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Significance of lions in Chinese culture

Published:Sunday | August 9, 2020 | 12:00 AM
The Foo lion pictured here was discovered in the submerged ruins of Port Royal by Robert Marx.
The Foo lion pictured here was discovered in the submerged ruins of Port Royal by Robert Marx.

The world over, lions are regarded as one of the strongest and most skilful of animals in the animal kingdom. So much so that lions have found themselves immortalised in the mythology, religion, and arts of various cultures throughout history. For example, Egyptians used the lion to represent the ferocious heat of the Sun and was seen in the likeness of Sekhmet, who is the Egyptian goddess known as the Eye of Ra.

In ancient Greece, lions were identified with Greek gods and goddesses because a myth indicates that lions drew their chariots. In Buddhism, the Buddha sits upon the lion as a throne of consistency, strength, and wisdom. Besides strength, other symbolic attributes of the lion include courage, power, royalty, dignity, authority, dominion, justice, wisdom, and ferocity.

Across Asia, the lion has found itself a sentinel at the entrances to imperial palaces, imperial tombs, government offices, temples, and the homes of government officials and the wealthy and are believed to have powerful mythic protective qualities and guard the people in the building or on the compound that they are protecting.

Chinese guardian lions, commonly called stone lions in China and sometimes called a Foo dog or Foo lion in the West, are symbolic sculptures of the Asiatic lion. The Asiatic lion, in comparison to its African cousin, is slightly smaller in size and has a very short mane. They have a thicker coat, a longer tail tassel, and an abdominal skin fold absent in African lions. It is said that these lions were once found anywhere from the Middle East to India but now only exist in Gir National Park in India.


So how did a lion become such an important part of the Chinese landscape you might ask? The concept of the Foo lion originated and became popular in Chinese Buddhism. In Buddhism, the lion is believed to have special powers that could repel negative energy and provide protection. They also represent peace and are believed to impart calmness on to anyone who bears their mark. Conversely, they are also said to represent energy as well as calmness.

While the Foo lions were inspired by the Asiatic lions, the artistic rendering is completely different. The lions that are carved out of stone or cast from bronze typically feature bulging eyes, curly fur, and mischievous smiles, often with wide-open roaring mouths to present a fierce appearance, the better to drive off unwanted spirits. Guardian lions almost always appear in pairs. Together, the two are said to represent the binary yin and yang. It is said that the female represents yin and the male yang. The male lion has its right front paw on a type of ball while the female is essentially identical but has a cub under the left paw, representing the cycle of life.

Symbolically, the female lion protects those dwelling inside while the male guards the structure. Sometimes the female has her mouth closed and the male has his mouth open. According to feng shui, correct placement of the lions is important to ensure their beneficial effect. When looking at the entrance from outside the building, facing the lions, the male lion with the ball is on the right, and the female with the cub is on the left. The first pair of lion sculptures were placed outside of Buddhist temples and were eventually adopted in other parts of Asia, including Japan, Korea, Tibet, Thailand, Burma, Vietnam, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Cambodia, Laos, Taiwan, and Singapore.


Today, the lions are also used in other artistic contexts, for example, on door-knockers, in pottery, as well as in tattoos. Pairs of guardian lion statues are still common decorative and symbolic elements at the entrances to restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, and other structures, with one sitting on each side of the entrance in China and in other places around the world where the Chinese people have immigrated and settled, especially in a local Chinatown.

The Foo lion pictured here was discovered in the submerged ruins of Port Royal by Robert Marx during one of his expeditions in the 1960s. A common Chinese export in the 17th century, Blanc de Chine was used for both religious and non-religious figurines as well as small household articles. This lion stands no more than 10 inches tall and has a receptacle to hold incense. For Chinese religious practitioners, burning incense opens up communication with deities and aids in meditation. The size and purpose of this lion indicates that it may have been owned and used by a wealthy Chinese explorer or a wealthy Chinese person who made Port Royal his home. Other finds of this type in the ruins of Port Royal include cups and a beautifully preserved porcelain figure of Kuan Yin, which is considered to be the feminine form of Buddha.

Information researched and compiled by Sharifa Balfour, curator, National Museum West.