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The Lioness (1483), records the visit to China of Paluwan, an ambassador from Samarkand who brought lions as gifts for the Emperor Chenghua. Photo: Rossi & Rossi

Chinese painting of lioness records the giving of exotic animal ‘tributes’ to emperors via the Silk Road

  • Imperial China had a tradition of the emperor being given exotic animals by Asian tributary states, and a painting on show in Hong Kong tells such a story
  • Ambassador Paluwan from Samarkand gave two lions to Emperor Chenghua, but was thwarted by officials when he arrived with more lions as gifts

A centuries-old painting of a lioness on a leash, wearing what can only be described as a woebegone expression and accompanied by two turbaned emissaries to China, offers a glimpse into the fascinating power dynamics behind the ancient exotic-animal trade between the emperor and tributary states along the Silk Road.

The Lioness, measuring over two metres high and nearly three metres wide, is on show at Rossi & Rossi gallery in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong. Believed to be the work of Chinese court artists in 1483, the life-size painting shows Ambassador Paluwan on the left, a representative of Sultan Ahmed Mirza who ruled Samarkand (now in Uzbekistan) at the time, with a lion tamer on the right and the captured beast spanning almost the width of the monumental painting.

This and other visits to China by Paluwan are well recorded in the annals of the Ming dynasty, which described the revival in the 15th century of the long-established practice of gifting exotic animals such as lions to the Chinese emperor.

While they were certainly encouraged by the Ming emperors as tokens of loyalty and adulation, “tributes” were a financial strain for the court, as ambassadors often demanded sizeable monetary awards for their trouble.

The exhibition ‘From the Himalayas to the Heartland’ at Rossi & Rossi gallery in Wong Chuk Hang, Hong Kong. Photo: Rossi & Rossi

In fact, Chinese officials tried to turn Paluwan away when he arrived at the Western border with two lions (gender unspecified), arguing that lions were “useless animals” that should not be accepted.

Yet the ambassador persisted, and appealed directly to the Emperor Chenghua, who rewarded him handsomely and added the lions (which ate two goats a day) to the royal menagerie.

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Thus encouraged, Paluwan and his entourage made their way to Guangdong province in southern China and from there travelled by boat to what today is Malaysia to source more lions for China.

According to the annals known as Ming History, Chinese officials were less than impressed when Paluwan resurfaced in Guangdong several years later with more beasts for the emperor. According to some historians, they were so angry that they appealed to the emperor to write directly to the sultan to ban the gifting of these big cats again.

The emperor had a fondness for lions and the power that they represented, judging by the prose he composed in praise of the beasts that is written on top of the painting (though not in his hand).

The Lioness (1483) depicts its subject’s fur, the clothing of Paluwan, an ambassador from Samarkand (left), and his lion tamer with notable realism, says gallery director Charles Fong. Photo: Rossi & Rossi

According to Charles Fong, gallery director, the painting is also interesting because of the realism with which the lioness’ fur was painted, as well as the envoy’s costumes, looks and mannerisms. The sad look on the lioness’ face is an arresting and poignant symbol.

Nobody knows for sure where the painting was made. It could have been done when Paluwan and his lions were barred by officials at the border.

One theory holds that the painting was sent to the emperor in Beijing to persuade him to say yes to the lions. However, the six birds in the background (magpies, and orioles) suggest that the setting is more likely to be Beijing than the desert landscape in the west.

More pieces from the exhibition ‘From the Himalayas to the Heartland’. Photo: Rossi & Rossi

While the painting bears an imperial stamp, its provenance before 1922 is shrouded in mystery. That year, it was among items seized from a German art dealer and auctioned in France. It later surfaced in the Gulbenkian and Essayan collections, before ending up in a private collection in London.

More recently, it appeared at a Sotheby’s auction in Hong Kong in 2011.

The exhibition also includes antiques representing the diversity of Himalayan art, as well as contemporary paintings by Tsherin Sherpa and Erbossyn Meldibekov.

“From the Himalaya to the Heartlands”, Rossi & Rossi, 11/F, M Place, 54 Wong Chuk Hang Rd, Wong Chuk Hang, Until November 5, 2022.