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    

Pr Antique Chinese Famille Verte Porcelain Foo DogsFine Large Antique Chinese Celadon & Blue Foo Dog Baluster Porcelain Vase Antique Chinese Bronze Figural Foo Dog SealAntique Chinese Bronze Figural Foo Dog Square SealSuperb Antique Chinese Solid Bronze Jar Or Censer Lid Fine Quality Foo Dog DecorAntique / Vintage Chinese Figural Fu Foo Dog Hinged Bangle Bracelet Gold Filled?Estee Lauder Magical Foo Dog*full*pleasures*solid Perfume 2007~very Collectible Zagg Invisibleshield Tempered Glass Screen Protector For Apple Iphone 6 Plus 5.5Rare Pair Of Antique 19thc Blue Sancai Buddhistic Lions / Foo DogsVintage Bronze Metal Foo Dog Head Asian Door Knocker Architectural Sculpture18-19th C. Chinese Gilt Red Lacquer 18" Wooden Carving Foo Fu Dogs Lions StatueVintage Chinese Blue Turquoise Pair Foo Dog Statues FigurinesA Set Six Pieces Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Seals / StampsAntique Chinese Foo Dog Finial Cloisonne Bronze Koro Censor Signed Pair Of Vintage Rare Porcelain Turquoise Blue Chinese Foo Dogs 8" TallRare Telco Animated Christmas Panda Bear Looks Kind Of Like Kung Foo Panda!Chinese Folk Fengshui Bronze Copper Fu Foo Dog Lion Animal Beast Statue SealChinese Feng Shui Foo Fu Dog Lions Dragons Glazed Ceramic Porcelain Statue PairNirvana Nevermind Swimming Vintage Promo Poster Geffen Cobain Subpop FooFoo Dog Netsuke Signed Handcarved Japan JapaneseTo Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (dvd, 2003)China Bronze Handwork Lotus Incense Burner & Foo Dog Lid W Qing Dynasty MakeA Pair Chinese Carved Jade & Silver Dragon Foo Dogs Statue100% Natural Hetian Jade Hand-carved Statue ---- Foo DogAntique 19thc Chinese Blue White Porcelain Vase Kangxi Foo Dogs 4 MarksAntique Japanese Cow (bos Taurus) Bone Netsuke - Ancient Foo Dog Carving Hn1870#97 Antique Bronze Brass Asian Flask Bottle Butterfly Foo Dog Finials SignedVintage Enesco Sitting Chinese Ming Foo Dog Turquoise Blue Gr Pottery 10” 1940s1 Vintage Chinese Ceramic Foo Dog Or Guardian Lion Size 14" TallBlue Chinese Foo Dog 10 Inch TallChinese Bronze Dragon & Foo Dog Incense Burner & Lid W Ming Dynasty Xuande Mark A Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog NrTwo Early 20th C. Chinese Silk Panels With Pair Of Foo Lions And Flowers100% Natural Shoushan Stone Hand-carved Seals ---- Foo Dog /30Chinese Silver Gilt Bronze Dragon & Foo Dog Incense Burner & Lid W Qianlong MarkAntiques Camphor Wood Foo Dog/chinese Guardian Lion Foo Dog Set Bought On HorchowBrass Royal Palace Evil Guardian Door Foo Dog Lion PairFine Old Chinese Japanese Carved Porcelain Foo Dog Fu Lion Turquoise CarvingSiam China Porcelain Gambling Token Foo Dog Diff Blank Choice 21 Mm Nice A5545Tibet Silver Tangka Carve Foo Dog Lion Kirin Brave Troops Statue Amulet Pendant Old Tibet Silver Jade Dragon Phoenix Ball Foo Fu Dog Guardion Lion Yellow StatuePair Chinese Red Foo Dogs - Solid Asian Animal Guardian Lion Resin Statues A Pair Chinese Feng Shui White Copper Kirin Foo Dog Lion Beast1pcs 26inch 925 Sterling Silver Pearl Chain Necklace Fashion Jewelry Foo62Tibet Silver Red Jade Dragon Phoenix Ball Foo Fu Dog Guardion Lion Pair Statue100% Natural Hetian Jade Hand-carved Seal W Foo Dog /37Free Shipping!!!a Pair Chinese Carved Jade & Silver Dragon Foo Dogs StatueChinese Serpentine Jade Foo Dog Tripod CenserFoo Dogs Japanese Porcelain Stoneware Fish Chopstick Rests Holders Lot 9 Foo Radish SushiPair Of Foo Dogs Fu Dogs Dragons Green, Yellow, RedVintage Chinese Porcelain Blue Foo Dog Figurine Sitting On Temple BrickLot Of 5 Laserdiscs (ld) La Cage Aux Folles 1 & 3, In & Out, To Wong Foo, Free Shipping!a Pair Chinese Carved Jade & Silver Dragon Foo Dogs StatueTibet Silver Tangka Carve Foo Dog Lion Kirin Kylin Beast Statue Amulet PendantCollect Chinese Rare Old Dynasty Palace Bronze Foo Dog Beast Statue Stamp Seal Chinese Fengshui White Copper Evil Animal Fu Foo Dog Lion Pair Seal Statue5cm Folk Chinese Bronze Fengshui Guardian Foo Fu Dog Door Lion Animal StatueChinese Vintage Snow Stone Carving Seal Lucky Animals Foo Dog Pixiu Statue Sl101