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]

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    

Antique Chinese Gold Gilded Metal Carved Salmon Red Coral Foo Dog Clips 18 GramsAntique Chinese Silver Turquoise And Enamel Statue Of A Foo Horse, Marked 825.Fine Antique Chinese Signed Pewter Incense Burner Censer Perfumer W Foo DogVtg Chinese Export Hand Carved Fluorite Ring Handled Foo Dog Lidded Vase LflFine Pair Antique Chinese Porcelain Foo Dog Figures 19th C. 10 In 25.4 CmVtg Chinese Export Carved Pink Rose Quartz 7" Kwan Yin W Foo Dog Sculpture LflFine Antique Chinese Porcelain Foo Dog Figure Turquoise Glaze 19th C. 12.25 InAntique Chinese Silver Enamel Foo Dog Carved Pink Green Grey Tourmaline Bracelet2 Export Sancai Glazed Mantle Porcelain Figures Buddhistic Lions Foo Dogs YqzA Rare Email Sur Biscuit Chinese Porcelain Sancai Foo DogCarved 19th C Chinese Celadon Jade Toggle Pendant, Foo Dog & PupAuthentic 18th / 19th C Ancient Antique Ning Xia Foo Dog Carpet 4x7 Rarity NrOld Chinese Pottery Foo Dog Belt Winged God Roof Tile PlaqueGiant 13 In Chinese Japanese Gilt Imari Porcelain Lidded Foo Dog Incense BurnerFabulous Vintage Pair Of Blue Turquoise Chinese Foo Dog 10” Figures Statues Rare Chinese Gold Gilt "foo Dog" Carved Wood Figure Circa 1860 - No ReserveLarge 19th Century Chinese Foo Dog BookendsChinese Folk White Copper Silver Fengshui Evil Foo Dog Lion Beast Statue PairFine 19c Antique Chinese Carved White Jade Toggle Pendant Lion Foo DogsThe Complete Foo! By Robert Crumb! Bijou Collectors Series#1! Rare! Vf! Nr!A Pair Chinese Handwork Old Cloisonne Painting Copper Statues - Lion Foo DogHarari Silk Tank Scarf Pants Tank Foo Dogs Peonies Large Extra LargeSilver Copper Dragon Incense Burner & Lid W Foo Dog W Ming Dynasty Xuan De MarkVintage Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Dragon Kirin StatueAntique Chinese Export Carved Jade Censor Incense Burner W/ Foo Lion Dog Finial Signed Japanese Satsuma Koro With Warriors And Foo DogsTibet Silver Red Jade Dragon Phoenix Ball Foo Fu Dog Guardion Lion Pair StatueVintage Chinese Turquoise Blue Porcelain Guardian Fu Foo Lion Dog FigurineVtg Chinese Export Honey Jade Figural Foo Dog Bead Tassle Charm Ornament AmuletAntique, Old, Vintage Wooden Temple Foo DogChinese Foo Dog StatueVc5: Vintage Japanese Pottery Fu Lion Of Kutani Ware, Foo Dog2. Vintage Estate Signed Ben Amun Oriental Bead Necklace Figure Riding Foo Lion Chinese Bronze Jade Emperor Royalty Twist Dragon Ball Foo Fu World SculptureChinese Brass Copper Animal Feng Shui Foo Dog Lion Town House Statue PairBronze Carved Eight Immortals Incense Dragon Burner & Foo Dog Lid W Xuan De MarkA Set Six Pieces Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Seals / StampsRare Lot 4 X Antique Chinese Signed Yixing Tea Pots W/ Bats, Foo-dog, ButterflyLucky Chinese Fengshui Pure Brass Guardian Foo Fu Dog Lion Statue PairRare Pair Of 7-1/4" Antique Chinese Foo Dog StatuesAntique Chinese Jade Carved Figural Group - Mother & Baby Foo Dogs W Stand, MingA Pair Chinese Carved Jade & Silver Dragon Foo Dogs StatueeVintage Foo Dog Lion Figure Yellow/green On Brown Base Beautifully Hand-carved Natural Old Jade Statue -foo DogsChinese Feng Shui White Copper Kirin Foo Dog Lion BeastBeautifull A Pair Chinese Carved Jade & Silver Dragon Foo Dogs StatueChinese White Copper Imitation Amber Dragon Phoenix Foo Fu Dog Lion Sculpture #5Allom China,sowing Rice,soo- Chow- Foo,1850,s, Hand Colored EngravingVintage Black Laquer Abalone Inlay Asian Japanese Lion Foo Dog Jewelry Box Antique Asian Green Foo Dog Statue Made Into A Lamp Gorgeous With New Lamp ShadeFoo Dogs Black Statutes - Stone?A Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog NrTibet White Copper Dragon Phoenix Green Jade Foo Fu Dog Lion Ball Statue PairBronze Carved Eight Immortals Incense Dragon Burner & Foo Dog Lid W Xuan De MarkLucky Chinese Fengshui Pure Brass Guardian Foo Fu Dog Lion Statue PairAntique Chinese Fu Dog Foo Dog Incense Burner Great Patina Broken LegA Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo DogPair Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Foo Lion Door KnockerFoo Dog Ginger JarLululemon Men's Black Kung Foo Pants Sz S Small Guc