About 150 years ago, in the fourteenth year of Emperor Kangxi’s reign, a Western nation gave him a mysterious creature called a “lion.” No one in his circle had ever seen such a creature before, and it immediately featured prominently in the poetry and paintings produced by members of the court. It also featured in many tall tales. For example, one story that made the rounds detailed how the lion escaped the palace one morning by snapping its chains in half and then galloping so fast that it reached the far end of the Great Wall, 2,800 li away, by noon—a feat well beyond even the fastest horse.
This is obviously a made-up tale. There are, however, true tales about the lion that are equally striking. For instance, one summer the emperor visited the southern regions and displayed the lion as a show of his power. While sailing back home on the Wei River, he temporarily docked in the village of my maternal grandmother, the Madame Cao. This gave her the opportunity to observe the lion firsthand from her family’s home, the deck of which faced the riverside.
Madame Cao reported that the lion’s body was like a pony-sized yellow dog’s, its tail tigerlike but longer, and that its face was disturbingly human—much rounder and flatter than that of other animals.
For the entirety of its stay, the lion was kept tethered to the main mast on the boat’s deck, and that’s where it was when a pig was dragged from the village to feed it. According to my grandmother, the pig squealed and struggled all the way to the lion, but then—as soon as its hooves struck the ship’s deck—all the fight left it, and it fell silent and limp. By the time the lion’s handlers used long poles to shove the pig toward the lion for it to sniff, the pig had already died of fright.
One must marvel at such a creature and the effect that it has on other creatures. The great painter Alibai, whose skills were as great as those of the ancient artists, tried to capture this presence after encountering the lion in person,. I eventually managed to buy his painting from my superior Bo Xizhai, who secured it from Alibai’s grandfather.
Unlike his other work, Alibai did not sign this painting with his name, nor give it a title.
There is one final detail to add to this account. While the boat was leaving my grandmother’s village, the lion let loose a pealing roar that echoed like hundreds of gongs. At the sound, the eleven horses in my grandmother’s stable trembled and lay down in the shadows for hours afterward, not daring to make any noise. This is why the lion is called a king.
*Translated by Yi Izzy Yun and John Yun Branscum
*Note: Thank you to Cincinnati Review for originally publishing this piece