Thursday, September 11, 2008

Chinese guardian lions

Chinese guardian lions, also called a Fu Lions, lions of Buddha, or sometimes s in Chinese art, is a common representation of the lion in pre-modern China, which is believed to have powerful protective powers that has traditionally stood in front of Imperial palaces, temples, emperors' tombs, government offices, and the homes of government officials and the wealthy from the Han Dynasty , until the end of the empire in 1911.

Lions of Fo are often created in pairs, with the male playing with a ball and the female with a cub. They occur in many types of Chinese pottery and in Western imitations.

Pairs of Chinese guardian lions, also called Chinese stone lions 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 specially in local Chinatowns.

In Tibet, the guardian lion is known as a Snow Lion and similar to Japanese . In Myanmar they are called Chinthe and gave their name to the World War II Chindit soldiers.


The lions are traditionally carved from decorative stone, such as marble and granite or cast in bronze or iron. Because of the high cost of these materials and the labor required to produce them, private use of Imperial guardian lions was traditionally reserved for wealthy or elite families. Indeed, a traditional symbol of a family's wealth or social status was the placement of Imperial guardian lions in front of the family home. However, in modern times less expensive lions, mass produced in concrete and resin, have become available and their use therefore no longer restricted to the elite.

The lions are generally present in pairs, with the female on the left and the male on the right. The male lion has his right paw on a ball, which represents the "" The female is essentially identical, but has a single cub under her left paw, representing the cycle of life. Symbolically, the female fu lion protects those dwelling inside, while the male guards the structure. Sometimes the female has her mouth closed, and the male open. This symbolizes the enunciation of the sacred word "om". However, Japanese adaptions state that the male is inhaling, representing life, while the female exhales, representing death. Other styles have both lions with a single large pearl in each of their partially opened mouths. The pearl is carved so that it can roll about in the lion's mouth but sized just large enough so that it can never be removed.

According to feng shui, when facing the entrance the male lion with the globe should be placed on the right with the female on the left.


Interestingly, the lion is not indigenous to China however Asiatic lions were quite common in neighboring India then. These Asiatic lions found in nearby India are the ones depicted in the Chinese culture. When Buddhist priests, or possibly traders, brought stories to China about stone Asiatic / Indian lions guarding the entry to Indian Buddhist temples, Chinese sculptors modeled statues after native dogs for use outside their temples as nobody in China had ever seen a real lion before. The mythic version of the animal, was known as the Lion of Fo, the word Fo 佛 being Chinese for Buddha. The Chinese word for lion is "Shi" which was adopted from their Sanskrit name "Sinh" in the neighboring India.

Lions of Fo are often created in pairs, with the male playing with a ball and the female with a cub. They occur in many types of Chinese pottery and in Western imitations.

The Buddhist version of the Lion was originally introduced to Han China as the protector of dharma and these lions have been found in religious art as early as 208 BC. Gradually they were incorporated as guardians of the Chinese Imperial dharm. Lions seemed appropriate regal beasts to guard the emperor's gates and have been used as such since.

The mythic Lion is sometimes associated with feng shui, and are often called Fu Lions. Fu means 'happiness' in Chinese; however, the term "Fu Lion," and its variant Foo Lion, are not used in Chinese. Instead, they are known as Rui Shi or simply Shi .

There are various styles of imperial guardian lions reflecting influences from different time periods, imperial dynasties, and regions of China. These styles vary in their artistic detail and adornment as well as in the depiction of the lions from fierce to serene.

Image gallery

In the above gallery, note that the standing lion is wearing ornaments similar to those seen at the top of the article but does not have the shin armor.

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