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Imperial guardian lions, also called Fu Dogs or Foo Dogs, and called Shi in Chinese, are powerful mythic protectors that have traditionally stood in front of Chinese Imperial palaces, temples, emperors' tombs, government offices, and the homes of government officials and the wealthy from the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), until the end of the empire in 1911. In Greater Tibet, the guardian lion is known as a Snow Lion. Imperial guardian lions are still common decorative and symbolic elements at the entrances to restaurants, hotels, and other structures. In Myanmar they are called Chinthe and gave their name to the World War II Chindit soldiers.
The lions are traditionally carved from decorative stone such as marble and granite or cast in bronze or iron. Because of the high cost of these materials and the labor required to produce them, private use of Imperial guardian lions was traditionally reserved for wealthy or elite families. Indeed, a traditional symbol of a family's wealth or social status was the placement of Imperial guardian lions in front of the family home. However, in modern times less expensive lions, mass produced in concrete and resin, have become available and their use therefore no longer restricted to the elite.
The lions are generally present in pairs, with the male on the right and the female on the left. The male lion has his right paw on a globe, which represents his "feeling the pulse of the earth." The female is essentially identical, but has a single cub under her left paw. Symbolically, the male fu dog guards the structure, while the female protects those dwelling inside. Sometimes the male has his mouth open and the female closed. This symbolizes the enunciation of the sacred word "om." However, Japanese adaptions state that the male is inhaling, representing life, while the female exhales, representing death. Other styles have both lions with a single large pearl in each of their partially opened mouths. The pearl is carved so that it can roll about in the lion's mouth but sized just large enough so that it can never be removed.
Interestingly, the lion is not indigenous to China. When Buddhist travelers, probably out to trade, brought stories about lions to China, Chinese sculptors modeled statues of lions after the travelers' descriptions--and after native dogs, since no one in China had seen a lion with his or her own eyes. The mythic version of the animal was originally introduced to Han China as the Buddhist protector of dharma. Gradually they were transformed into guardians of the Imperial dharma, and some Qing realizations of them came to look more like the dogs of Fo. (Compare the Chow Chow, Pekingese, Shi Tzu, and Pug breeds.) These beasts have been found in art as early as 208 BC. In the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the ruling Manchu derived their name from the Manjushri Buddha, who rides on a lion.
The beast is sometimes associated with feng shui or Buddhism. Fu means 'happiness' in Chinese; however, the term "Fu Dog" and its variants are not used in Chinese. Instead, they are known as Rui Shi ("auspicious lions") or simply Shi ("lions").
There are various styles of imperial guardian lions reflecting influences from different time periods, imperial dynasties, and regions of China. These styles vary in there artistic detail and adornment as well as in the depiction of the lions from fierce to serene.
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