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    

Marked Large 24.5cm/9.6" Chinese Cloisonne Antique Oriental Washer, Foo-dog! G132: Chinese Iron Incense Burner Of Popular Foo Dog Statue With Name Of An EraChinese Scholar Writing Box Children & Fireworks Foo Dogs Ho Ho Birds Qing Rare Large Antique 20thc Chinese Terracotta Red Foo Dragon Jardiniere Planter Pot NrChinese Republic Tea Pot Iron Red Dog Of Foo & Inscription19th C. Chinese Silk Metallic Thread Hanging, Foo Dogs, Birds & Wave DecorationVintage Chinese Cloisonne Covered Box With Foo Dog FinialGiant Chinese Silver Gilt Enamel Stones Coral Foo Dog Statue / Pocket Watch HoldVintage Needlepoint Pillow Foo Dog EucAntique Chinese 'shen Shao An' Foo Chowdragon 5 Claw Silver Inlay Lacquer Vases G131: Chinese Iron Incense Burner Of Popular Foo Dog Statue With Good Taste 2 Antique Chinese Silver Snuff Bottle Waist Charm/pendant -w/ Foo Dog Screw TopVintage Foo Dogs Large Turquoise Blue Pair Lions Feng Shui Bookends 12.5"Hasbro G.i. Joe Adventure Team Danger Of The Depths-kung Foo Grip! New In Box!Chinese Yixing Teapot Bell Shape Foo Dog Finial & Calligraphy -signed Seal MarksAntique Chinese Cloisonne Box With Lid Large Foo Dog HandleHerend Foo Dog Sitting FigurineEarly 20c Chinese Famille Rose Porcelain Fu Foo Lion Dog Plate MarkedEarly 20c Chinese Foochow Foo Chow Fuzhou Fujian Lacquer Scholar Box MarkedAntique/vintage Silver Chinese Hinged Trinket Box Foo DogA Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog Nr Gd9249Old Chinese Ancient Dynasty Feng Shui Bronze Foo Fu Dog Lion Head Door Knocker 12pc Lindy Ice Jig Assortment Darter, Rattln Flyer, Frostee Spoon, Foo Walleye Fengshui Chinese Pure Brass Wealth Foo Fu Dog Guard Lion Ball Statue PairAntique Chinese Export Famille Rose Cabinet Vase - Foo Dogs & Basket Of FlowersFolk Chinese Palace Brass Fengshui Guard Pixiu Foo Fu Dog Door Lion Statue Pair China Family Feng Shui Copper Brass Door Foo Dogs Talisman Lion Beast Pair Folk China Cloisonne Enamel Bronze Palace Guardion Foo Fu Dog Lion Statue 2 Vtg Chinese Hp 12.25" Rose Medallion Porcelain Jar/bottle/vase Foo Dog HandlesChinese Animal Feng Shui Foo Dog Lion Town House Statue One PairRare Chinese Silver Guardian Lion Foo Fu Dog Statue PairSaarbrucken 1979 By Frank Zappa (cd, Jul-1991, Foo-eee Records)A Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog Nr Rare Cloisonne Handwork Dragon Incense Burner & Foo Dog Lid W Xuande Mark Gd9529A Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog Nr Gd9249 15cm Marked Chinese Bronze Dragon Dragons Foo Fu Dog Lion Incense Burner CenserA Set Six Pieces Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Seals / Stamps Gd6266Fine Antique Japanese Netsuke Foo Dog W/ Pup/baby China Chinese Brass Folk Fengshui Foo Fu Dog Guardion Door Lion Statue PairChinese Folk White Copper Silver Fengshui Evil Foo Dog Lion Beast Statue Pair Colin Foo Flyfishing Ltd Art Print Mint Coa Certificate Watercolour China Natural Green Jade Fengshui Fu Foo Dog Lion Guardian Door StatueRare Chinese Silver Guardian Lion Foo Fu Dog Statue Pair Folk China Cloisonne Enamel Bronze Palace Guardion Foo Fu Dog Lion Statue Vintage Chinese Carved Stone "foo-frog" Snuff BottleRare Cloisonne Handwork Dragon Incense Burner & Foo Dog Lid W Xuande Mark Gd9529Antique Gilt Foo Dogs Beautiful Pair!Large Pair Foo Dogs Beautil Set!Early 20th C Chinese Luminescent Carved Amber Resin "scholar/foo Dog"Chinese Silver Copper Hand-carved Foo Dogs Incense Burner W Ming Xuande Mark Large Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Foo Lion Door Knocker PairUnmitigated Audacity By Frank Zappa (cd, Jul-1991, Foo-eee Records)Chinese Tibet Silver Carved Guard Foo Dogs Lion Pair StatuesChinese Feng Shui Copper Silver Fu Foo Dogs Lion Pair Jade StatueChinese Tibetan Silver Hand-carved 2 Dragon Incense Burner W Hollow Foo Dog LidCollect Chinese Ancient Bronze Beast Unicorn Lion Foo Fu Dog Buckle Statue NrPair Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Foo Lion Door KnockerChina Old Handwork A Pair Cloisonne Copper Statue--lion Foo Dog White Copper Silver Two Dragon Play Bead Foo Dog Lion Censer Incense BurnerA Set Six Pieces Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Seals / Stamps