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Pair of guardian lions

China, 18th century
Gilt-bronze

This pair of roaring lions (shī in Chinese, shishi in Japanese), can be spotted in the castle’s Buddhist Room. They are miniature versions of the statues which usually stand at the gate or entrance of an important building such as a temple. They are made from carved bronze covered in gold. They are almost identical, but one has its left claw on a lion cub (the female lion) and one has its right claw on an embroidered cloth ball (the male lion). They are both wearing elaborate collars with large bells attached.

The lion has been an important symbol in Buddhism since it’s beginnings in India around 400 BC. In ancient Buddhist texts, the teachings of the Buddha were sometimes referred to as ‘lion’s roar’. The lion became a symbol for the Buddha and his teachings in the earliest period of Buddhist art, most famously on the top of surviving examples of the ‘Ashoka pillars’. These pillars were built by King Ashoka who reigned from 268 to 232 BC, to commemorate important sites and promote Buddhism.

Photograph of an Ashoka pillar capital with lions, taken at Sarnath, 1905, Sarnath Museum, India, wikimedia commons

In China, the shī lion dates to the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD). The lions have been found guarding the entrance of ancient tombs from this period. Buddhism arrived into China from India with traders and travellers along the Silk Road in the first century AD. This may have influenced the popularity of lion imagery in China during this period. Over time, the guardian lion became an important feature of the entrances to tombs, palaces, schools, and other important spaces. The lions are believed to have the power to repel evil spirits which might try to enter a sacred space. In the West, shī lions are known as ‘dogs of fo’ and are sometimes called lion-dogs. ‘Fo’ comes from the character for ‘Buddha’ in Chinese.

Chinese guardian lion in limestone, Northern Qi dynasty (550–577), The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accession number 30.66.1

Stone lion at the Imperial Palace Museum in Beijing, wikimedia commons

The shī lion also made it’s way to Japan with the arrival of Buddhism there via Korea in the 6th century. There are two different names for it in Japan – the kara shishi (‘Chinese lion’) or the koma inu (‘Korean dog’). They are commonly seen at the entrance to sacred spaces and are also a popular motif in Japanese art. The lion-dog has become a beloved mythical creature in Japan, considered to be a guardian and protector.

Carving of a shishi, glazed stoneware, Bizen, Japan, ca. 1750 – 1850, Victoria and Albert Museum, accession number 193-1877

Although the lions originated as large guardian statues, smaller versions became popular for decoration in the home. Small gilt-bronze statues like our object of the month may have been made for use on a small Buddhist altar and porcelain versions were also made as decorative objects. These became very fashionable in the West and were a feature of many upper-class homes from the 18th century onward. The porcelain pair in the image below were made to decorate a desk in the Qing period (17th – 18th century) – the containers on their backs would have been used to hold incense.

Pair of porcelain lion-dogs, or ‘Dogs of Fo’, Qing Dynasty, 1666 – 1722, made in Jingdezhen, British Museum, museum number Franks.197.+

As well as the pair of shī lions which can be viewed as part of the castle’s Buddhist collection, there are also several examples in the Japanese Room. Shishi decorate the large cabinet in the shape of a shrine in the back of the room as well as several lacquer boxes. The castle also holds an archive of photographs and papers belonging to Denys Eyre Bower, including the image below of Denys next to his own guardian lion statue, which still stands in the castle grounds.

Photograph of Denys Eyre Bower with stone lion statue in the grounds, Kent Messenger, Chiddingstone Castle archive

Japanese lacquer medicine box with a design of a curled up shishi, 18th century, Chiddingstone Castle collection, object number 01.2896

This object is just one of the many objects that form part of Denys Eyre Bower’s five impressive collections which include Ancient Egyptian, Japanese, Buddhist, Stuart and Jacobite, and Books. For more information on these objects, review our Object of the Month series, visit the Historic House and Collections or contact our Curator, Naomi Collick by email or by calling 01892 870347.

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