Chinese guardian lions, usually called stone lions in China and sometimes referred as foo dogs in the West, are symbolic sculptures of the Asian lion. They are placed at the entrance of an important building to guard the grounds and the people inside. They have been part of Chinese and Southeast Asian history for thousands of years. As in most Asian cultures, these ancient guardian lions are complex and multifaceted expressions of Chinese symbolic traditions. 🦁
Many of them are Chinese lion statues in stone. There are also many Chinese lion statues in bronze.
Chinese Lion Dog Meaning
Traditionally, stone lions are massive sculptures mounted on ornamental architectural bases called xumizuo. Based on the Asiatic lion rather than the more familiar African lion in the West, the stone lion is very different from the lion representations seen in Europe. They appear with bulging eyes, curly fur and mischievous smiles, often with roaring mouths opened wide to show a ferocious appearance, the better to chase away unwanted spirits.
Guardian lions are displayed in pairs, male and female, giving them balance and harmony. Sometimes the pair is shown with a large pearl in the mouth of each lion symbolizing the sacred breath. The term “stone lion” is both a name and a generic descriptive term, most being carved in stone or marble, but many are cast in bronze. Lions are both a symbol of protection and an intimidating display of wealth and power. 💪
Stone lions are found at the entrance to traditional architecture such as Buddhist temples (the oldest use of these lions), important government buildings, and sometimes in mausoleums and tombs. They are also seen guarding the homes of elite citizens such as generals, heroes, scholars, chi masters and the wealthy.
Foo Dogs Terminology
The most common term for lions in China is shi, meaning lion, or shishi (pronounced she-see) for “stone lion.” Some anthropologists believe that the word shi is descended from ser, a Persian word for the Asian lion. Guardian lions are also often named for their carving medium or place in Chinese tradition. 🉐
- Shishi: term for a stone statue.
- Tongshi: Name for a bronze lion.
- Foshi: The lion of Buddha, with the word “Fo” referring to Buddha himself.
- Ruishi : The wicked lion, nickname of the Tibetan snow leopard.
The Japanese name for lions is Komainu. It is common in the West for Europeans and Americans to call stone lions “Fu Dogs” or “Foo Dogs“. Some people call them Fo Lions. The Chinese word “Fo” refers to Buddha and the word “Fu” means “prosperity”.
In China, it is well understood that the sculptures are lions and they are never called dogs. It is assumed that Europeans and other Westerners call the statues dogs because some breeds of Chinese dogs such as Chow Chows and Pekingese have a similar appearance to guardian lions. 🐶
Chinese Lion and Mythology
The lion is a divine beast in Chinese mythology, with the ability to drive away evil spirits. Based on this same Chinese mythology, stone lions are capable of purifying shar chi, or “poisoned arrows,” the negative force that emerges from sharp corners, disease, imposed authority, busy crowds, and distracting structures such as street lamps, obelisks, and traffic lights.
This ability to drive out spirits and negative energy explains the original placement of these statues at the entrance to Buddhist temples. From there, the practice expanded to palaces, prominent residences and mausoleums. Guardian lions are blessed with insight, the ability to distinguish between good and bad intentions. They are valued as loyal but fierce guardians in the spirit world. 💭
The “Stone Lion” can suppress the impulse to steal, minimize accidents, and confuse those with evil intentions to bring luck and money, balancing the harmony of Feng Shui. These characteristics make them valuable additions to businesses that wish to promote prosperity. A pair of lions are often seen guarding hotels, restaurants, banks and factories, where their job is to ward off mischief and attract satisfied customers or workers to the business.
Guardian lions have different names depending on the language and context. In Chinese they are traditionally called simply shi (獅), meaning “lion,” and the word shi itself is thought to be derived from the Persian word šer. Lions were first introduced to the Han court by emissaries from Central Asia and Persia, and by the life of the century they were commonly depicted as guardians and promote prosperity.
The lion is considered in Chinese mythology to be one of the five divine animals and promises protection, he drive away evil spirits and negative energy. The Guardian Lions (ishi, Shishi), also called Fu Dogs, are specially represented and are always paired according to the rules of Feng Shui. The left female lion, with a cub under her left paw, stands for growth and well-being. The right male lion has his right paw resting on a ball – originally the dragon pearl. This represents the unity of the empire.
In the imperial palace in Beijing, you will find a pair of “Stone Lion” in front of each door to protect the imperial family. If you place the stone lions in your house or office in front of the front door or in passages, they protect the house or your career.
Stone Lion Symbolism
Although the lion does not live in China and the Chinese only knew of the existence of this animal in the 2nd century thanks to an expedition to India, stone sculptures of lions can be seen everywhere in China. The representation of the lion would have arrived in China before the 2nd century with the arrival of Buddhism where the animal is sacred just like the elephant.
The lion being the symbol of happiness, courage, dignity, the Chinese have custom to install blue Chinese lion statues at the entrance of palaces, residences and tombs. The guard of the house is thus entrusted to the lion which has the virtue to drive out the bad spirits. Some rules are to be respected when installing the lion statues: the male guards the right side of the door, a ball embroidered under his right paw represents power; the female holding a baby lion under her left paw is supposed to ensure family prosperity and numerous descendants is installed on the left side
Foo Dog Origin
The Fu lion should not be confused with the Qilin, although both have similarities in their appearance. The Fu lion as it is called in the West, in Chinese ShiShi 石獅, is primarily related to Buddhism. Indeed, in India, the mythical animal guarded the temples.
There would also be a legend associated with the FU Lion, dating from the end of the Ming Dynasty, where Li Zicheng, leader of the peasant rebellion, had to confront two lions guarding the city of Beijing. He shot them with arrows and the lions turned into stone, where they were guardians of the city.
Legend of the Foo Dog
But where does this idea come from? It seems that it comes from India, the lion symbolizes royalty and the 4 cardinal points. Moreover, in northern India and Nepal, there is a legend around a snow lion, which represents courage. In China, there is no lion and even less in the north of the country (it is very cold).
The emperors of the Han Dynasty have to show their strength and this is done through monuments, statues sometimes with lion jewelry, so he uses this animal to say “I, the emperor, am superior to you all”. ⛩
Traditional Chinese Lion
The Chinese term for stone lion is shishi and every syllable has its own meaning. The first syllable means “stone” and represents firmness, solidity and stability. The second syllable means “lion” and represents thoughtfulness and sobriety or seriousness. For many, this combination takes on a business meaning, with the idea of serious consideration for stability and keeping the business on solid ground.
Because the lions are large and are carved in stone or cast in metal, their manufacture is labor intensive, requires a high degree of craftsmanship and is therefore extremely expensive. For those reasons, they earned a place of honor among the nobility and the very rich as symbols of wealth, importance and power.
In modern times, methods such as casting in concrete or resin have made the cost of shishi affordable to every member of society. As a result, they became popular both at the entrance of the house and inside to protect the important rooms of ordinary families. 👨👩👧👦
Rather than just a natural representation of a real lion, the Chinese guardian lion is meant to show the spirit and emotion of the animal. There is almost no anatomical reference to muscle and other details. The emphasis is on the lion’s claws, teeth, eyes and other expressions of purpose rather than its actual appearance in the physical world.
Aesthetic Considerations of the Foo Dog
The pair of guardian lions should be placed in accordance with the ancient tradition and the rules of Feng Shui.
- They should always be in pairs to ensure harmony.
- They should be on pedestals or bases to enhance their view of the spiritual terrain.
- They should be placed on either side of the entrance to keep it in the zone of harmony between the two lions.
- The building should be at the back of the pair of lions so that they can see the evil spirits approaching.
- They each have their own side in the pair to match the principles of Yin and Yang. When facing the entrance from the outside, the male goes to the outside with the active side on the right. The female goes inward, with the stable hand, the left side.
- If the pair of lions is to be displayed indoors, they should remain together, keeping the same piece.
- If the traditions for proper placement are not followed correctly, the house may become vulnerable to bad luck, dishonor or evil spirits.