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Lion or Shi

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The Lion, in Chinese is called Shi ( pinyin: shī) or Shizi , a term which has been advanced to have been derived as a transliteration of the first syllable from some Iranian language, possibly from the ancient Persian, Ser, Iranian, Sary, or even the Sanskrit, Sinha. It is generally held that the lion was first known in China during the great period of expansion and commercial penetration into Central Asia under the Former-Han dynasty, 206 B.C.-24 A.D.

In the light of the continuously accumulating evidence of archaeological finds revealing much earlier inter-communications between China, Central and Western Asia, it would seem strange that no information whatsoever was possessed by the Chinese in the pre-Han dynasty era concerning the mighty king of beasts.

In the ancient Chinese dictionary, Erhya (爾雅 ěr yǎ), there is an ancient and probably indigenous Chinese term for the lion. This term is Suanni (狻猊 suān ní), described as a light-colored tiger (or feline) which eats other tigers and leopards’, and identified by the earliest commentators with the Han lion, Shizi. It was probably in a period when communications became disrupted that the earlier term disappeared from the Chinese vocabulary and the lion became linguistically extinct in China until it was resuscitated under another name during the Han period, 206 B.C.-220 A.D.

To the Chinese, the lion was not only considered the king of beasts, but was also regarded as a symbol of power and good fortune. In reference to its earlier name, Sunanni, the lion is believed to be eighth descendant of the Dragon, Longshengjiuzi (龍生九子 lóng shēng jiǔ zǐ). As such, it was considered a sacred animal Shengshou (聖獸 shèng shòu) and had the powers of protection to drive away evil. From the Han dynasty onwards, stone sculptures of lions were used as temple guardians and as decorations for government buildings. The art motives of lions were also found in popular folk art.

In Buddhism, the lion is regarded as the defender of law and protector of sacred buildings. The Boddhisattva of Wisdom, Manjusri (文殊菩薩 wén shū pú sà) is always depicted mounted on a lion. Wherever the Buddha sits is called the Lion Throne and the voice of Buddha is called Lion’s Roar. Therefore, there is a close affinity and association of the lion with Buddhism in both art and symbolism.

Guardian lions are always in pairs. The male is featured with one paw on a ball, which represents the dual powers of nature and the precious jewel which gives life, while the female has a paw over a young cub lion. The lioness is neither playing with her cub nor keeping it in line, however, she is feeding the youngster. There is an ancient legend relating that the lion produces milk from its paws, and therefore, the lion cub is being suckled by its mother, so that the claws should be correctly represented as in the mouth of the youngster. With the displaying or placement of the Guardian Lions, it is imperative that they be placed correctly. The Chinese have a saying, Nanzuonuyou (男左女右 nán zuǒ nǚ yòu ), literally, the male on the left the female on the right. However, it is a reference to stage right and stage left, which means that facing the pair of lions, the male should be on the viewer’s right and the female on the left.

Oftentimes, there is a mistake in placing the Guardian Lions, which the Chinese believe would bring about Bad Luck and commonly called Tiecuomenshen (貼錯門神 tiē cuò mén shén), reversing the order of the door guardians and Yinyangdaoluan (陰陽倒亂 yīn yáng dǎo luàn), the mixed-up of the Yin and Yang elements. An easy method of remembering this is the written Chinese character, Hao (好 hǎo) ,or Good, with the female on the left and the male on the right. There is a popular Chinese folk dance called Shiziwu (獅子舞 shī zi wǔ), whereby two persons dance in a costume of a lion with a colorful cloth and papier mache head, and a another postures in front with a large ball called Xiuqiu (繡球 xiù qiú), or embroidered ball, representing the dual powers of nature as a precious jewel. The lion sports with the ball and the dance is called Shizikunqiu. Sometimes, more than a single lion is featured.

The lion, called Shī, is the homonym for the word meaning master, teacher or official and so it has been used in symbolically forming rebuses. In addition, the term Shih is also a homonym for the word meaning generation and used in that capacity.


By William C. Hu and David Lei