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    

Chinese Antique Shishi Foo Dog Hexagonal Bowl - Tongzhi Mark Famille Rose RareAntique 17/18thc Chinese Qing Blanc De Chine Dehua Porcelain Foo Dog JostickPair Of Antique Chinese Foo Lion Statue Form Joss Stick Holders - Kangxi Antique Chinese Blue White Porcelain Vase With Foo LionsOld Chinese Enameled Gilt Silver Statue Of Foo Lion And Bird3 Antique Chinese Blue & White Porcelain Snuff Bottles Foo Dog ------ No ReserveJapanese Cloisonne Vase Foo Lion & Dragon In FlamesIbanez Rg Series Lo-trs Trem, Floyd Rose, Electric Guitar Ce Foo38211 White BodyExquisite Kenneth Lane Kjl Foo Dog Mogul Jewel Turquoise Cab Couture Runway CuffSuperb Antique 19/20thc Chinese Carved Black Stone Foo Dog Ornament FigureAntique Signed Chinese Inlaid Silver Enamel Brass Foo Dog Box Tea Caddy TobaccoLiuligongfang Chinese Crystal Retired 2007 Lion Foo Dog # 781/2800 Rare!2 Antique / Vintage Chinese Turquoise Blue Porcelain Foo Lion / DogsChinese Tibetan Silver Hand-carved 2 Dragon Incense Burner W Hollow Foo Dog LidGenuine Pair Of Blue Glazed Chinese Porcelain Foo Dog Temple Guard FiguresChinese Longquan Celadon Glaze Style Foo Dog Tile In Relief W/ Brass Dragon CaseHerend Foo Dog Sitting Figurine A Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog NrSteiff Original Little Foo Panda Bear Keyring 667688 - New With TagsSilver Copper Dragon Incense Burner & Lid W Foo Dog W Ming Dynasty Xuan De MarkCecil Bishop: Adventures Of Ah Foo...1st Uk Mitre Press 1943Steiff Original Little Foo Panda Bear Keyring 667688 - New With TagsSteiff Original Little Foo Panda Bear Keyring 667688 - New With TagsSteiff Original Little Foo Panda Bear Keyring 667688 - New With Tags14kt Yellow Gold Carved Asian Chinese Foo Fu Dog Lion Green Jade Pendant 6gr. A Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo DogChinese Brass Copper Animal Feng Shui Foo Dog Lion Town House Statue PairChinese Hand Carved Silver Copper Louts Incense Burner W Foo Dog Lid Vintage Chinese Carved Sodalite 2 Foo Lions Pendant 9ct Gold 23.6g 62mmVintage Ceramic Or Pottery Foo Dogs With Ceramic BasesChinese Silver Copper Hand-carved Foo Dogs Incense Burner W Ming Xuande MarkRare Chinese Early Antique Hand Carved Amethyst Foo Dog 320g With Pierced HoleVtg Chinese Export Carved Jade Figural Foo Dog Duette Pendant Bead Necklace 23gFolk Chinese Fengshui Brass Lion Fu Foo Dog Animal Statue Incense Burner CenserRare Cloisonne Handwork Dragon Incense Burner & Foo Dog Lid W Xuande Mark 5" Old Chinese Bronze Cloisonne Town House Foo Dog Lion Beast Ball Statue PairAntique Pair Of 18/19c Bronze Foo Dog Lions Chinese China Glass Temple WorshipVintage Chinese Foo Dog Of Metal With Lapis And Coral StonesVintage Chinese Snuff Bottle Fine Agate Marble Granite Stone With Foo Dogs Beautiful Antique Chinese Brass Seal / Stamp - Winged Lion/beast/foo DogPair Of Chinese Carved Soapstone Foo Dogs E20thcChina Fengshui Old Copper Brass Statue Foo Lion Beast Knocker SculptureChina Chinese Brass Folk Fengshui Foo Fu Dog Guardion Door Lion Statue PairExquisite 19th Century Polychrome Chinese Foo Dogs, Foo Lyons, Qianlong MarkChina Natural Green Jade Fengshui Fu Foo Dog Lion Guardian Door Statue Folk China Cloisonne Enamel Bronze Palace Guardion Foo Fu Dog Lion Statue PairA Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog NrChinese Bronze Dragon Phoenix Foo Fu Dog Lion Pixiu Beast Incense Burner/11 Cm *China Fengshui Old Copper Brass Statue Foo Lion Beast Knocker SculptureRare A Pair Handwork Old Cloisonne Painting Copper Statues - Lion Foo Dog Pair Of Crouching Chinese Dogs Of FooChina Fengshui Old Copper Brass Statue Foo Lion Beast Knocker Sculpture No528China Bronze Censer Fine Copper Foo Dogs Phoenix Peony Incense Burner StatuePair Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Foo Lion Door Knocker Marked Chinese Old Bronze Dragon Dragons Foo Fu Dog Lion Incense Burner CenserVintage Chinese / Japanese Heavily Gilded Tea / Coffee Pot Foo Dog Lid - Ex Con!Japanese Handwork Boxwood Netsuke Carving Foo Dog Ball 5" Chine Fengshui Brass Dragon Beast Foo Dog Lion Statue Incense Burner CenserChina Fengshui Old Copper Brass Statue Foo Lion Beast Knocker SculptureFolk Chinese Fengshui Brass Lion Fu Foo Dog Animal Statue Incense Burner Pretty