01 December 2013

culture, China

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Why is There a Pair of Lions in Front of Chinese Buildings?

If you have been exploring China, you may have noticed that quite often there is a pair of stone lion sculptures at the gates of certain buildings and attractions, even if the site is not a tourism attraction. Why there are 2 stone lion sculptures in front of these Chinese establishments, as lions don’t really live in China? Is it a Chinese architectural design characteristic, or does it have a more cultural background? What does the building want to portray if it has a pair of stone lions?

Lions represent power, significance and protect the establishment from evil, they are like gatekeepers protecting the entrance.

Lions first “came to China” when the King of Parthia (present Iran) among a few other countries gave lions to China as gifts during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.). Lions are said to be a symbol of power and mightiness in Buddhism, and as lions have a fierce look and character, they are considered as intellectual animals that will keep the evil away, they look and guard at the door, similar as many people nowadays regard dogs as the guardians of the household. Even in Buddhism manuscripts, the Buddha is described as a lion among human beings, and Manjusri (Bodhisattva of wisdom) rides a lion.

The influence and spread of Buddhism has contributed to the importance of lions, and even lions appeared in China already during the Han Dynasty, it wasn’t until the East Han Dynasty (24 – 220 A.D.) that lions started to appear in the form of stone sculptures, and then during the Ming Dynasty (1358 – 1644 A.D.) stone lions started to appear in front of palaces and residences of nobility – this was to show power, significance and to keep away the evil. Afterwards, these lions started to appear in front of the gates of regular households as well. Nowadays you can see a pair of stone lions in front of large architectural buildings, banks and places of importance, and in the more traditional place, in front of red gates. The lions are traditionally made or carved from marble, granite, or cast with iron or bronze.

Is there anything special with these lion stone sculptures?

If you examine the two lions closely, you’ll notice that both of them have one different thing under their paws. One has a ball under its paw, and the other has a small lion under its paw. The lion with the ball is regarded as the male lion, and the one with the small lion (baby lion), is regarded as the female (lioness). It is said that when lions play together, their hair would tangle together into a shape of a ball and a new baby lion would be born out of this ball.