The Lion in Cultural Exchange Between China and the West

Li Ling

In ancient Chinese art, the lion is an extremely common motif. Moreover, wherever there are Chinese people, as for example in the Chinatowns scattered around the globe, there is always the custom of performing the “lion dance” on festival days. Many Chinese believe that this is a distinctively native custom of ours, and even think that the lion is indigenous to China. I recall that right before the ceremony marking the opening of the new Shanghai Museum, a television reporter gestured towards the eight ancient-style lions arrayed there and asked passers-by what they represented. They answered that Napoleon had said that China is a sleeping lion, and that the lion symbolizes the bravery of the Chinese people. What they did not know is that the lion is a foreign import into China, and that even the lion dance is not unique to China.

In Chinese art the earliest lions appear with wings, which form but one type of winged mythological or fantastic animals. This is a common motif in the art of West Asia, for example, in Assyria and Persia, as well as in Central Asia and the Eurasian steppes, though in the last it is also a foreign motif as tigers, not lions, inhabited the Eurasian steppes. Inasmuch as there was no direct contact with the living animal, Chinese representations of the lion make it look more like the tiger. The earlier examples come from the end of the Spring and Autumn period and the Warring States. At that stage, there were many types of winged mythological animals, including a motif resembling the griffin that was rather common in the art of Central Asia, North Africa, Europe, Inner Asia and Eurasian steppes, which was, in fact, a most international art motif in the ancient world. The eagle and the lion are all popular art motifs in the Western world broadly defined, as they can often be seen in Western coats of arms. The winged lion and the griffin (which looks like a lion with the head of an eagle) are mixtures of the eagle and the lion, but the griffin never quite caught on with the Chinese as did the winged lion, which also lasted a long time in the Chinese tradition. Mention of the lion in Chinese texts occurs as early as the Warring States period. For instance, recovered from a Western Jin dynasty tomb, the Biography of King Mu 穆天子傳 tells of King Mu’s travels to the western regions, and describes the lion as an animal that resembles the tiger but is even more ferocious. The lion is said to eat tigers and panthers; it was called at the time suanni 狻猊. Scholars have determined that the word suanni is borrowed from a dialect in the western egions, and in Chinese it is a loan word of foreign origin, a transliteration. Another early text, the ancient dictionary Er ya 爾雅, which gives the etymologies and definitions of ancient terms, also mentions the animal suanni and describes it as a short-haired tiger. More interesting still is the recent discovery of a similar term with a nearly identical description found on Chu kingdom bamboo slips (dated to approximately 300 B.C.) kept in the Shanghai Museum. There the animal’s name is 俊貌, pronounced as leni. The phonology of this term is quite close to the Greek leon and Latin leo (from which the English “lion” is derived).

The importation of the lion into China and the change of the Chinese name to shizi 獅子 (also a foreign loan word from the western regions) occurred in the Han dynasty. As everyone knows, although the lion and the tiger are both large members of the cat family, the natural habitats of the two are different and do not overlap. The primary habitat of the lion is Africa, but it is also found on the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, and eastward to the Iranian plateau, the western part of India, and as far north as Afghanistan. The tiger’s primary habitat is China, but it extends north to the Russian Far East, south to Sumatra, southwest to Tibet and the eastern and southern parts of the Indian subcontinent, and west to as far as Georgia. Historically, it was in the eastern part of the Eurasian steppes adjacent to China that tigers were most often seen (and it is a common motif in art from that region, sometimes also having wings). From the “Account of the Western Regions” in the Han Dynastic History and other ancient sources we know that when the lion was first sent from the western lands as tribute to China, it came from the area where the two aforementioned habitats draw closest together, that is, modern Afghanistan. That was the end point in the south route of the Silk Road that led from modern Xinjiang to Central Asia, what was known in the Han dynasty as Wuyi shanli 烏戈山離 or Paite 排特. At that time, the Chinese, in awe of the lion’s ferocity, gave it its own Chinese names, such as “Heaven’s Blessing” (tianlu 天祿) and “Exorcist of Evil” (bixue 辟邪). In the Han dynasty, lions became even more popular in art. Aside from their use as decorative motifs on small objects made of gold, silver, bronze, and pottery, they also appear as large commemorative stone carvings placed in front of tombs and likewise used to guard palace gates or shrine doors (where they function like guarding lions and griffins in Western culture, and thus Westerners often refer to them as “winged chimeras”). Owing to its unfamiliarity and the aura of mystery surrounding it, the lion as a motif in early art is made to look particularly hideous. Realistic looking lions are relatively rare in this time period, and it was only after Buddhist art was brought to China that the Chinese gradually became familiar with the lion. From the Tang dynasty on, lions were usually depicted without wings, their bodies became thicker and shorter, and their manes became curly, making them resemble lions in Indian and Turkic art. Eventually, they developed into the likeness so common today of the curly-haired dog-like door guardian.

A Kunlun dancer

Dancers with Lion's Mask

I mentioned the lion dance above, which was documented quite early in Chinese writings, such as in Meng Kang’s 孟康 (3rd c. A.D.) commentary on the “Treatise on Ritual and Music” in the Han Dynastic History. In describing Buddhist processions at the time, A Record of Buddhist Monasteries in Luoyang 洛陽伽藍記 also mentions that these processions “are led by an exorcist lion at the front.” Referring to a lion dance, the Old Tang Dynastic History notes that the man who leads the dance “has the appearance of a native from Kunlun.” In fact, the lion dancer known as a Kunlun servant is probably a black slave from India or Africa. Interestingly, lion dance figurines found in a tomb in Asitana 阿斯塔那, Xinjiang, dating from what would be the

Lion dance dpicted in murals on the palace walls of the ancient kingdom of Guge, Tibet.

Tang dynasty in China, look very much like the lion dance we know today, and together with them was found the figure of a black Kunlun slave. Furthermore, the lion dance was not only performed in the region of modern-day Xinjiang, for we also find the lion dance depicted in murals on the palace walls of the ancient kingdom of Guge 古格 in Tibet, at a time roughly equivalent of the Yuan dynasty in China. Thus we see that the lion dance is not unique to the Han Chinese, but it was known throughout the regions of Xinjiang and Tibet that are adjacent to Central Asia.

Today, having gone through so many changes and transformations in Chinese art, the lion has acquired a distinctively Chinese character (perhaps seen as bizarre and grotesque by those in the place of its origin, just as the Chinese would when looking at the image of China transformed in eighteenth-century Rococo art). The lion has indeed become so near and dear to us that we no longer think about its provenance. Using it as a case in point, however, I would like to emphasize that Chinese art was already the recipient of foreign influences even long before Zhang Qian 張騫 (2 nd century B.C.) went on his expedition to the western regions. We ought to take the perspective of Tang dynasty archaeology and push it back to an earlier time frame, for example, in studying foreign influence on stone cave art and on gold and silverware.

It is intriguing to think that in recent weeks, during which Afghanistan has been the scene of so much fighting, when an old blind lion died in the Kabul Zoo, China made a gift of a lion to Afghanistan. I venture to say that neither the one who came up with the idea of sending this lion as a gift nor the other Chinese who heard about it ever realized that this was actually a reciprocal gift sent back to that foreign land after a hiatus of two thousand years.

Trans. Ronald Egan


Li Ling is Professor of Chinese at Peking University. He graduated from the Archaeology Department of the Chinese Academy of Social Science, specializing in the research of inscriptions on ancient bronze vessels of the Yin 殷 and Zhou 周 dynasties. He is the author of <<長沙子彈庫戰國楚帛書研究>> [Study of Silk Roll Writing in the State of Chu of the Warring States Period Excavated at Zidan ku in Changsha] (Beijing: Zhonghua,1985); <<孫子古本研究>> [Study of Ancient Texts of the Sunzi] (Beijing: Peking University Press, 1995); and of a co-authored volume <<中國古代房內考>> [The Inner Chamber Manuals in Ancient China] (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin, 1990).