In a recent published letter exchange
, the writers Lina Mounzer and Mirene Arsanios, from their respective places in Lebanon and the United States, ruminated on the aftermath of the Beirut explosion. They discussed, among many topics, how proximity to trauma affects the day-to-day; cyclical injustice; the communities “living politically fraught lives”; and dogs, or more broadly, animals, in the wake of disaster.
Mounzer posits that we always center trauma on human lives—as we should—but we often disregard the ways in which these ruptures affect animals, plants, and the land. I thought of this as I remembered the little-known fate of a tiny white and nut-brown Pekingese in an 1861 painting
by German artist Friedrich Wilhelm Keyl. The dog, named Looty, appears bright in an obedient upright sit, her strawberry tongue flicked out, face adorably flattened. A nearby vase and collar of bells loom large around her; velvety reds and navy blues evince the opulence of her surroundings. But I am perplexed by her expression, which appears untroubled, neutral. There’s no indication of her recent, harrowing journey—from the ransacked halls of Beijing’s Summer Palace to Queen Victoria’s home—or her role as a symbol of colonial propaganda.
I first came across Looty a few years ago and was instantly taken with her story, which begins with the introduction of her breed in ancient China. (It should be noted that although Looty is referred to as female in this essay, due to the sparse information surrounding Looty’s life, it is unconfirmed what gender the dog actually was.) The Pekingese carry several origin stories: In one more rooted in myth, a lion fell in love with a marmoset and begged the gods to shrink him in size but retain the spirit of his generous heart; in another (more likely) story, it was Buddhist monks who bred wild fleecy dogs to look like tiny lions—symbols of strength and wisdom in the religion. Because of these sacred origins, they were considered revered companions of the Imperial Palace, where they were cared for by eunuchs and slept on silken cushions. Legend has it that anyone who dared to steal or harm them would be killed; court servants had to bow whenever they walked past.
When Anglo-French invaders stormed, looted, and burned the Summer Palace during the Second Opium War in 1860, they found five of these Pekingese dogs guarding the corpse of a lady who had committed suicide upon hearing the pillaging taking place outside. The dogs were brought back to England, the tiniest of them—historians note she weighed around three pounds—was gifted to Queen Victoria, who renamed her “Looty” in reference to the spoils of war.
The renaming sealed her fate as a stolen object of intense fascination. London Illustrated News called her “the smallest and by far the most beautiful little animal in the U.K.” Harpers Weekly noted that she “was a very lonely little creature, the other dogs taking exception to [her] Oriental habits and appearance.” None of these clippings mention that she was among the many artifacts plundered from a flaming palace of corpses. Instead, they promote her as the ultimate symbol of colonial propaganda: cute, harmless, an object that bridges two worlds.