Lions are seen in Chinese Culture in a variety of places. Lions are not native to China, so the image of the lion must have been introduced from India or the Middle East. It is likely that they arrived in China via the Silk Road. They were possibly introduced to China by the Sultans or Rulers of the Middle East as and Central Asia as tribute to the Chinese Emperor and to secure trade rights on the Silk Road. On the other hand, the Chinese Lions are typically based around the Asiatic Lion, found in India and Central Asia.
Stone dogs were used to guard Buddhist temples in India and this could have been adapted into Chinese Culture as a Lion, rather than a dog, which is more dignified. Another interesting fact is that the second Buddha himself was called Shakyasimha which means “the lion among the Shakyas”. He is often depicted riding a Lion. Also, it is suggested that when the First Buddha (Siddhārtha Gautama) was born, he pointed to the heavens and the earth whilst roaring like a Lion. With the close relationship between Buddhism and Lions, we can say that the inclusion of the Lion into Chinese folk law came hand in hand with Buddhism. Though, there are many other Chinese traditions and stories which are not related to Buddhism.
It is commonly agreed that the Lion appeared in China around the Han Dynasty (206BC – 220AD) in the form of the Guardian Lions (Fu Lion) and in Lion Dances.
Skilled dancers from Xiiang,
Persian masks and lion masks.
The heads are carved of wood,
The tails are woven with thread.
Pupils are flecked with gold
And teeth capped with silver.
They wave fur costumes
And flap their ears
As if from across the drifting sands
Ten thousand miles away…
Originally found guarding Buddhist temples or Imperial Palaces, the Fu Lion (Guardian Lion or Stone Lion) is commonly associated with the wealthiest of the wealthy in ancient China, as only the rich could afford the high costs of making a pair of Lions to guard their house. The Lions were also used to guard Chinese Officials residence with the amount of lumps/knots in their hair symbolising the rank of the Official, the most being 13 lumps for a first grade official.
There are slight variations of the appearance of the Lions for each Chinese Dynasty and region of China reflecting the artist style of the time and place. They were traditionally carved from stone (such as Marble or Granite) or cast in bronze or iron. Usually coming in pairs, the female is seated on the left whilst the male on the right. The Lions are used to harness the Yang power in Feng Shui, with the Male protecting the structure and the Female protecting those inside the building. The Male will have a ball/globe under his right paw which symbolises the “flower of life”, where as the female has a lion cub under her left paw, symbolising the cycle of life.
Sometimes, the Female Lion will have its mouth closed whilst the Male open. Or in Japanese culture, the Male is seen inhaling whilst the Female exhaling, representing the cycle of life and death.
Sometimes the Lions will have a pearl nestled in their mouth, able to move around, but not small enough to be taken out.
Feng Shui practitioners use it in front of doors to protect against bad energy. The Lions enhance Yang energy and is used to stimulate strength.
No New Year’s or other celebration in Chinese culture is seen without a Lion Dance! There are several variations of the Lion Dance, but they fall usually into two main styles; Northern and Southern. The Lion Dance is performed by two people, one controlling the head, whilst the other controlling the back and tail, moving with the loud brash music which follows the lions. Lion Dances are heavy entwined with Kung Fu schools, we only the best students allowed the honour of performing the dances and representing the style and quality of their school. Some might say that a Kung Fu school is not complete without a Lion Dance!
The Northern Style Lion is usually red, orange and yellow and is more life like, with a furry appearance. Historically used to entertain the Northern Imperial court, it is used more for entertainment purposes, with dancers performing acrobatic stunts.