A captivating dream prompts a summons for a skilled artist in this story by Yan Lianke, translated by Carlos Rojas
By 1689, in the twenty-eighth year of his reign, the Kangxi emperor had suppressed the Revolt of the Three Feudatories, recovered the territory of Taiwan, and razed the city of Albazin. After most of the Russian tsar’s soldiers in the besieged city had perished from hunger, the tsar sued for peace with the Qing court and signed the treaty of Nerchinsk. In the period that followed, the world was at peace, prosperity beckoned and the emperor’s mood was as bright as the sun and moon. One night, when he was sleeping in the Qingning Palace, the emperor had an uncannily realistic dream of a fox. The fox’s fur was silvery red, its back straight as a rail and its body at the same time slender and sturdy, while its tail was as fluffy as freshly sprouted spring bamboo. When the emperor woke up the next morning, the fox’s elegant image lingered in his mind’s eye like a painting. Since in legends foxes are often associated with coquettish maidens, and the emperor was planning a spectacular celebration for his thirty-fifth birthday, he decided to ask the court’s finest artist to make a painting of this fox in time for the festivities.
That same morning, the emperor told his court officials about his plan at great length. One of the officials informed him that the most skilled artist in all the world was certainly Painter Di, originally from Taiyuan, in Shanxi province. He could draw grass so well that the entire room appeared green, and could sketch flowers with such accuracy that the entire hall became filled with fragrance. Eventually, he reached the point that whenever he painted something, he could even paint out its soul. If he sketched a bird on paper, a bird sitting outside in a tree would fall dead because its soul had been snatched from it; if he daubed a tree on a wall, a tree in the courtyard would wither.
“How could such an excellent painter not be working for the court?” the emperor asked.
The ministers knelt down in front of the emperor and told him that Painter Di had, in fact, previously been based in the imperial palace. Thirteen years earlier, however, Empress Xiaochengren of the Hešeri clan told him to paint her cat, whereupon the cat’s soul was snatched away by the artist’s brush. Fearing the emperor and empress would blame him for the cat’s death, he found an excuse to leave Beijing, and no one had any idea where he had gone.