If you have ever walked in to a Buddhist temple or Chinese imperial palace, you probably noticed two menacing statues standing near the doorway, guarding the entrance. These statues are known as foo dogs or guardian lions and their imagery is extremely common within Chinese historical architecture.
Foo dogs take their name from the Chinese word for ‘Buddha’, which is fo, and they are also commonly known as the “lions of fo”. Lions of Fo always come in pairs, often depicting the male lion playing with a ball or globe and the female lion holding a cub in her paw.
Since lions were not native to China, Chinese sculptors originally modeled the lion statues after local dogs, such as the Chow Chow, which has a bushy coat that gives it a lion-like appearance. Together with other closely related Chinese dog breeds, the Chow Chow belongs to a group of dogs known as “foo dogs”. So, the Lions of Fo statues were also referred to as ‘foo dogs’.
Guardian lions are typically cast out of bronze or metal or carved from stone. They are placed at the entrances to important buildings to guard the doorways and keep out evil spirits and enemies. Some incarnations of the guardian lion are much more menacing, fierce images, while others appear more like a growling dog with a longer, thinner snout.
Foo dogs are also usually depicted as wearing one or several types of ornamentation. These can include ornate collars, hanging tassels or armor on the limbs and body of the lion. Additionally, sometimes guardian lion statues are shown with open mouths, inside of which is one single pearl.
Lions of Fo are still a very popular form of decoration. Smaller, cheaper forms of the statues are now sold for use as décor in or near the home, as many Chinese still believe in the power of the lions’ fierce appearance to keep evil away. Most historical Chinese buildings and temples also still boast the original guardian near their entrances, usually with the male lion on the right and the female on the left.