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How to identify a true lion in the 13th-century China


In recent times someone presented a lion as tribute. Its head resembled that of a tiger, and its body that of a dog, dark blue in colour. Courtiers thought it did not look like [the lions] in any painting and suspected it was not [a lion]. The envoy who had brought it over then took it to the tiger enclosure. At the sight of it, the tigers all froze with terror, with their heads down and ears back. The “lion” then urinated on their heads; still, none of them dared to move a jot, thereby proving [the tribute] to be a veritable lion. What then are Manjushri’s mount,[1] as depicted by Yan Liben of the Tang Dynasty,[2] and the beasts in popular circuses? Could the tribute be a common lion, and the bodhisattva’s mount one of a kind? It is also said that a lion is extremely powerful and can only be pulled by a dozen men.

* From Zhou Mi 周密 (1232-1298), Guixin zazhi 癸辛雜識 (Wenyuange yingyin Siku quanshu 文淵閣景印四庫全書 vol. 1040, Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), “Xuji xia” 續集下, 12b-13a.

[1] Wenshu 文殊 is a Chinese transcription of the Sanskrit term Mañjuśrī, a bodhisattva associated with wisdom in Buddhism and often depicted as sitting on a lion. [2] Yan Liben 閻立本 (ca. 601-673) was an eminent artist of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) and, despite the scarcity of surviving works, one of the most celebrated painters throughout Chinese history. The painting cited by Zhou Mi in this passage is not found in the surviving paintings attributed to the artist.

Portrait of Manjushri by Ding Guanpeng 丁觀鵬 (fl. 18th century)

Image credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei

Portrait of Manjushri by Yao Wenhan 姚文瀚 (fl. 18th century)

Image credit: National Palace Museum, Taipei


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