Wednesday, June 27, 2007

The Porcelain Lion (Guangdong)

There was once a skilled potter who was poor at managing his money and ended up working for a skinflint of a man in that man's large pottery shop.

Now one day this potter scooped up some rather unusual-looking clay from a nearby field, carried it over to the shop, and sculpted it into the shape of a lion. He applied glaze and fired it in the shop kiln. The result was a very realistic porcelain lion. However, while taking it out of the kiln, he touched a very hot place on the lion and dropped it on the shop floor, chipping off its left ear. The shop owner saw what had happened.

"You idiot!" he screamed. "You ruined a piece of merchandise. That comes out of your pay!"

At the end of the day, the potter took the slightly damaged porcelain lion home with him instead of his daily wage. He told his wife all about it and smiled, holding up the porcelain lion he had made.

"You fool! Is this lion going to buy us rice?" she asked, infuriated at what she thought to be her husband's stupidity. She then grabbed the lion from his hands and flung it out the window, where it landed nose first in some soft soil.

A year passed, and the lion still remained outside the potter's hut, partially buried in the dirt, unwanted and ignored.

One day the potter didn't feel well and asked his wife to go to the shop and tell his boss that he wouldn't be in for the day, which she did. His boss would have none of it, though. He was short on workers that day, so he went to the man's home and ordered the poor man to go to the shop. The potter sighed, dressed and headed out the door.

Just as the two men were on their way to the shop, a very wealthy man in a sedan chair arrived and ordered his men to halt in front of the potter's house. He motioned to the potter and his boss to stop as his men lowered his chair.

"Which one of you lives here?" he asked. When the potter replied that it was his home, the wealthy stranger then said, "Well, then, it is you who owns that lion sticking out of the ground. Is that not so?"

"Yes, sir," answered the potter. "I own that lion, but why do you ask?"

"Sell it to me!" he cried, startling both the potter and the shop owner, with the latter's eyes dancing and twinkling now that money was discussed.

The shop owner smiled his oiliest smile and said, "Sir, please come with me to my shop. I have a wide selection of porcelain lions and elephants to choose from. Why, look at this lion. It's been lying in the mud and--"

"No, I'm not interested. I want only that lion."

"Very well," said the potter, digging the lion out from the dirt. "It's yours for fifty ounces of silver but under one condition."

"Very well. What's your condition?"

"Tell me why you must have this porcelain lion."

"All right, " said the stranger. "Seeing as how we have a bargain, I guess there's no harm in telling you. That lion is not made of ordinary clay. It is made from a meteorite."

"Meteorite!" scoffed the owner. "How do you know?"

The stranger leaned forward and looked at the shop owner with his odd, glaring eyes. He gave the shop owner a grim smile. "Believe me," he said. "I know," and the shop owner could see that he indeed did. "I have been searching for an animal made out of such clay for a long time, " he continued, "and now at last I have found one. Such a porcelain creature has mighty powers. For one thing, if I perform a certain spell, the lion has the ability to locate any object anywhere in the world."

The shop owner suddenly grabbed the lion from the potter and snapped, "Give me that! You're nothing but a liar and a thief. That figurine came from my own shop! It has my stamp on it!"

The two men proceeded to struggle for the lion.

"Hey!" cried the potter. "You let me keep the lion instead of giving me my wages that day! It's mine!"

Both men huffed and snorted while wrangling with the porcelain lion in front of the stranger, who was growing quite weary.

"Sir," grunted the shop owner, "kindly give me a hand here and help me get this lion away from this shameless liar and thief! The lion's yours for forty ounces of silver!"

The stranger snapped his fingers, and his two burly servants immediately snatched the lion away from the potter's arms. For good measure, the shop owner and the two servants pitched the potter headfirst into the dirt and left him there. The four of them, with the stranger clutching the porcelain lion, then left together.

Now far away from the potter's hut, the shop owner asked the stranger, "Tell me, can you really find something like lost treasure with this lion?"

"Indeed, I can."

"Would you perhaps let me see how the lion can find things?" asked the shop owner. "Would you let me see as you try him out?"

The wealthy stranger sighed and said, "What exactly did you have in mind? Did you happen to lose something?"

"No, not I, but the Song Emperor did! One of the Song Emperor's ships foundered off the coast not far from here, and the ship sank with his imperial seal aboard."

"The imperial seal? Finding it would make one fabulously wealthy," said the stranger. "Do you have an idea where the ship went down?"

"I can show you if you agree to split the imperial reward with me," the shop owner replied.

The stranger agreed. The two men headed for the seashore, where just the two of them rented a large rowboat and headed out into the bay. Soon the buildings lining the shore looked like tiny blocks.

"This is probably the spot," said the shop owner.

The stranger set the porcelain lion at the bow of the boat and chanted:

"Precious lion,
Precious lion,
Enter the sea,
And recover the Song Emperor's seal for me!"

The two men then watched the porcelain lion. It shuddered. Then its ceramic fur bristled. It next snorted and snarled. The lion stood up on its hind legs and dove into the sea. The stranger and shop owner looked at each other, smiled and waited.

Before long, a small whirlpool appeared near the small boat. The porcelain lion's head popped out of the swirling water, the Song Emperor's seal in its mouth. The two men rubbed their hands with delight when the lion hopped back aboard with the seal.

"We're rich! We're rich!" they both shouted. "We're going to be rich!"

The lion, meanwhile, now cold, wet and uncomfortable, began shaking the salt water off its fur. As it did so, the ocean suddenly became violent. The sea rocked the boat as a tiger would a monkey on its back. Another whirlpool grew and grew and then sucked the boat and its three occupants down into its funnel. The stranger and the shop owner were, of course, never seen again, and as for the porcelain lion, it still rests undisturbed on the floor of the sea to this very day, awaiting the next treasure hunter who might want to use its services.


Chen & Chen,
Hanjiang gushilin, p. 180-183

Comets and shooting or falling stars, to the ancient people of China, were awesome and potent phenomena to behold. The ancient Chinese believed that for the creation of every new star in heavens, a child was born on earth; likewise, for every meteor observed, someone on earth was slated to die (Zheng, 25). The lion, an animal introduced to China as a gift to an emperor, was adopted by Buddhism as a guardian of Buddhist law. Thus, stone lions can be seen outside temples (Ong, 235-236; Williams, 253-254). Motifs: B562.1, "Animal shows man treasure"; D1620.2.4, "Automatic statue of lion"; and Q467 , "Punishment by drowning."

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