the elephant, and its tusks are like those of the same beast, but the ivory is yellowish in color." In both these points, the ancient books are confirmed.
Five years later he expanded on this.
While all the assertions found in books are not to be implicitly believed, there are, on the other hand, statements which, however false and absurd they may seem, are nevertheless perfectly well founded. Thus, for instance, Tung-fang So relates that in the regions of the north ice is formed to a thickness of a thousand feet, and does not melt either in the winter or summer. When the Russians presented themselves at our court this year, they stated that in their country, at a distance of something over twenty degrees from the Pole, there is what is called the Polar Sea. The ice lies frozen there in solid masses and prevents the access of human beings. Thus, for the first time, the truth of Tung-fang So’s assertion has been confirmed. Again he states that in the northern regions, under layers of ice, is found a large animal of the kind of a rodent, the flesh of which weighs a thousand pounds. Its name is fen shu. It burrows under the ground and dies when it sees the light of the sun or moon. Now, in Russia, near the shores of the northern ocean, there is a rodent similar to an elephant, which makes its way under ground and which expires the very moment it is exposed to light or air. Its bones resemble ivory, and are used by the natives in manufacturing cups, platters, combs, and pins. Objects like these we ourselves have seen, and we have been led thereby to believe in the truth of the story.
The "Russians" from whom the emperor gained his information were probably the missions of Lorenz Lange, a Swede, or John Bell, a Scot. Both were in Beijing on business for Peter the Great during that year and both, in their memoirs, wrote about the source of mammoth ivory.
During the first quarter of the eighteenth century, while Peter the Great was busy fighting the Swedish, the Kangxi emperor was involved in a complex struggle in Central Asia that involved China, Tibet, Russia, and the Zungharian Khanate that dominated much of what is now Xinjiang and Kazakhstan. In 1712, as part of this struggle, the emperor sent an envoy to the Torguts, a Mongolian tribe that, during the previous century, had trekked to the lower Volga region on the far side of the Zungharians**. The envoy, named Tulisen, was to feel out diplomatic opportunities an observe Russian economic and military power. On his return, he produced a map of Siberia as good, or possibly better than Strahlenberg's. In his report, which had the charming title of "Jottings on the places where one sent me in the cut-off frontiers" (i.e. outside the empire), Tulishen described an encounter with mammoth ivory.
In the coldest parts of this northern country is found a species of animal which burrows under the ground, and which dies when exposed to the sun and air. It is of enormous size and weighs ten thousand pounds. Its bones are very white and bright like ivory. It is not by nature a very powerful animal, and is therefore not very ferocious. It generally occurs on the banks of rivers. The Russians collect the bones of this animal, in order to make cups, saucers, combs, and other small articles. The flesh of the animal is of a very cooling quality, and is eaten as a remedy in fevers. The foreign name of this animal is mo-men-to-wa [mammoth]; we call it k’i shu.
There is no doubt that Tulisen was talking about mammoth ivory since he calls it by that name. Two things are worth notice in his account. First, his Russian informants were of the belief that mammoths were still alive in Siberia. Second, he recognized the mammoth as being the same as the k’i shu. Tulisen was still on the road as the emperor was completing the first version of his natural history. As with Strahlenberg, the question is: did he make that connection at the time, in which case that passage from Shen i king, was well known to the educated Manchurian and Chinese elite of the Qing dynasty, or did he have a chance to see the emperor's book while writing his report? Did the emperor use Tulisen's report while writing his second account? Tulisen gave his report to the emperor in 1715. The emperor published his natural history the next year. The longer version of the emperor's observations was published in 1721 and a public version of Tulisen's report came out two years later in 1723. Lange's memiors came out that same year, Strahlenberg'a in 1730, but Bell didn't publish until just before his death in 1763. Who influenced whom and what external influences were involved? This is an important question, as the answer would be an indication of how knowledge of the mammoth was spread. Unfortunately, it is a question that hasn't been answered.
Coming soon: Earthshaking moles, the mammoth gets a name, and conquering Mongolian mammoths of doom!
* The ell is an extremely variable measure, running from about sixteen inches to fifty-seven inches. The longer measures are mostly fabric measures and irrelevant here. Ell is derived from elbow and usually means something like a cubit (fingers to elbow) or an arm (fingers to pit). I have no idea what Strahlenberg or his translators mean by a Chinese ell.
**It is frequently claimed that the purpose of Tulisen's mission was to entreat the Torguts to return to China. There is no indication of this either in Tulisen's report or in the instructions issued to him by the emperor. The idea that that was his purpose appeared in the nineteenth century, no doubt influenced by the fact that the majority of the Toguts did attempt to return to China in 1771. The decision was prompted by the pressure from the Russians when they were attempting to subdue the last independent nomad state on the European steppes, the Khanate of Crimea. Sadly, the most of the Torguts died during the journey.
Postscript bleg: My language skills are legendarily bad. The sources for my research range over four centuries. This means the Chinese words have been Romanized using at least three different systems as well as no system at all (by writers who tried to sound it out on their own). If anyone can convert these Chinese names and words into Pinyin for me I would be eternally grateful.