Lions, like those other sacred protectors, dragons, appear in all sorts of Asian antiques, including paired statuettes made of jade, marble, porcelain, bronze, and ivory; in paintings and scrolls; in jewelry, netsuke, and belts; and on snuff bottles, vases, plates, and bowls.

It’s a myth that the ancient Chinese had never seen an actual lion when they created their Imperial guardian lion sculptures (often called “foo dogs” or “foo lions” in the West). Asiatic lions were introduced to the Chinese during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.) through Silk Road trade with Central and Southwest Asia, sometimes even as live pets for the emperor. These noble and majestic cats were, in fact, the inspiration for these guardian sculptures.

The reason this myth persists is that guardian lion statues were introduced to the West through the Japanese, who adopted them from Korea and referred to them as “Korean dogs.” Guardian lions were subsequently associated with lion-esque Chinese breeds of dogs, including the Chow Chow and Shih Tzu. The word “foo” or “fu” derives from the Chinese words for “buddha” and “prosperity.” But these figures are never referred to as “foo dogs” or “fu lions” in China. The proper word is “shishi,” which literally translates “stone lion.”

Guardian lions were thought to be protectors of the truth in Buddhism. According to legend, the founder of Buddhism, Sakyamuni, was born pointing to Heaven with one hand and toward earth with the other, “roaring like a lion.” The sculptures themselves, made of marble, granite, bronze, or iron, were believed to have supernatural protective powers. They were traditionally placed outside the imperial palaces, government offices, temples, bridges, and homes of the high-ranking Chinese aristocracy as an indication of their status.

The rank of the official was often denoted by the number curls on the lion's head: Top-level or “first-grade” officials had lions with 13 curls; each grade below had one less curl. Officials below the seventh grade could not keep guardian lions outside their homes. In modern times, though, much less expensive lions are made of concrete and resin, and now guard less sacred spaces like hotels, restaurants, and supermarkets, particularly in “Chinatowns” around the world.

With their wide open eyes and mouths, guardian lions appear to be roaring menacingly, as if to scare off evil spirits. They most often come in pairs, the “yang” male lion to right of the door, playing with an embroidered ball called “xiu qiu” that represents the earth or “flower of life,” and the “yin” female lion to left, holding a lion cub beneath her paw.

The male was thought to guard the outside, while the female kept watch on the interior. The female lion may appear to have her mouth closed, and the two together represent the sa...

It was during the Han Dynasty that the Lion Dance, symbolizing joy and happiness, became an important part of New Year’s celebrations. It was also performed for the consecration of temples, during religious rites, at business openings, and in celebrations of planting and at harvest times.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

Asian Art Museum

Asian Art Museum

You can get happily lost searching through the 10,000 or so objects on the Asian Art Museum's website. For example,… [read review or visit site]

Gotheborg.com

Gotheborg.com

Jan-Erik Nilsson's extensive reference on antique Chinese porcelain. Jam-packed with information (e.g. on porcelain… [read review or visit site]



Most watched eBay auctions    

Fabulous Pair Of Old Chinese White Glazed Foo Dog Statues With Wood StandsSuperb Large Chinese Porcelain Wucai Vase 19th C. Foo-dogPair Of Stunning Large Chinese Silver Filigree & Enamel Foo Dogs - Fu Dogs -rareSuperb Antique 18thc Chinese Qing Qianlong Foo Dogs Famille Rose Porcelain DishPair Antique Silver Gilt Chinese Enamel Vermeil Cloissone Miniature Foo Dogs Beautiful Pair Of Old Chinese Porcelain Vases With Foo Dogs + Writing3 Antique Chinese Jades Jumping Boy & Foo Dogs Qing Dynasty ......... No ReserveAntique Chinese Brown Clay & Enamel "yixing Zisha" Style Teapot Foo Dog/flowersJudith Leiber Foo-dog Handmade Multi-colour Minaudiere~ "new In Box"Antique Vintage Chinese Iron Metal Foo Dog Stash Box Lidded Asian SculptureUnusual Pair Of Antique Chinese Cizhou Style Glazed Statues Of Foo Dogs Nice Pair Of Antique Chinese Blue And White Vases With Foo LionsNirvana Super Rare Heart-shaped Cd Back Catalogue Box Set Kurt Cobain Grunge FooAntique Japan Menuki Meiji Shakudo Sterling Gold Carved Foo Dog EarringsAmy Kahn Russell Coral And Cinnabar Foo Dog Sterling Silver PendantVintage Rare Toshikane Painted Japanese Lion Foo Dog Porcelain Lapel Pin - NrAntique Pair 2 Chinese Cast Gilt Bronze Shi Lion Foo Dog Temple Guardian StatueChina 1800's Qing Bovine Bone Carved Buddha Buddhistic Lion Pug Chow Foo Dog YqzAntique 19c Chinese Qing Blue White Foo Dog Lion Porcelain Opium Pillow Headrest Pair White Foo Dogs Vintage No Chips Or Cracks Antique Chinese Silver/brass Filigree Enamel Clossoine Dragon Foo Dog W/ Ball Antique Chinese Hetian Nephrite Jade Pixiu & Foo Dog Belt Buckle Garment HookOld Chinese Nephrite Celadon Jade Carved Statue Cute Foo Dog 18/19thcYoshimi K Foo Dog Not Signed Rare!Nirvana Nevermind Sessions Nm!!! Super Rare Eu Press In Bloom Lithium Foo FightrArchaic Chinese Bronze Foo Dog: Temple Or Palace Vase Top? 4 & 1/2 InchesCochin Style Pottery Colorful Porcelain Evil Gold Ingot Foo Dog Lion Fine Old Chinese China Foo Lions Dogs Tapestry SignedBig Old Chinese Celadon Nephrite Jade Foo Dog Statue 19thc.top Quality No Res.Minicraft 1/72, Lot Of 2, B-24m Mama Foo Foo And B-24 D Liberator The GoonA Large And Good 19c. Chinese Famille Rose Porcelain Foo Lion PlanterVintage Foo DogsBeautiful Vintage Porcelain Foo Dogs Book Ends20th C. Chinese Sancai Foo Lion Censer6‘ Chinese Fengshui Brass Fu Foo Dog Guardiuon Lian Head Mask Door Knocker Patrick Swayze& Wesley Snipes Hand Signed Photo, Film "to Wong Foo,...", 1995 Chinese Folk Fengshui Bronze Copper Fu Foo Dog Lion Animal Beast Statue SealOld Antique Chinese Jade Hand-carved Incense Burner & Foo Dog Lid3 Antique Chinese Export Enamel & Brass Foo Lion Dogs Sculptures & Snuff BottleHerend -chinese -foo Dog-in Pairs-right And Left-mediumSoap Stone Burnt Red Foo Dog Lion Statue Bookends 5‘ Chinese Fengshui Folk Brass Fu Foo Guardion Lion Beast Head Door Knocker Free Shipping!!!a Pair Chinese Carved Jade & Silver Dragon Foo Dogs StatueHerend Foo Dog #5309Antique Stoneware Pottery Japanese Foo Dog Figurine Moriage Gold Signed MaruniRock Crystal - Foo Dog (sides) Snuff Bottle W/small DishAntique Japan Japanese Foochow Foo Chow Black Lacquer Trinket Box Vintage Mini Antique Radio Play Me Pencil Sharpener Foo En Espana Made In Spain Antique Chinese Stone Snuff Bottle / Unakite-lapis / Foo Dogs / Old CollectionGuitar Pick Foo Figthers Dave Grohl, BlackChinese Pair Of Tibet Silver Dragon Jade Foo Dog StatueOld Japanese Kutani/satsuma Moriage Porcelain Shishi Foo Lion/dog Figure OkimonoAllom China 1843 Hand Col Print. Rice Sellers At Military Station Tong-chang-fooVintage 1950's Rare Ugo Zaccagnini Italian Art Pottery Foo Dog Statue SculpturePair Of Blue Foo Dogs 8", Asian Chinese Post 1940, Marked Porcelain PotteryChinese Old Silver Cai Carve Foo Dog Ball Finger Buddha Bixie Thumb RingGlass - Foo Dogs Triple Overlay Glass Snuff Bottle Agate - Foo Dog (sides) Snuff Bottle W/small DishVintage Heavy Solid Brass Foo Dog Door Stop / Bookend 10+ Pounds!Vintage Chinese Porcelain Turquoise Temple Foo Dog Figurine