Chinese Stone Lion

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Stone lions in Tiananmen square
Stone lions in Tiananmen square
Chinese stone lion culture

The lion features predominantly in traditional Chinese sculpture. However, it is interesting to note that the lion lives in Africa and West Asia, but has never been native to China.
According to the Historical Records, compiled by the famous Han-dynasty historian Sima Qian(145? -90? BC),  the lion first came to China in 138 BC. Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty sent envoy Zhang Qian(died 114 BC)to Central Asia to open relations with Central Asian nations and promote trade with them. As a result, the well travelled ancient Silk Road was opened, and envoys of Central Asian countries brought lions with them to present as tribute gifts to the Chinese emperor.

Zhang Qian(张骞), the Western Han court sent Zhang Qian to the Western Regions, thus opening a road to Central Asia and Persia (now Iran). This route over which Chinese silk and other products were transported to Southwest Asia and Europe became known in history as the Silk Road. It promoted economic and cultural exchange between the East and the West. In the Han Dynasty(206BC-AD 220) he served as an envoy to Central Asia and helped create the Silk Road,which reached as far as the Roman Empire.

By the Eastern Han Dynasty (AD 25-220),a number of lions had been brought to China but very few people in China had actually seen a real one. Therefore, the majority of the artists engaged in lion sculpture had to depend upon their imagination and written and oral descriptions of the lion. Judging from surviving Eastern Han examples, these lion sculptures were used to guard the tombs of emperors, princes and other members of the nobility.

The stone lions guarding The Ancestral Shrine of the Wu Family in Jiaxiang County of Shandong Province and those in Lushan County of Sichuan Province are typical examples. Because they were used to exorcise evil spirits and fend off disaster, these sculptures emphasized the lions strength, ferocity and predatory nature. The source of physical features for these lion sculptures was the tiger, which was fairly common in China, so the Chinese lion is essentially a tiger dressed in lion’s clothing, with features such as the lion’s mane added and often exaggerated for The sake of effect. The result is that the Chinese lion presents an imposing rather than a realistic image. The majority of the sculptured lions are in standing poses and only a very few are in squatting postures.

Stone lions in Tiananmen square
Stone lions in Tiananmen
Stone lions in Tian’anmen

The lion sculptures in the Southern Dynasties(420-589) were also used to guard the tombs. They generally stand 2 to 3 metres tall and 3 to 4 metres in length. They are sculpted from solid rock, each of them weighing about 15 tons. These lions seem to strut, their heads thrown back proudly. The smooth curves bring out a sense of movement. Linear carving and three-dimensional carving are combined in the process of sculpting these lions. Their bodies and general features are three-dimensional, but details such as the mane and facial features are brought out by delicate line in intaglio, adding a sense of ornateness to the sculpture as a whole.
The lion sculptures of the Northern Dynasties (386-581)are mostly found in Buddhist grottoes, a result of the influence of Buddhism. They are generally carved in relief. They are smaller in size than the lions of the Southern Dynasties (420-589) and do not look as powerful and militant as the southern ones. Instead, they are like faithful Buddhists safeguarding the Buddhist principles and doctrines. Some lions seem even mild and meek.

The Tang Dynasty (618-907) lions largely assumed the duty of guarding imperial mausoleums and are in squatting postures. Their pyramid like bodies are muscular and powerful, exuding an air of gravity. They symbolized the prosperity and stability of the Tang Dynasty. This tallies with the aesthetic standards of that time, which emphasized plump and strong images of human figures and animals in painting. The only difference was that sculpture was capable of a more dramatic expression of power. The lion’s mane by the Tang Dynasty was covered with small spiral curls of hair, which eventually became one of the most important physical attributes of Chinese lion sculptures. In addition, stone lions during this period began to be sued to carry sculpted Buddhist sages. This tradition lasted until the Yuan Dynasty(1279-1368). Lion sculpture reached its zenith in the Tang Dynasty and many conventions established during that period were to influence lion sculpture in China over the following centuries.

In the Song Dynasty(960-1279), changes took place in the shape of lion sculpture. The lions, in various postures, were lovely as well as dignified. Figures of frolicking lionesses with cubs began to appear, which symbolized happiness and go luck.At the same time, paired images of lions holding decorative balls and lionesses stroking their cubs began to appear, which was to become a standard image. In addition, lions adorned with necklaces with bells began to appear.This suggests that the sculptured lion was losing its ferocity. Some scholars suggest that such changes reflected political and military weakness and impotence.
The Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368)witnessed that the stone lions were no longer used to guard tombs. But the lion as an architectural decorative piece was widely employed in palaces, mansions, residences and houses. Under the Ming Dynasty(1368-1644), lion sculptures were very common decorative pieces in front of the houses of ordinary people as well as before the mansions of officials and nobilities. Lion images began to be widely used to decorate roof ridges, bridge railings and archways as well. Many of the lions in is period are in upright postures. They support their bodies with their forelimbs, which are in turns supported by decorative objects such as balls or lion cubs. The Ming Dynasty lions, which are often in frolicking groups, are more pet like, in variety of gentle postures.

In the Qing Dynasty(1644-1911), lion sculptures were widely used to decorate tombs, palaces, gardens, official mansions, temples and residences of ordinary people. The lions took on more human emotions and feelings, with vivid postures, endearing manners. The dignified air that typified earlier lion sculptures is no longer in existence. In addition, the pedestal on which the lion was perched became more and more elaborately ornate, with various kinds of meticulous patterns and decorative additions.

Early in the 20th century, many young Chinese artists went abroad to learn foreign arts. When they came back, they brought with them ideas and methods of Western art creation and education. A new style of lion sculpture combining traditional Chinese and contemporary Western styles began to emerge. A number of lion sculptures that retain Chinese characteristics and yet reflect a modern spirit have been created since the new China was founded in 1949.They include the piece “Roar! The Lion” in front of the Anti-japanese War Museum at Lugouqiao (Marco Polo Bridge) in Beijing and the piece of”Nine Lions”in Helei, capital of Anhui Province.

Lion sculpture has a history of more than 2,000 years in China. Over the centuries, the Chinese version of the lion image has become so deeply rooted in the mind of the Chinese people and artists that images of real lions ha been quite unable to vanquish the traditional conceptual images. The Chinese lion has a life of its own, and has become an integral part of traditional Chinese culture and the Chinese spirit.