1989 / 3月
Twu Jih Huei /photos courtesy of Arthur Cheng /tr. by Peter Eberly
The lion is not native to China, but its image is deeply rooted in the Chinese heart.
Lions were introduced to China from India during the Han dynasty. A historical note from the reign of the Han emperor Shun (126 to 145) records: "The king of Shu-le sent as tribute a rhinoceros and a lion." The lion's appearance in art followed the spread of Buddhism to the country during the fourth and fifth centuries, when Buddhist statues carved with lion figures inspired the Chinese to create imitations of their own.
When Chinese people first saw the lion they were apparently frightened by its ferocity, describing it this way: "It has a large head, a long tail, a head of brass, a brow of iron, claws like hooks, teeth like saws, flattened ears, a haughty snout, a glance like lightning, a roar like thunder, and tawny whiskers. The female has a furball as big as a peck on its tail. It can run five hundred li a day and is master of the furred creatures. The hundred animals withdraw in fright each time it roars, and horses urinate blood."
It was also said that the lion could "drag a tiger, swallow a p'i (a mythical bearlike animal), rend a rhinoceros, and divide an elephant" and that "after it dies, tigers and leopards dare not eat its flesh, and flies dare not gather on its tail." Judged by what we know about lions today, the ancients' descriptions do indeed contain some truth but also a con siderable amount of exaggeration.
From an understanding based largely on rumor and hearsay emerged the image of the Chinese lion, which is half real and half fantastic.
Besides being seen as a symbol of ferocity like its realistic Western counterpart, the Chinese lion has acquired several other meanings as well. Sakyamuni Buddha, for example, used the lion to represent the majesty of dharmic law and compared its roar to Buddhist truth, awakening the people of the world. Records of cultural artifacts from the T'ang dynasty (618 to 907) show the lion as the steed of Manjusri, the Buddha's chief disciple. And because the Chinese word for lion is a homonym for two of the chief ministerial positions in the ancient bureaucratic system, it also came to stand for high rank in office.
Owing to its various connotations of might, enlightenment, and auspiciousness, the lion has been widely employed as a decoration in daily life, its form appearing, rampant or couchant, at the ends of bridges, beside temple gates, in gardens and parks, on rooftops, and in household ornaments.
The painter Wang Ying-te is a lion buff who fell in love with stone lions watching his father sculpt them as a child. From there arose a passion for studying and collecting them. After a dozen or so years of collecting, he now owns more than a hundred lion figurines made of stone, bamboo, ceramic, and metal, dating from the Yuan dynasty (1271 to 1368) to the present day. All of them are small in size, however, such as pedestals, incense burners, paperweights, and incense holders. The big stone lions in front of temples and tombs are not as amenable to collecting, but he has traveled all over the mainland taking pictures of them for study .
Wang says that all Chinese lions--be they small-scale figures for utilitarian decoration or imposing statues designed to guard against evil--can generally be classified into one of two styles, a northern and a southern. The northern lion is majestic and awesome, while the southern lion is warmer and gentler and often reveals a smile.
The form of the Chinese lion can also be classified chronologically. During the Han dynasty (206 B.C. to 220 A.D.), under Indian influence, the lion sprouted wings. The winged lion was seen as an auspicious beast that could ward off evil.
During the T'ang dynasty, when contacts with the West were more frequent, the lion became more realistic in form. During the Sung dynasty (960 to 1279) its mane and flesh were exaggerated to such an extent that it began to appear pudgy.
During the Yuan dynasty, its mane was decorated with curlicue designs and its tail hung down to the ground like that of Pekinese dog. It sometimes appeared in a low, creeping form like that of a ch'an-ch'u toad, to symbolize its ability, like the toad, to attract wealth.
By the Ming (1368 to 1644) and Ching (1644 to 1911) dynasties, the capabilities of sculpture were utilized to the full in rendering its mane and figure in minute detail.
The lion's form also became mixed with those of other animals. Wang says that the combination of lion and dragon that crouches in front of the National Palace Museum in Peking, besides expressing the might of the imperial family, also had the meaning in ancient times of welcoming thereturn of victorious troops to the capital. In addition, the halffish half-lion creatures that sometimes appear in folk temples are said to depict one of the dragon's nine sons, which has the ability to subdue the waters and prevent floods.
Through constant remolding in the Chinese imagination over the ages, the Chinese lion long ago cast off its original appearance to become a warm and amiable creature with auspicious connotations. Each of them now has round eyes, a bulbous nose, a curly mane, a brass bell or a basket hanging over its chest, and a pearl or a colorful sash with copper money held in its mouth. It looks like nothing so much as an overgrown Pekinese, fawning and wagging its tail. In the lion dances held every Chinese New Year's, the lion looks as happy as the people.
Changing the fierce lion into a friendly one reveals something of the rich and generous power of the Chinese imagination. The next time you see a Chinese lion, don't forget to look at it carefully and try to appreciate some of its more subtle significance.
This ceramic piece, dating from the Western Chin dynasty shows a lion tamer with a beard, hollow eyes, a prominent nose, and a tall hat--for holding incense or a candle.
This stone lion from the T'ang dynasty resembles a real one in the latent power of its musculature. (photo by Wang Ying-te)
Winged lions appeared under Middle Eastern influence. These pieces are made of bronze.
The oval shape of this lion carved in bamboo is influenced by the concept of roundness representing reunion, familiar from lunar new year paintings.
Owing to the shape of the stone, this roughly hewn lion from the Sung dynasty has a geometric form that is extremely rare among Chinese lions. (photo by Wang Ying-te)
A lion king on a lion steed--how fearsome! This piece of sculptured stone from the Yuan dynasty vividly captures the lion's energy and movement.
Short, stout, and smiling amiably, this Ming dynasty ceramic lion, used as incense-holder, displays a characteristic southern form.
This granite stone lion stands in front of the Wen Miao temple in Soochow. (photo by Wang Ying-te)
The artisan who made this pair of lion-style incense holders from the Ming dynasty had intended them to be solid black in color, but they came out a mixed black and gold.
This little jade lion has a horn, like that of the chi-lin, or Chinese unicorn, that enables it to be worn on clothing.
This lion, dating from the late Yuan or early Ming, was made in Chenchiang County, Kiangsu Province, on the border between north and south China, but is purely northern in style. (photo by Wang Ying-te)
Nine lions are engraved on this hand-cut bronze belt buckle from the late Ming dynasty. Each one has a pair of cute round eyes and a big nose.
Covered with gold foil, this pair of lions forms the leg of a chair made in the late Ming or early Ch'ing. They show the affection of a mother caring for her child.
With its haughty bearing this Ming dynasty lion at the Penglai Pavilion in Shantung is of the northern style. (photo by Wang Ying-te)
This ivory piece, dating from the Ching dynasty, depicts one of the nine sons of the dragon, good at bearing loads, who was a brother of the lion.