Chinese Stone Lions

Chinese Stone Lions

Second only to the dragon in greatness, these dog-like lions, known as fu-dogs, are entrenched in the traditions of Asian culture. Originally brought into Asia as gifts to emperors, lions were elevated to a divine status with the introduction of Buddhism in ancient China. Acting as guardians, fu dogs protected temples, official buildings and homes. Chinese guardian lions are also called Fu (Foo) Lions, lions of Buddha, or sometimes stone lions (石獅, Pinyin: Shíshī). In pre-modern China, it was believed that guardian lions have powerful mythic protective powers.

Introduction of Chinese Stone Lions

The History of Stone Lions

Lions commonly live in Africa, India, and South America. In China, we can only find lions at big zoos even now. When Zhangqian (张骞: a Chinese official and diplomat who served as an imperial envoy and set the foundation of the Silk Road in Han dynasty) went to the western regions and opened communication between China and other countries along the Silk Road, lion as a kind of tribute first entered China and caused a great sensation. It is said that Luoyang (洛阳, the national capital city at that time) was very exciting about this brand new creature. This king of beasts began to walk into the Chinese folk life since then and soon loved by all Chinese people.

The lion had made such good luck in China and also benefited from the introduction of Buddhism into China during the Han Dynasty. In a Chinese version of the story about the born of the Buddha Sakyamuni, he was one hand pointed sky and the other hand, pointed the earth, and roared like a lion:”heaven and earth, only me the highest”. Therefore, Buddhists in China regarded the lion as a beast of the auspicious and worshipped more. Later people called the persuasive, shocking words of Buddhism as “lion roar”. Many temples in Wutai Mountain (五台山), a Buddhist holy place in China, all worship the statues of the Manjusri Bodhisattva riding a lion. Legend said that the Manjusri Bodhisattva, who was especially wise and intelligent in the world, came to Wutai Mountain to show his spirit by riding a lion.

As lion had such dignity and majesty, it began to appear in front of the imperial tombs and the burial grounds of the royal families since the Han dynasty. However, it was placed only in front of the tombs and often discharged together with stone statues such as stone horses and stone goats to shock people and create awe at that time.

The stone lion has not yet entered the common people’s folklife. In terms of shape, the early stone lions are also distinctly different from the stone lions later guarded the gate. There was no tall stone pedestal under the lion statue. This can be found in ancient stone lion relics of the Han and Tang dynasties.

When the stone lion walked towards the common Chinese people, it became the guardian animal of the gate. Chinese people believe this custom was formed after the Song dynasty. According to research by Cheng Zhang (程张) in the book 元代石狮趣谈 (yuán dài shí shī qù tán: a talk about stone lions in Yuan dynasty), the residents in the capital of the Tang Dynasty lived in 坊 (fāng). This is a residential area designated by the government that has walls and doors, that are easy to avoid fire and keeps security. The door was made into the archway style and the name of the Fang (坊) was written on it. A pair of large stones is placed on the foot of each Fang to prevent wind and earthquake. Craftsmen carved lions, unicorns, and other beasts and animals on these large stones. They were both beautiful and auspicious. This is a prototype of stone lions and other wild beasts to guard the gates.


Statues of guardian lions have traditionally stood in front of Chinese Imperial palaces, Imperial tombs, government offices, temples, and the homes of government officials and the wealthy, and were believed to have powerful mythic protective benefits. They are also used in other artistic contexts, for example on door-knockers, and in pottery. 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 local Chinatowns.

The lions are usually depicted in pairs. When used as statuary the pair would consist of a male leaning his paw upon an embroidered ball (in imperial contexts, representing supremacy over the world) and a female restraining a playful cub that is on its back (representing nurture).

The Male Lion

The symbolism of the lions begins with their gender, one male, one female, reflective of the long Chinese Taoist tradition of the yin and the yang, familiar in the west as the white and black ‘tadpole’ forms intertwined with their opposite-shaded eye. The male lion, symbolic of the Yang, usually has one paw placed upon a ball. It may come as some surprise to know that the ball is actually supposed to be embroidered and not, as may be expected, representative of some weapon or other masculine accessory. The embroidered ball itself has a long history. Often made from discarded clothing as a toy for children, their gift came to represent friendship and affection. To this day in China, the throwing of an embroidered ball from a woman to her beloved in the hope he will catch it to bring about good fortune is an aspect of courtship. The male will tend to have his mouth open (the lion, not the lover), though reasons for this are disputed. His primary function is guardianship of the structure itself in its solid materialism, and so also other material aspects of the structure such as its solidity and overall prosperity.

The Female Lion

As the male lion is representative of the male attributes of yang, so the female is representative of the female power of yin. She is seen in company with a cub, often held stationary beneath a protective paw mirroring the male with his embroidered ball. This symbolizes her guardianship over the people within the building as the male guards the building itself. Hers is the power of life. As the tendency is for the male lion to have his mouth open, so the female is often represented with her mouth closed. She is no less fearsome than her male counterpart in the representation of her guardianship. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine a creature more fearsome than a lioness protecting her cubs.

As Partners

Both lions may be found to have a pearl in their mouths. Traditionally this was carved in such a fashion that it could move freely in the mouth of the sculpture, but was too big to escape through its teeth. The two of them together should be sited in strict accordance with fengshui practice and theory. As you face the lions from outside, the male should be on the right, the female on the left, both looking outward in their scrutiny of the world beyond that which they guard.

Stone Lions in Different Dynasties

The appearances of different dynasties stones lions are distinctive. The ones of Han and Tang Dynasties are strong and intrepid; the thin but powerful ones are from Yuan Dynasty. As to the stone lions of Ming and Qing Dynasties, they appeared more meek and gentle. Besides, stone lions have the obvious local features. As a whole, the lions from the northern China are more decent and simple-carved, while the lions from the South are more vivid and alive with many matching accessory sculptures. The stone lion usually is carved based on Xumizuo, a kind of architectural ornament frequently used as the base for decent building or carving. Most of lions have curly hairs.

Features of Stone Lions

Later, stone lions gradually became a very popular door guard all around China. They not only have different characteristics because of the times but also contain obvious geographical features. They were usually powerful and strong in Tang dynasties, but slender and strengthful in Yuan dynasty. During the Ming and Qing Dynasties, they were gentler. In the Qing dynasty, the stone lions sculpture as guards was basically set. According to “The Record of Yangzhou Paintings” (written in 1795), “The pair of lions must have a distinctive head, face, body, legs, teeth, thigh, embroidered ribbons, bells, an embroidered ball and a baby lion”.

In general, the stone lions in the north have an outward appearance and simple carving; the lions in the south are more delicate, lively and sculpted, and the baby lions are not only under the palms of the lioness but also climb up on the back. They are lively and lovely. Because all ancient things were divided into yin and yang or male and female, ancient Chinese people naturally divided the pair of stone lions into male and female. When can easily distinguish them not only from the facial expressions but also from the different objects on which their front feet stepped. The female steps on a cute baby lion while the male steps on an exquisitely embroidered ball. The male and female stone lions are always showing together. The male one must be placed on the left while the female one on the right. This is because in Chinese traditional culture “male left female right” 男左女右(Nán zuǒ nǚ yòu).

Types of Stone Lions

Guardian lions are referred to in various ways depending on language and context. In Chinese, they are traditionally called shi (獅, Pinyin: shī) meaning lion—the word shi itself is thought to be derived from the Persian word šer.

Today the guardian lions are not just made of stone and more usually specified by reference to the medium or material, for example:

  • Stone lion (石獅, Pinyin: Shíshī): a stone lion sculpture.
  • Bronze lion (銅獅, Pinyin: Tóngshī): a bronze lion sculpture.

The lions can also be divided into different types due to their modeling and meaning, such as:

  • Beijing lion (北京狮: běijīng shī): It is referred to the guardian lions in the Beijing Forbidden City. They are the symbol of the imperial power and generally dignified and mighty. The rulers believed that lions can not only avoid evil but also bring auspiciousness
  • Money bringing lion (献钱狮: xiàn qián shī): It is named after a string of ancient money in the front. It is a type of stone lions in the south. The money bringing lions have the meaning of bringing money and more people in. They look cute and clever. They are one of the most common forms of stone lions in the folk life and often placed in front of temples or ancestral halls.
  • Ball playing lion (戏球狮: xìqiúshī): Ball play lion is one of the most popular types of stone lions in the south. Both male and female lions are playing big embroidered balls is the main feature of this type. People believe this ball playing will bring them a fortune.
  • Playing lion (戏狮: xìshī): They are happily looking lions, which mean good luck.