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“Do you wanna build a snow-lion?”: Fun with snow in medieval China

By Elizabeth Smithrosser

The annual snowfall across much of medieval China provided various opportunities for fun and games.

Much of China grows bitterly cold in the winter. As temperatures drop well beyond freezing, its scenery is transformed: rivers, lakes and even the coastal stretch of the ocean become solid sheets of ice, while a persistent frost furnishes both the streets of the city and the fields and vegetation beyond it with an icy tint.

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This seasonal scenery was evidently a fascination among pre-modern Chinese writers, given that the surviving corpus of poetry and prose overflows with exuberant descriptions of winter wonderlands.

Painting of a snow-covered bamboo plant, 13th–14th century. Courtesy Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art. For the story behind this painting and a translation of the inscription, see https://asia.si.edu/object/F1956.22a-e/

Some of these stories and poems go beyond the scenery to detail the everyday hardships such low temperatures brought with them.

One famous Tang poem entitled “The Old Charcoal-Seller” vividly describes the plight of an elderly peddler who is overjoyed upon awakening to see there has been heavy snowfall overnight: cold weather like this always meant a greater demand for his wares. Making charcoal involved long hours of back-breaking and smoke-filled work hacking up wood on the mountain before treating it with fire, yet the asking price was highly weather-dependent. The poet takes care to tell us that on an average year this particular charcoal-seller makes barely enough to get by. But this night of heavy snowfall meant he could finally expect to be able to sell his wares for a decent price.

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And so the old charcoal-seller sets off to the city flushed with optimism and the wintry air, his ox dragging along as much charcoal as the wagon could bear. After a full morning of trudging through snow, the pair arrive at the city marketplace.

Sculpture of an ox-drawn cart, 7th–8th century.

Unfortunately, the charcoal-seller’s day at the market does not end well. Before long, a palace attendant arrives on the scene brandishing an official permit, thereby rendering the old man powerless to object as the entire wagon is bought up for a fraction of the asking price.

The poet, Bai Juyi (772–846), here makes a thinly-veiled comment on an unfair economic system which permitted certain social groups other than those who put in the actual work of producing raw materials and goods to reap the eventual benefits. The ironies are palpable: this old man who sells charcoal, the very product that keeps people warm in the winter, shivers from start to finish in his single-layered, unpadded jacket – we are informed this is all he can afford – yet his livelihood depends on low temperatures, and so he is just as delighted at the sight of snowfall as those royals his charcoal is taken away to warm up, albeit for painfully different reasons.

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A late imperial depiction of poet Bai Juyi (772–846).

The poem finishes with the image of the peddler and his ox aghast and alone in the snow as his wagon is carted off by the attendant’s horse. Today, however, we shall follow the charcoal on through the palace gates. For those of affluent means and thicker jackets, the annual transformation of the scenery was a spectacle that could be enjoyed at a distance in comfort. While to the charcoal-seller a foot of snowfall meant a crowd of shivering customers clamoring for charcoal, to the royal family living within the palace compound, snow provided a plethora of opportunities for fun and games.

A few centuries later, we get a glimpse of such a scene from Zhou Mi (1232–1298) in his reminiscences of the Southern Song capital in today’s Hangzhou, Zhejiang province. He reports that, when there was snowfall in the palace compound, the household staff would prepare a display of snow sculptures to the delight of the royal family.

According to Zhou, the back courtyard of the “Tower of Brilliant Expansiveness” presented the perfect spot for a “snow appreciation” gathering. When the royals arrived at the Tower, they were greeted by the charming sight of “snow-lions, big and small, all dressed up in golden bells and colorful silken threads.”

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Earthenware lion, 11th–13th century. Photo courtesy the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art

The lion seems to have been the go-to shape for pre-modern Chinese snow sculptures. For obvious reasons, there are no surviving examples of them, but we can easily guess how they would have looked from contemporaneous artistic representations and lion sculptures in mediums less prone to melting, such as metal, jade, or clay.

Depictions of lions in Song dynasty China were highly stylized and heavily influenced by Buddhist art and representations of mythical beasts. By this time, pairs of large stone lions had begun to be installed as guardians at the entrance to temples and other buildings. It would not be surprising if these snow-lions in the posterior courtyard of the Tower of Brilliant Expansiveness were mirrored by less intransient counterparts dotted around the palace compound.

Lions also tended to be depicted in a crouching or sitting position, a shape which no doubt lent itself well to creating a stable, free-standing sculpture that could be constructed from large balls of snow, in a similar way to the familiar three-snowball snowman shape.

Zhou goes on to describe how snow flowers, snow-lamps and snow mounds were also made on site and decorated with little pastries, while platters of assorted delicacies and heated wine were presented for the enjoyment of the party as they admired the artificial snowscape.

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Snow-lamps in Japan. Photo by Ai Amo / Wikimedia Commons

Interestingly and in contrast to the scene we find in Bai Juyi’s poem, despite the indulgence and frivolity of this party, the attendees of this “snow appreciation” gathering do not seem to have lost sight of the fact that the very wintry weather that had enabled their picturesque snowscape would inevitably spell hardship for others less fortunate than themselves. Zhou Mi informs us that the party doubled as an occasion for charity: at this time, orders were made to withdraw money from the coffers to distribute among serving troops and the poor of the capital, while noble and rich families beyond the palace walls would likewise distribute money and rice among the local poor.

Let us hope that some of it reached the local charcoal-sellers.

Today, the city of Harbin in Northeast China is home to an enormous annual ice and snow sculpture display on a much larger scale than that described by Zhou Mi:

Elizabeth Smithrosser is a PhD Student in Chinese Studies at the University of Oxford. Click here to view her university page.

Click here to read more articles by Elizabeth Smithrosser

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