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    

Antique Chinese Blue And White Illustrated Square Vase - Foo Dog Lid On StandAntique Green & Yellow Chinese Porcelain Foo Dog Small Finger Bowl Dish PlateAntique 1736 Chinese Famille Rose Qianlong Red Foo Dog Vase Ginger Jar 11"tallAntique Chinese Foo Dog Snuff Bottle Statue Brass With Turquoise & Coral GlassAntique Blue & White Old Chinese Ming Dynasty ? Porcelain Dish Plate Foo Dog NrAntique Chinese - Peking Glass Oriental Bat & Foo Dog Snuff Bottle - Unusual!Late 19th C. Pair Chinese Robin's Egg Blue Foo Lion Joss Stick Holders4.5" Chinese Light Green Jade Foo Dog Lion Statue Sculpture Figurine VintageAntique Vintage Chinese Carved Shoushan Stone Blank Seal - #5 Foo DogAntique Japanese Match Safe Vesta W Compass, Repousse Foo Dog Onagadori ChickenJapanese Meiji Kutani Satsuma Moriage Enamel Foo Dogs16th C. Pair Antique Chinese Ming Dinasty Green Glaze Stoneware Foo Lion DogChinese Fengshui Brass Door Fu Foo Dog Guardion Lion Ball Son Statue PairAntique Chinese Silk Embroidered Sleeve Bands - People Riding Foo Dogs 11 X 24Vintage Figural Japanese Banko Ware Pottery Foo Dog Creamer Pitcher1/6 12 Inch Replicas Gi Joe Kung Foo Grip Life Like Hair Store DisplayVintage Pair Asian Turquoise Pottery Foo Dogs / Guardian LionsA Pair Chinese Cloisonne Copper Statue - Lion Foo Dog NrPorcelian White Foo Dogs Antique Tibetan Nepal Foo Dog Snuff BottleChina Old Wucai Porcelain Evil Fu Foo Dog Fly Wing Beast Kylin Pair.Chinese Folk Collection Old Porcelain Station Kylin Foo Dog Lions Censer PairLg Heavy Antique 9.75 Inch Jadeite Jade Or Alabaster Chinese Foo Dog StatueHotoke Antiques - Antique Japanese Bronze Shishi Foo Lion Incense Burner CensorAntique Tibetan Foo Dog Snuff Bottle Inlaid StonesAntique Pair Brass Dragon / Foo Dog Candle HoldersChinese Copper Carved Foo Dragon Censer Incense BurnerTo Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (dvd, 2003)Antique Vintage Chinese Carved Shoushan Stone Blank Seal - #3 Foo DogAwesome 15" Huge Antique Foo Dog!Antique Ashworth Bros Hanley Chinese Black/red Dragon Foo Dog Plate 10" Vintage Chinese Kirini/foo Dog Statue Hand Painted Porcelain Gorgeous! 12"x10"Japanese Bizen Ware Teapot Hobin By Hotoku Karaoke/ Nice Work/ Foo Dog/ 3388Chinese Folk Collection Old Porcelain Station Kylin Foo Dog Lions PairVintage Chinese Carved Jadeite Jade Foo Dog 2" Figurine 1.5" Chinese Light Green Jade Foo Dog Lion Sculpture Figure Figurine VintageAntique Vintage Chinese Carved Shoushan Stone Blank Seal - #4 Foo DogBeautiful Chinese Porcelain Vase W/ Cover Hand Painted Iron Red Foo Dogs W/ MarkRare Foo Dog 2 Part Item Heavy Covered Dog See Pictures AntiqueVintage Chinese Fu (foo) Dog Statue - Hand Painted Porcelain - Gorgeous! 12"x10"Vintage Cloisonne Enamel Chinese/japanese Lidded Jar Foo Dog Gold PlatedAntique Bronze Temple Pilgrimage Guardian Foo Dog Lion Miniature StatueA Set Six Pieces Chinese Bronze Foo Dog Seals / StampsPair Of Amazing Chinese Lion Fu Asian Foo Dogs Andrea By Sadek, Pastel Statues Blue Chinese Foo Dog Figurine.Silver Copper Dragon Incense Burner & Lid W Foo Dog W Ming Dynasty Xuan De MarkPine And Maple Room Shoo Foo Den Japanese Palace Merriewold Park Monticello NyMade In Japan Pin Cushion Luster Foo Dog Style NrJapan Kutani Pottery Shi Shi Foo Dog Statue Chinese Bronze Dragon & Foo Dog Incense Burner & Lid W Ming Dynasty Xuande Mark Herend Red Fishnet Foo Lion Dog FigurineGuitar Pick Foo Figthers Dave Grohl, BlackTibet Silver Red Jade Dragon Phoenix Ball Foo Fu Dog Guardion Lion Pair StatueChinese Miao Silver Red Jade Foo Dog Guardion Lion Ball Dragon Phoenix Statue Chinese Stone Carved Foo Dog And Cub Chop Seal/stampChinese Cloisonne Enamel Foo Dog Pekinese Shih Tzu Figure Figurine Miniature 2"To Wong Foo, Thanks For Everything! Julie Newmar (dvd, 2002)Old Chinese Fengshui Folk Bronze Foo Dog Guardion Lion Head Mask Door Knocker China Folk Jade Stone Crane Foo Dog Lion Brave Troops Kylin Amulet Pendant G21