Today we are talking about the Chinese lions represented in the form of a statue called “Chinese Guardian Lion”. If you travel to China it is almost impossible to miss these lions in stone or sometimes in bronze. Indeed, they are in quantity and therefore they blend into the decor. These statues are not only interesting for their cultural aspect in China, each of them are unique works of art carved in the rock with the paste of each artist.
As its name suggests, the stone lion is carved in stone, it is the universal ornament in traditional Chinese architecture. It can be found in imperial palaces, temples, Buddha pagodas, bridges, mausoleums, mansions, gardens and many others. The lion is a powerful universal symbol, in China it is mostly recognized as a sign of happiness and fortune. There is a rite belonging to the stone lion called Kaiguan, it means to bequeath light to the eyes of the stone lion. In Chinese minds if a stone lion statue has not received this rite, it is simply a work of art and nothing more.
Stone lions being paired are necessarily symmetrical at the entrance of a building. The male stone lion holds the left hand, the female stone lion holds the right hand.
Within this article, the Stylish Lion team accompanies you in discovering these iconic Chinese creatures, next time you pass by maybe you will think about it! 🦁
1) Why doesn’t the Chinese lion Look like a Lion ?
Let’s start with the question that is often asked first! The appearance of the Chinese lion can be confusing because it doesn’t look like anything we currently know. We do not have certainties as we saw in the article on the lion dance in the part origin of the lion dance. However, the most probable hypothesis would be that the lion was not present in the central plains of China and therefore they had no idea of the appearance of it as well as the dragon.
2) The History of the Chinese Guardian Lions
Guardian lions, traditionally called shi in Chinese (Chinese: 獅; pinyin: shī; lit. “lion”), also called “Fo lions” or “Fo dogs” originated in Persia, not China. Initially, they were presented as gifts to the Han court by Persian diplomats in the 6th century, the rich and powerful using these imperial guardian representations. This pair of Foo Lion Statue is the perfect representation of traditional guardian lions.
Because of the associations with Buddhism, the image of the lion was immediately positive as it is considered a symbol of protection of the spiritual teaching or “dharma“. For a period of time, the guardian lions evolved considerably in appearance, pose and concepts.
It took many years during the Ming and Qing dynasties for the image associated with the guardian lion to take on its present form of two lions, one male and one female, guarding the entrance to a building.
3) The Lion
Everything about lion symbolism begins with the sex of the lion, a male and a female, reflecting the long Chinese Taoist tradition of yin and yang.
The lion is the symbol of the Yang, it usually has one paw resting on a ball. It may be interesting to know that this embroidered ball represents supremacy over the world in imperial contexts.
Moreover the history of this ball goes further, often made from discarded clothes as toys for children, their gift became the symbol of friendship and affection. Even today in China, the throwing of an embroidered ball from a woman to her beloved is in the hope that he will catch it to bring her luck and good fortune.
Overall, the male tends to have an open mouth, however the reasons are unclear. The primary function would be to maintain the overall structure as well as other material aspects.
4) The Lioness
The male being the representation of the masculine attributes of yang, the female is representative of the feminine power of yin.
She is accompanied by a cub held motionless under her protective paw, reminiscent of the male with his embroidered ball. She symbolizes the protection of the individuals within the building while the male protects the building itself. It represents the power of life.
Unlike the lion with an open mouth, the lioness often has a closed mouth. However, she is just as formidable as her male counterpart within her representation. It seems obvious that it is difficult to conceive of a creature more fearsome than a lioness preserving her cubs.
5) As Partners
These two lions may have a ball in their mouth. Initially, they were sculpted so that the pearl could move freely in the mouth but not come out through the teeth.
When these two statues are put together, they must be located in strict accordance with the practice and theory of feng shui. To be in the rules, once you face the lions, the male should be on the right and the female on the left, each of the statues should look outwards beyond the world.
However, there are exceptions, such as the stone lions outside the Guan Yu Temple in Jiayu Pass and the stone lions standing in front of the Confucian Temple in Qufu, Shandong Province. The famous stone lions can be seen in front of the Tian’anmen Rostrum, the Earth and Grain Altar in Zhongshan Park and Peking University and the Lugou Bridge in Beijing.
6) Heritage as Art
The overall shape of the lions has become almost standard, however there is still a lot of room for the individual artist’s interpretation in its representation.
This fact can be verified by looking at the open-air gallery of the grand metropark wanshi hotel in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province. In 2003, more than 100 stonemasons were commissioned by the hotel to present their own interpretations of Chinese guardian lions.
At the entrance of the building are the lion and lioness, all around the hotel is the complete result of their work. It is a perfect combination of safety and artistic beauty that has made the hotel particularly popular for wedding gatherings. If you ever want to see these lions, the hotel is located on Pingyang Road.
7) Stone Lions in Different Dynasties
The appearances of stone lions are distinctive according to the dynasties. The Han and Tang dynasties are strong and bold, those of the Yuan dynasty are thin but powerful.
On the other hand, the stone lions belonging to the Ming and Qing dynasties looked softer. Overall, the lions of northern China are simpler to carve, while the lion statues of southern China are more detailed and lively.
Generally, the stone lion is carved starting from Xumizuo, it is an architectural ornament used as a basic reference for creating sculpture.
8) The Stone Lion Collection
Here is a small summary of several statues. Be careful, even if some statues look identical, look at them twice! Whether it’s the nose, eyes, mouth, teeth, mane and more, each element makes each creation unique. It can also be the orientation of the head or additional elements like a cub on the shoulder.
Feel free to look closely and make your selection of this ancient Chinese traditional art form.
We suspect that if you have read this article in its entirety it is because the aura that these statues give off intrigues you, in this case we suggest a little tour to the statues of lions. They each have their own particularity and history.