Beijing: "Wanping And The Lugou 'Uncountable Lions' Bridge"

Wanping City
Wanping County

August 9, 2010

From the book: Sights with Stories in Old Beijing *

Editors’ Note:

There is virtually no sight in Beijing that has not a fascinating story or legend attached to it, whether to do with its founding, its architecture or the historical figures associated with it.  This time-honored local lore, still very much alive in the city, weaves marvelous tales around the natural wonders and architectural showpieces of the capital, peopling them with miraculous immortals and imaginatively embroidering their history.

Apocryphal though most of then are, they embody in their story of honest toil and talent and their condemnation of wickedness, a historical reality that all too often is missing from the history books themselves.

Lugou Bridge - The History:

Lugou Bridge, of stone, spanning the Yongding River 15 kilometers southwest of Beijing, is one of the longest ancient arched bridges surviving in North China.  It was first built in 1189 but destroyed by flood in the Kangxi Period of the Qing.  Rebuilt in 1698, the present structure is 266.5 meters long, 7.5 meters wide and supported by eleven arches. 

Along each side is a balustrade, and on each of its 140 balusters is a white marble lion.  There are 485 of these lifelike lions on the whole of the bridge, and as a Beijing saying has it, “The lions on Lugou Bridge are uncountable.”

The bridge was greatly admired by Marco Polo seven hundred years ago.  Guidebooks sometimes refer to the bridge as The Marco Polo Bridge. 

Lugou Bridge and the "Uncountable Lions" - The Story:

There are two balustrades on the bridge, and on each baluster is a white marble lion, the big ones having smaller ones on them.  They are extremely lifelike, either rampant or couchant.  Some thrust their chests to gaze at the sky; some stare fixedly at the bridge; some turn to face their neighbors as if to chat; some fondle their cubs as if softly calling to them.  Each has its own features and how many there are no one can tell.

Legend has it that once a newly-appointed magistrate in Wanping County where the bridge is located would not believe it when he was told that the lions on Lugou Bridge were uncountable.  That can’t possibly be true he said to himself.

One day he summoned all the garrison troops stationed in the county town and said to them, “They say the lions on the bridge are uncountable.  Today I’m sending all of you to count them.  If you can do so, you’ll be rewarded, but mind you all get the same number.”

The soldiers went to the bridge, formed a line and began to count along the balustrades.  They counted with each step they took, each silently to himself.  When they had done they compared the result, and each was different.  When his was reported to the magistrate, he said, “You must do it again.”  So the soldiers went back and did as they were ordered.

This time they did it more carefully, three times in succession, but when they met at the end of the bridge and compared figures, the result was no better.  The magistrate was very angry and gave each of the soldiers a sound telling off.

“If you are not convinced, sir, go and count them yourself,” they retorted.

Easy, thought the magistrate to himself, I will, and see how I’ll treat you when I know the right number!

He took a sedan-chair to the bridge, got out and started counting from the eastern end to the western end and then back again, once, twice – but no matter how many times he counted, he never got the same number once.  Finally he was so tired that sweat poured from his forehead and his back and legs were aching.  He had to give up and retreat.

In bed that night he could not get to sleep: Why are the lions uncountable?  Is it because they can move about on their legs?  At this thought he rolled out of bed and went back to the bridge.

It was midnight, and the world was at peace except for the gurgling of the river beneath the bridge.  The magistrate tip-toed on to the bridge and found to his surprise that all the lions were gamboling about, dashing helter-skelter and jumping on and of the railings, the smaller ones rolling back and forth on the backs of the bigger ones.  The lively scene made him catch his breath, at the sound of which all the lions, big and small, rushed back to their positions on the balusters and crouched there still and silent.

They had in fact been carved by Lu Ban when the bridge was built, and when he had finished them he had given each a blow on the head with his hammer so that they would run about on the bridge at night but never leave it.

This is why, they say in Beijing, "The lions on Lugou Bridge are uncountable."

Lugou Bridge: Jan’s Visit

No, I did not attempt to count the lions. 

Here’s my story:

I took a taxi to Wanping, walked through the gate of the city wall, strolled past the colorful old buildings where I met Yu Hui, 30 and her cousin Han Yi Meng, 18, local girls who agreed to be my guides for the afternoon.

We walked together across the Lugou Bridge, past the uncountable lions, and at the far end of the bridge, found an unlocked gate to a pathway that led down to the scenic riverside.  Eventually, a guard chased us away so we strolled back across the bridge and entered the sculpture park dedicated to the Chinese resistance to the Japanese occupation during World War II.

After a drink and a chat, I met Yu Hui’s mother and young daughter.  All the women then returned home for the evening.  I was sad to see them leave. We had a rampant, bright afternoon together.  Smiling, taking photos, laughing.

I wandered alone through the small town and happily found a lively outdoor Sunday market – butchers, bakers, fish mongers and greengrocers – food aplenty.  At one stall I sampled a Chinese version of pizza.  At another, what else?  I bought a shirt.    

I decided not to linger in Wanping.  I cannot say whether or not the uncountable lions gambol about the bridge after midnight to meet new friends, to chat, to sample the food or to simply enjoy the scenery.

That’s what I do. This aging lion. Every day. After dawn. I gambol about.  There’s always a new bridge to cross.

When I was carved, did someone give me a blow on the head with his hammer? 


* Sights with Stories in Old Beijing.  Foreign Language Press.  Panda Books.  Beijing, China.  2005.

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