Episode 13: Guardian Lions

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Recently we talked about the door gods 门神. Besides door gods to guard the gates, I am sure you have seen other things at Chinese gate before even though you don’t know much about Chinese mythology. Yes! It’s the guardian lions. We call them ShiShiZi 石狮子. Shi means stone since most of them are made of stone like marble or granite and also bronze actually. Shizi means lions. In English it is often called “Foo dogs” . Maybe in the west, people like dogs more. But there is a kind of dog breed called Chow Chow looking like lions. Foo is probably is translation from fe, which means Buddha or fu, which means good luck. Chinese guardian lions are also called shishi. In Japanese, they are called Komainu. In Okinawa, they are called Shisa. Also in Korea and other Asian countries, influenced by Chinese culture, there are something similar although the appearances of the guardian lions are slightly different.

It is weird we treat lions as a mythical creature since there are not lions in China. It is because the lion symbolism is from Indian culture through Buddhism. It says in Han Dynasty 汉朝, between 206 BC to 220 AD, through the Silk Road 丝绸之路, lions were introduced to the third Emperor in the East Han Dynasty from Kingdom Anxi 安息国, which is Iran today as a gift. Since then, Chinese people love this creature and regard it as a mythical beast that brings good luck. Maybe it is kind of like the way how western people are crazy about pandas. They used lions on door-knockers and pottery. Since Tang Dynasty 唐朝, pairs of guardian lions statures started to get popular in front of gates for decorating the architectures.

They always come in pairs. In Taoism, it says male on the left and female on the right to balance the Ying and Yang. So if you walk out of the gate, the left side is the male lion and the right side is the female lion. The male lion is mostly leaning his paw on an embroidered ball. And the female lion is always has a playful cub at her paws. Besides that, they are kind of identical. Sometimes the female has her mouth closed and the male open. Japanese adaptations state that the male is inhaling, representing life, while the female exhales, representing death.

In the ancient times, you can only see the guardian lions at palaces, temples or governments. Nowadays, you can see them everywhere at restaurants or shops. Lions look a little bit different even in China. In Beijing, at palaces, the lions are more strong and muscular representing the imperial power. In the south China, lions look more playful and lively. There is a bridge in Beijing called LuGouQiao卢沟桥, or Marco Polo Bridge in English is built in 1698. It is said there are 627 small stone lions on the 266 meter which is 874 ft bridge and you can’t find two identical lions. I never counted. But if you have a chance to go there someday, do count the lions.


Since it is the beginning of New Year, we have to mention the lion dance, the traditional form of dance in China and some other Asian countries. The dance is usually performed during the Chinese New Year. The fundamental movements is from the Chinese martial arts. The lions look kind of differently from the north and south China. The Northern lion has a gold painted wooden head and a orange and yellow fluffy body. The Southern lion is more colorful with big eyes and the head is made with paper over bamboo frame. I like the Southern lions better just for the appearance. It is a lot of hard work to be a master of lion dance and it definitely is an art form combining martial arts. There is a Hong Kong Kung Fu movie called Once Upon a Time in China III about the martial arts master Huang Feihong 黄飞鸿. In the movie, they use a dramatic way to draw how to do lion dance in the way of Kung Fu. If you are interested, definitely check it out.


At the end of this episode, I want to finish it with a famous tongue twister related stone lions. It means the Temple stone lions has 44 stone lions. No idea if it is 44 stone lions or 44 dead lions.

石狮 寺有四十四只石狮 子 ,不 知道是四十四只石狮 子 ,还 是 四十四只死狮 子 。


门神 door gods

Once Upon a Time in China III

黄飞鸿 Huang Feihong

石狮子ShiShiZi/ guardian lions/ Foo dogs



卢沟桥 LuGouQiao /Marco Polo Bridge

丝绸之路 Silk Road

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