by Abellio

19 October 2013

Anyone who visits China for more than a few days cannot fail to notice the many, many pairs of stone animals standing guard in front of any building which has pretensions to be something (although “something” can be no more than a second-rate noodle restaurant). Here is a typical pair of these animals, which my wife and I recently came across in front of the China National Philatelic Corporation.

chinese lion 003

The Chinese call these animals “lions”, which is really a bit of a joke. In today’s globalized world, where images of this iconic animal must surely have been beamed into every corner of every house on the planet, we all know that lions actually look like this:

real male and female lions

One theory has it that the original model for these “lions” was the Asiatic lion, of which a few miserable specimens still linger on in the Indian state of Gujarat. According to this theory, some live samples were brought to China along the Silk Road from Central Asia or the Middle East some 2,000 years ago, as gifts, tribute or whatever. Artists copied them, and then the originals stopped coming. So the artists copied the copies, and then copied the copies of the copies, and … Anyone who has seen the film Multiplicity, where Michael Keaton makes copies of himself and then the copies make copies of themselves

Multiplicity movie

knows what happens: there is a high loss of quality in the picture the further you get from the original.

A second theory is that actually the original model wasn’t a lion at all. It was a chow chow, which is a dog from this part of the world. It seems to have originated somewhere in northern China or Mongolia, or possibly in Siberia. I don’t know what readers think, but I’m not convinced that this

chow chow dog sitting

is the model of the above. Nor am I convinced that another ancient Chinese dog breed, the noble Pekingese (only members of the imperial family were allowed to have them), is the model

Pekingese dog

Such an irritating little dog, I’ve always felt, as it raspily yaps around your feet at some apartment door – a good, swift kick is what it deserves, but one has to be polite to the apartment owners. In any event, while it’s true that the Pekingese’s face has certain resemblances to my stone “lions” (and in fact it’s often called a lion-dog because of this resemblance), I rather think this is an example of convergent evolution: the sculptors went their way with their designs, the dog breeders with theirs, and one day someone said, “Ooh look, the Peke looks just like the stone lions!”.

A third theory, which I find quite convincing, is that actually the models for the Chinese stone “lions” are the stone lions which are often found outside Indian temples. See the following link [1] for a further development of this theory, while here is a picture of one such Indian lion from Mahabalipuram:

indian carved lion

It really does look quite similar, doesn’t it?  I presume that proponents of this theory would argue that it is Buddhism which brought to China the idea of placing stylized “lions” at the entrances of temples and then with time they migrated to the entrances of any important building.

However the design came about, the fact is that this being China, where everything eventually became (and still becomes) formalized, codified and rigidified, these pairs of stone “lions” have been made in exactly the same way ever since the Ming dynasty. The key is that they look nearly exactly the same. Both have the same ritualized snarl on their faces. Both have the same mane done up in tight curls. Both have the same strong legs. Both are sitting on their haunches. There is only one important difference, fruit of a typical male chauvinism: the male is always – always – made with his paw resting on a ball (representing the male’s mastery over the world)

chinese lion 001

while the female is always – always – made with her paw resting on a cub which is playfully lying on its back (representing the female’s nurturing nature).

chinese lion 002

And sited as they are on either side of the entrance, their heads are always slightly inclined towards the enterer.

There must be literally millions of these stone “lions” scattered across the length and breadth of China, large, small, and every imaginable size in between. I swear, somewhere in China there must be a factory like this


that churns these damned things out by the thousands every day.

So tedious! So boring! Change, for God’s sake!

So you can imagine that it is with some small relief that I occasionally run across variations on this monotonous theme. Take this pair of “lions” which I recently came across in Beiing, in front of a restaurant.

lions looking at one another

How exciting! They are looking at each other and not the enterer.

Or take this “lion”, which I came across during my recent trip to Fujian.

river gorge 008

Why, rather than glaring at you he really looks glad to see you! And he seems to be offering you the ball to play with. It could almost be a playful Pekingese (assuming those damned dogs play). What a refreshing site for sore eyes.

Or how about this pair of “lions”, which we bumped into in Hong Kong? They were outside some bank as I recall, and not even guarding an entrance. A wonderful postmodern take on the old, very tired stone lion design.

lions in HK

And now, I even see real lions! This picture was taken five minutes after the picture with which I started the post

realistic lion

It was sitting in front of a furniture shop as I recall.

So when will I see two giraffes guarding the entrance to some place?

sitting giraffes

Change, for God’s sake!



pair of Chinese lions: my picture

Real male and female lions: [in

Multiplicity movie: [in

Chow chow dog: [in

Pekingese dog: [in

Indian carved lion: [in

male Chinese stone lion: my picture

female Chinese stone lion: my picture

Huge industrial factory: [in

Chinese stone lions looking at each other: my picture

Chinese stone lion in Fujian: my picture

Chinese stone lions in Hong Kong: my picture

Realistic stone lion: my picture

sitting giraffes: [in