How Accurate Is: White Collar (TV Show, 2009-2014) S1E11


Today’s post will be a little shorter than most of the recent ones because I wanted to point out a glaring historical inaccuracy in a show I was watching recently, one I feel is representative of how television, movies, and other media often completely disregards history when it suits them, even if it would take little effort to ensure accuracy. In this case, the episode is White Collar, Season 1 Episode 11 (This post will have spoilers for this episode of White Collar: S1E11)

Around the middle of the episode, the protagonists discover the goal of a thief who has recently robbed several very wealthy men: obtaining a set of five jade elephants supposedly given to diplomats from “all over the world” in 1421 by the Chinese Emperor (Yongle, 1402-1424) to mark the opening of the Forbidden City. Before I get into what, in my opinion, was the worst mistake this episode made, let us examine the accuracy of this statement. It is true that the Forbidden City was formally completed in 1421, and that thereafter Beijing was the capital of Imperial China. [1] At the same time, the sixth treasure voyage of Admiral Zheng He left in March 1421 with the stated goal of returning diplomats who had been brought to China on a previous voyage. [2] Thus, this statement is not entirely absurd, although it is unlikely since a large portion of the Forbidden City was destroyed in 1421 in a fire. [3]

So, although it is technically possible that the origin story of the elephants could be true, the true mistake in the episode is odd and, frankly, inexcusable. Directly after establishing a vaguely plausible reason for the existence of these elephants (which, I remind you, involves China and Chinese history), the Japanese ambassador arrives and demands the two elephants they have on hand, since they are “a priceless piece of [Japanese] history”. It was at this point that I grew confused. I had been willing to swallow the flimsily constructed backstory for the elephants, but it is beyond confusing that the same set of writers, writing an explanation for the elephants involving China, would immediately claim that they are the property of the Japanese government. No further mention of China, in fact, is made in the entire episode. Did the writers of the show simply assume that no one would notice that they had switched the country they were referring to? Did they honestly not know that Japan and China are two separate countries? I could not tell you, and neither, I suspect, could the original writers.

So, as I hope you have seen, this error is emblematic of the way that today’s media often disregards history (and even internal consistency) in pursuit of an interesting plot. The writers never provide an adequate explanation for how all five elephants wound up in New York City, not in the museums of the countries who originally obtained them, nor do they at least succeed in repeating the same backstory twice. While I was amused watching this episode, I was not impressed.


1 University of California, Berkeley. “Timeline: A Chronology of the Ming Voyages”. n.d.

2 University of Maine Farmington. “Forbidden City- History”. Last modified January 2010.

3 University of California, Berkeley. “Timeline: A Chronology of the Ming Voyages”. n.d.

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