Lions are not native animals of China and are believed to have been brought there in the past as gifts from Persians via the Silk Road, then kept in enclosures by royalty.
And with the rise of Buddhism, it became a more and more familiar animal as lions are often depicted in Buddhist symbolism. In particular, the Boddhisattva of Wisdom rides on one… which gave the king of the jungle celebrity status of sorts.
Having said that, lions that are depicted in oriental art and sculptures usually don’t look like how real lions would look like.
They tend to be more decorated than a legendary military general in uniform.
Legend of lions
Various nicknames are given to the fearsome creature throughout history. This is both through folklore and classical stories.
The ones that stuck the most include the divine creature, king of beasts, stone lion, etc.
However, the sight of lion depictions probably made the biggest impression in the form of the infamous traditional lion dance performances.
These are performed by people who don costumes of what look like celestial lions, and pounce around in a dance accompanied by the loud beats of the drum and percussions.
They make their appearances most often to welcome the Chinese new year, at opening events of businesses, and any events that someone thinks is grand enough to hire them.
It is believed that these performances would bring good fortune and drive away evil.
The story behind this is that an emperor of the Tang dynasty had a nightmare one night and there appeared an animal which he did not recognize that saved him. After describing the animal to his advisors, they concluded that it must be a lion.
There’s also the legend of lion dances during the new year to scare away a mythological beast known as the nian. However, people tend to associate the loud noises of these performances that drive the nian away rather than the lions itself.
Lions then slowly became part of performances that drive away evil. The dance and fancy costumes then took root when during the Ching dynasty, warlords instructed their people to perform these dances in villages on the pretense of celebrations when they were in fact spying.
Performances slowly evolved. And today, dangerous acrobatic stunts are even performed just to wow audiences.
The lion is also commonly observed as stone lions guarding both sides of an entrance or door.
They are known in the western world as fu dogs.
The legend behind it’s origins is sketchy. But most people would trace it back to an event which was a battle between two generals named Zong Que and Lin Yiguo. The latter deployed an army of angry elephants charging towards the base of Zong. Zong then quickly devised a plan for his soldiers to wear headgear and fabric clothing that resembled lions to scare away the elephants. They then stood at the gates and the strategy miraculously worked as the elephants backed off.
Lions were then often carved out of stone to stand guard against evil.
Feng shui and lions
The lion amazingly does not have it’s own place in the Chinese zodiacs. Instead, the only large cat with it’s own zodiac sign is the tiger.
This is in spite of Chinese literature often telling of how much more powerful lions are to tigers and leopards. Both of which are majestic animals in Chinese culture.
In fact, the lion’s role in feng shui is very much limited to the fu dogs and their placement… albeit a very significant role of protector at that.