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    

Late 19th C. Pair Chinese Robin's Egg Blue Foo Lion Joss Stick HoldersFine Old Chinese Carved Lapis Lazuli Foo Dog Carving Scholar Work Of Art #54Very Fine Meiji Period Satsuma Koro With Foo Dog FinialAntique Hand Crafted 2,800ctw Jadeite Jade Foo Dog Dragon Snuff Jar SculptureQing Guangxu Shekwan Shiwan Pottery Enamelled Buddhist Lion Foo Dog Vase Nr YqzA Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog NrAntique 17th/18th Century Foo Lion Carved Wood Cane HandleAntique Porcelain Foo Dogs Made In Japan White Lg Heavy Antique 9.75 Inch Jadeite Jade Or Alabaster Chinese Foo Dog StatuePair Cloisonne Chinese Foo Dogs Playing With Baby And Ball Figurines16th C. Pair Antique Chinese Ming Dinasty Green Glaze Stoneware Foo Lion DogChinese Export Jade Pair Temple Lions Foo Dogs 19th Century, Quality!Chinese Cloisonne Carved Dragon Incense Burner & Foo Dog Lid W Ming Xuande MarkLarge Early 1900's Delft Lidded Ginger Jar W/castle Scene Foo Dog KnobVintage Pair Asian Turquoise Pottery Foo Dogs / Guardian LionsChinese Folk Collection Old Porcelain Station Kylin Foo Dog Lions Censer PairChinese Pottery Foo Dog Accent Table Lamp Light Wooden Scroll Base Silk ShadeAntique Chinese Embroidered Black Silk Panel Gold Foo Dog Bitng Insect Spider Vintage Pair Of Japanese Ceramic Handpainted Foo Dogs Made In JapanUnusually Finely Carved Chinese Shoushan Soapstone Chop Seal Foo Lion & BallAntique Chinese Qianlong Longevity Marked Enameled Foo Dog Porcelain Brush Pot Rare Antique Thai Solid Bronze Lion Foo Dog Asian Beast Figure Gold Gilt 17" NrChinese Blue And White Lobed Porcelain Vase Jar Foo Dogs And CloudsA Set Six Pieces Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Seals / StampsA Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog NrChinese Republic Period Pair Of Porcelain Biscuit Sancai Glazed Foo Lions DogsJapan Kutani Pottery Shi Shi Foo Dog Statue Free Shipping!!!a Pair Chinese Carved Jade & Silver Dragon Foo Dogs Statue2ft Ceramic Foo Dog Guardian Lion Statues Vintage Emerald & Gold Patina #580-1Pair Antique Old 19th Century Chinese Soapstone Carved Foo Dog Stamp, Seal, ChopAntique Foo Dog Pair, Chinese Japanese Original Heavy Cast Iron , C.1900, Nice!China Patriotic Music Hymne Imperial Chinois Foo-teen-loo C1910 Postcard 8" Vintage Sage Green Chinese Temple Guardian Fu Foo Lion Dog OrnamentPair Export Qing Republican Mantle Figures Buddhist Buddha Lions Foo Dogs Nr YqzChinese Copper Carved Foo Dragon Censer Incense Burner18th Century Book China Tartary Pekin Han Choo Foo Canton Macao St Helena 1797Female Mannequin Head, Amt-mannequins, Life Size, Hand Made Head -fooSilver Copper Dragon Incense Burner & Lid W Foo Dog W Ming Dynasty Xuan De MarkChinese Bronze Dragon & Foo Dog Incense Burner & Lid W Ming Dynasty Xuande Mark Blue Chinese Foo Dog Figurine.Vintage Cloisonne Enamel Chinese/japanese Lidded Jar Foo Dog Gold PlatedTibet Silver Red Jade Dragon Phoenix Ball Foo Fu Dog Guardion Lion Pair StatueJapan, Vintage Matchbox Labels, Foo DogVintage Handmade Victorian Era? Angel Riding A Dragon Or Foo Dog Belt BuckleBulk Lot Of Vintage Retro Asian Wares Foo Dog Vases Cork Sculpture Silk BoxPink Rose Agate Jade Foo Dog Sculpture Antique Vintagehand CarvedPair Of Colorful Chinese Foo DogsA Pair Chinese Carved Jade & Silver Dragon Foo Dogs StatueAwesome 15" Huge Antique Foo Dog!Pair Of Chinese Celadon Jade Carved Foo Dogs On Wood Carved BasesSilver Copper Dragon Incense Burner & Lid W Foo Dog W Ming Dynasty Xuan De MarkLucky Chinese Bronze Feng Shui Folk Fu Foo Lion Head Knocker Doorknocker Statue12" White Porcelain Foo LionOld Chinese Brass Bronze? Foo Dog Censor Bowl Planter Hand ChasedFoo Can-new-comedy-stage-kids-clownSpinach Emerald Green Jade Nephrite Foo Dog Chop Seal No InscriptionChinese Foo Dog Good Luck Dragons FigureFeng Shui Foo Dogs - Small Jade Color Mini Statues Guardian Lions Box Of FiveVintage Brass Foo Dog Cane HandleAsian Chinese Fu Foo Dog Lion 11" Statue Figure Feng Shui Guardian Home Decor