Chinese Stone Lion - ( Image by Dr. Blog )

Lion is a special animal to Chinese people. A pair of stone lions, a male and a female, can often be seen in front of the gates of traditional buildings. The male lion is on the left with his right paw resting on a ball, and the female on the right with her left paw fondling a cub.

The lion was regarded as the king in the animal world so its imagines represented power and prestige. The ball played by the male lion symbolized the unity of the empire, and the cub with the female thriving offspring.

The stone lions were also used to indicate the ranks of officials by the number of lumps representing the curly hair on the head of the lion. The houses of first grade officials had lions with 13 lumps and the number of lumps decreased by one as the rank of the official went down each grade. Officials below the seventh grade were not allowed to have stone lions in front of their houses.

It is interesting to note that China had no lions originally. It is believed that when Emperor Zhang of the Eastern Han reigned in AD 87, the King of Parthia presented a lion to him. Another lion was given by a Central Asian country known as Yuezhi in the next year. The earliest stone lions were sculpted at the beginning of the Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 220 AD) with the introduction of Buddhism into ancient China. It is said, Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism, was seen after birth “to point to Heaven with one hand and to Earth with another, roaring like an lion.” In the Buddhist faith, the lion is considered a divine animal of nobleness and dignity, which can protect the Truth and keep off evils.

It was also popular to decorate bridges with sculpted-stone lions for the same reason. The best known of this is the Lugouqiao (also as Marco Polo Bridge), built from 1189 to 1192. The stone lions on the posts of the bridge are most famous. It is said there are 485 lions in all, but there may be 498 or 501. A famous proverb says “the lions on the Lugouqiao are uncountable.”

The Lion and the nian

For Chinese people the lion is a holy animal. That is why lions play an important role in Chinese mythology. In China lions and people can be friends. An old Chinese story tells about a lion, lion dances and New Year:

A long time ago a strange creature appeared in China and horrified and ate men and animals. The fast and fierce creature was called nian, which sounds like the Chinese word for year. Neither the fox nor the tiger could fight the nian effectively and in despair the people asked the lion for help. The lion shook his mane, rushed towards the creature and wounded it. The nian hurried away with the tail between its legs. But it announced to return for taking revenge.

A year later the nian did return. This time the lion couldn’t help the people. He was too busy with guarding the emperor’s gate. So the villagers decided to do the job themselves. Out of bamboo and cloth they produced an image of the lion. Two men crawled inside it and approached the nian. The lion pranced and roared and the monster fled away again. This is the reason why on the eve of the Chinese New Year, lions always dance. They are frightening evil away for yet another year.

Bringing luck and happiness

The lion dance is an important tradition in China. Usually the dance is part of festivities like Chinese New Year, the openings of restaurants and weddings. If well-performed, the lion dance is believed to bring luck and happiness.

Although lions are not native in China, they came to this country via the famous Silk Road. Rulers in what is today Iran and Afghanistan sent lions to Chinese emperors as gifts in order to get the right to trade with Silk Road merchants. The lion dance dates back to the Han Dynasty (205 B.C. to 220 A.D in China) and during the Tang Dynasty (716-907 A.D.) it was at its peak. It was particularly performed during religious festivals. The lion dance was not only introduced in China, but also in Korea and Taiwan, where lions are not native as well. The dances are not exactly the same in these countries, but the symbolism is quite similar.

The lion is enacted by two dancers. One handles the head, made out of strong but light materials like paper-mache and bamboo, the other plays the body and the tail under a cloth that is attached to the head. The ‘animal’ is accompanied by three musicians, playing a large drum, cymbals and a gong. A Little Buddha teases it with a fan or a giant ball. The head dancer can move the lion’s eyes, mouth and ears for expression of moods.

The lion dance combines art, history and kung fu moves. Normally the performers are kung fu practitioners. Every kind of move has a specific musical rhythm. The music follows the moves of the lion: the drum follows the lion, the cymbals and the gong follow the drum player.

Quite often people observing the dances think that they are looking at dragons. The main difference between lion dance and dragon dance is that the latter is performed with more people than two.

Myths of the Lion

We have already encountered the ideal of the lion on a mythical quest for restoration and holiness. We have also seen that the lion is used by Buddhists. The following three myths explore the mythical link that the lion had with Buddhism. Although the lion was often seen as “a Bodhisattva and acted as a guardian of Buddhism” , there is hardly any documentation to explain why they were linked. In many of the Lion Dance routines, there is a Buddha performing along with the lion. He plays with the lion and guides him on his quest. In Buddhist rituals, it would seem that the Buddha should have the superior position with the lion as a servant or companion. However, the Buddha in the lion dance is seen as the equivalent of a circus clown or buffoon. He is also known as a “teaser” or “funny man” and is characterized by a “large belly and the butt sticking out” (Advanced Lion Dances of China). In his article, Staples even calls the Buddha the antagonist.

Loong Gi

This myth has the lion looking for a mythical mushroom known as “Loong Gi” that is supposed to have great healing properties. A Buddhist monk is also on a quest for the same mushroom. The two meet up and join together to search for the mushroom. As they travel together, the monk teaches Buddhism to the lion and the lion in turn protects the monk form danger (Advanced Lion Dances of China).
In this myth, we can see some of the heroic qualities of the lion. He is a protector, and guardian of Buddhism, and he is on a sacred quest. The object he is seeking is used for healing and thus the lion is also a healer. The lion and the monk join together for mutual benefit.

The Lion and the Village

Legends tell of a village that was being overrun by rats. One day, a lion appeared and ate all of the rats. However, once the rats were gone, the lion turned on the villagers. There was a Buddhist monk in the village and he captured the lion and taught it Buddhism. The lion became tame and protected the village from attackers.

This myth also presents the lion as a savior of sorts. He delivers the village from the rats, but does so for selfish motives. This lion fits almost perfectly with the Greek idea of the “tragic hero” who falls after succumbing to pride or selfish desires. Once the rats are gone, he seeks to satisfy his hunger by eating the villagers. The monk rescues the lion from this carnal state, and shows him a better way of life in Buddhism. The lion changes his ways and becomes the guardian of the village. This is almost a version of the “beauty and the beast” archetype detailed by Jung. The next myth shows the archetype better.

Guan Yin and the Lion

In a variation of the above tale, the villagers kill the lion and cut its head off. Then Guan Yin, a Bodhisattva figure, has pity on the beast and resurrects him by tying his head back on with a red ribbon. The lion out of gratitude becomes a disciple of Buddhism. Guan Yin continues to be his mentor.

Since we are looking at Lion Dancing as a product of the subconscious, we can either interpret this myth as a version of the beauty and the beast archetype (Guan Yin saw the inner strength of the lion) or we can see Guan Yin as the lion’s anima. According to Jung, the animal is a female within the subconscious of every male that serves as his guide in the subliminal world.