What’s the Significance of Ancient Stone Lions?

Gilded lion in front of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity. (Image: BriYYZ   via   wikimedia /  CC BY-SA 2.0)
Gilded lion in front of the Palace of Tranquil Longevity. (Image: BriYYZ via wikimedia / CC BY-SA 2.0)

In ancient China, a pair of stone lions was placed on either side of the entrance to significant architecture, such as palaces, courts, mausoleums, temples, gardens, and bridges.

A lion is considered a mighty animal; the male, with its long, impressive hair and powerful roar, has even been named the “King of Beasts.” But lions do not originate in China — so how did they come to make such an impression there?

According to historical records, lions entered China after Zhang Qian — an outstanding envoy and explorer during the Han Dynasty — opened up the ancient Silk Road and developed relations with the “Western Regions,” under the command of Emperor Hang Wudi.

Forbidden City imperial guardian lions. (Image: Allentchang via flickr CC BY-SA 3.0)

Forbidden City imperial guardian lions. (Image: Allentchang via flickr CC BY-SA 3.0)

With the spread of Buddhism from India to China, the lion gradually replaced the tiger as the king of beasts. A record in the Transmission of the Lamp by the monk Dao Yuan noted: “Buddha Shakyamuni was born with one finger pointing to the sky and another pointing to the earth, as the lion roared: ‘Heaven and the world, I am the greatest!'”

After that, the lion’s roar was used to describe Buddha’s loud voice when he delivered his teachings. His voice was said to have the effect of eliminating all evil. The lion became more important in Buddhism and became regarded as an auspicious divine animal.

Chinese artists carve lions out of stone

The esteemed lion soon became a noble and majestic beast in people’s minds, and became a subject for stone carvings. In the Han and Tang dynasties, the stone lion began appearing in imperial mausoleums and in graveyards of noblemen, often together with other statues of animals — usually a stone horse or goat. The lion was not yet popular, but sure looked awesome and fearful; it gradually became more widely used.

A guardian lion outside Yonghe Temple, Beijing. (Image: McKay Savage via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

A guardian lion outside Yonghe Temple, Beijing. (Image: McKay Savage via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

People began placing a pair of stone lions in front of their house gates, as guardians. They were believed to protect the household, expel ghosts and evil spirits, and attract luck and prosperity. The carved statues were beautiful.

Ancient Chinese believed in yin and yang, and emphasized harmony between the two elements. The placement of the stone lions, therefore, followed certain rules. The lions were usually placed as a pair — on the left side (which is considered the yang side in traditional Chinese doctrines) is the male (yang) lion, and on the right side is the female (ying) lion . Usually, a hydrangea-shaped silk ball was placed under the male lion’s foot, symbolizing unlimited power, and a young lion cub would be leaning on the lionesses’ foot, representing a long future of descendants. Nowadays, the stone lions are often used as artistic decoration in China.

Translated by Chua B.C. and edited by Emiko Kingwell

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