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    

Marked, Pair Chinese Porcelain Oriental Antiques Foo-foo Dog Blue And White VasePair Blue Chinese Foo Dogs Large!! Pair Of Antique 19th C. Chinese Blue Foo Dog Porcelain Lidded Bowls Gnomeacres Little Bunny Foo Foo Sock Yarn 2 Skeins Hand Dyed Merino BlendNice Pair Of Antique Chinese Dehua Blanc De Chine Foo Dogs Qing19th C. 30 Cm Chinese Famille Verte Porcelain Vase With Foo-lions.Antique Chinese Export Asian 18c Pair Of Porcelain Foo Dog Covered JarsStunning Antique Chinese Lacquer Folding Dragon Shelf Foo ChowVintage Chinese Ginger Jar Malachite Post 1900 Foo Dogs Lions Asian Japanese Rare Antique Chinese Qing Dynasty Bronze Vase Guan Yin Riding Dog Of Foo MarksAntique Chinese Roof Tile Stoneware Foo Lion Dog W Warrior Statue On StandPair Antique Late 19th Century (c1900) Japanese Foo Dog/ Lion Vases. ShishiMirrored Pair Of Carved Jade Foo Dogs Lions At Least 35 Years Old Carved Teak Pair Of Large Fine Antique Chinese Canton Vases Famille Rose, Foo Dogs & DragonsVintage Used Japanese Boy's Omiyamairi Kimono Shishi Lion Foo Dog CraneGreat Painted 19th Century Chinese Export Plate With Foo DogsAntique Translucent Chinese Shoushan Soapstone Seal Stamp Carved W. Foo DogAntique Chinese 17th 18thc Porcelain Wucai Plate Chrysanthemum Foo Famille VerteAuthentic Inknburn Foo Dog Pullover In Women's Sz Xl!Rare Chinese Silver Guardian Lion Foo Fu Dog Statue PairPair Chinese Old Home Fengshui Silver Guardian Lion Foo Fu Dog Male FemalestatueJade Green Colored Stone Foo Dog Carved Statuette Figurines Lot Of 4Vintage Metal Bronze? Lamp Base With Sea Maiden And Foo DogAmazing ! Huge Green Jade Fu Dog Foo Dog Guardian Gemstone Carving Sculpture Antique Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Censor 19th Century With MarkRare Old Chinese Tibet Silver Carved Guard Foo Dogs Lion Pair StatuesRare Chinese Antique Life Like Metal Sculpture Fat Foo Dog Must See No Reserve!.4" Old Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Lion Beast Head Statue Tobacco Pipe Tube SmokingChinese Red Bronze Foo Dog Statue Antique Chinese Sterling Silver & Coral Bracelet,hallmark Bee,c1910,foo DogslionRodney Choy Foo 2004 Topps Heritage Chrome Black Refractor Rc #thc61 8/552013 $2 Star Note Consecutive Pair # Foo370191* - 92* Ch-gem/unc - 640 K Print !Phra Somdej Nak Prok, Lp Foo Wat Bang Samak Temple, 100%genuine Thai AmuletChinese Animal Feng Shui Foo Dog Lion Town House Statue One PairA Pair Handwork Old Cloisonne Painting Copper Statues - Lion Foo DogRare Chinese Silver Guardian Lion Foo Fu Dog Statue PairPair Of 6 Inch Tall Foo Dogs - Cobalt Blue And White Glazed Marked 19802 Chinese Foo Dog Porcelain Blue Glaze 1930s To 1940s? Mark China 7 3/4 Old PairVintage Pair Of Soapstone Foo Dogs Book EndsA Pair Handwork Old Cloisonne Painting Copper Statues - Lion Foo DogAntique Chinese Porcelain Blue Glaze Foo Lion Dog Statue Shishi Ceramic ChinaChina Fengshui Old Copper Brass Statue Foo Lion Beast Knocker Sculpture No528Large Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Foo Lion Door Knocker2013 $2 Star Note Consecutive Pair # Foo370193* - 94* Ch-gem/unc - 640 K Print !Rare Cloisonne Handwork Dragon Incense Burner & Foo Dog Lid W Xuande MarkHand Carved Fluorite Incense Burner W/ Foo Dogs & Dragon Lidded Jar & StandA Pair Handwork Old Cloisonne Painting Copper Statues - Lion Foo DogVintage Foo Dog "4 Guarding Lions" On Carved Wood Column (excellent Condition)Vintage Australian Army Navy Air Force "foo Says" Stories / Puns Book - SydneyA Set Six Pieces Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Seals / StampsA Pair Chinese Carved Jade & Silver Dragon Foo Dogs StatueV-fine Carved Chinese Shoushan Stone Figure Of Foo-foo Dog FamilyRare Chinese Silver Guardian Lion Foo Fu Dog Statue PairRare Chinese Silver Guardian Lion Foo Fu Dog Statue PairChinese Red Bronze Foo Dog Statue Vintage Brass Cloisonne Gilt Handwork Foo Dog Incense Burner & Lid W Xuande MarkJapenes Turquoise Blue Foo Doog Vnt Figurin. Prox Size From Base H 8 1/2.Vtg Pair Of Small Carved White Jade Stone? Asian Foo Dogs Wood Fitted Stands SgnMaitland-smith Ltd Hand Made Chinese Foo Dog Statue 15"x6.5"x8" 10 Lbs 11 Oz.Courtney Love Nirvana Foo Fghters Kurt Cobain Hole 43 Great Rare Clippings