The Buddhist Lion (shizi), also referred to as a Fo Dog or Dog of Foo, is considered an auspicious animal in China. Lions are not indigenous to the china, though they were presented to the court by foreign embassies as early as the Han Dynasty. The lion became a very popular motif, in Chinese art, with much symbolic meaning. The word for lion also plays a role in its significance. Shi is a homophone for ‘teacher’.
Lions entered Chinese imagery, along with the introduction of Buddhism from India (c.1st Century AD), often symbolising protection and wisdom. As a motif, they gradually made an interesting metamorphosis, from scary guardians to being portrayed as amusing and playful creatures. These depictions bear little resemblance to real lions, as they are often styled into fantastical creatures with exaggerated features. From the Ming Dynasty onwards, they take on a more dog-like appearance, with bulging eyes, pug-like face and a short bushy tail. Allegedly, even Pekinese pugs were even bred to look like them. In the Ming & Qing Dynasties, lions were also associated with courage and used as an insignia of officers of the first and later the second rank.
Lion dogs are associated with Buddhism, as legend has it that Buddha once entered a temple and instructed his two accompanying lions to wait outside - which they did dutifully. This is said to be the reason that lions are found at the gates of Buddhist temples and entrances of sacred halls and important buildings - symbols of guardianship and wisdom.
The lion with a cloth or brocade ball is a common combination. An ancient legend tells that the lion produces milk for its young from its paws, country folk would leave hollow balls in the hills so that the lions, would be tempted to play with them, in doing so leaving their milk in them.
Usually they are portrayed seated in pairs - a male and female. They can be easily identified, as the female is always portrayed protecting her cub and the male standing on a ball. Two lions playing with an embroidered or brocade ball is a common design, which may have the same significance as two dragons fighting for the pearl of supremacy.