Eastern traditions embrace very rich and diverse symbolical system. In the mythology and folklore of many nations in Africa, West, South and East Asia, lion is the highest symbol of divine power and greatness, sun and fire. On the other hand, lion is also associated with the mind, nobility, generosity, courage, fairness, pride, triumph, arrogance, and vigilance. The image of a female lion also possesses expanded semantics: similar to goddesses-mothers, she is a symbol of motherhood and the embodiment of sensuality. This paper will focus on the description of lion image in the cultures of Tibet and China.
In the Eastern cultural traditions, lion often becomes a subject of visual arts and architecture depicted as a symbol of the four cardinal directions. Lion frequently acts as a guardian in different countries: lion statues guard the doors of the ancient Egyptian tombs and palaces, as well as Assyrian and Babylonian temples. This animal is also present on the western gate of the capital of the Hittite Empire, as well as on the gate at Mycenae. At Malatya there is famous “Lion’s Gate” dating back to the later 1st millennium BC. Lion sculptures and images could also be seen on the thrones in India, at the entrance of Buddhist temples in China, etc.
Lion is a regal beast that contains the most positive symbolism. In some cultural traditions of Africa, West and South Asia lion is associated with birth and death of a hero or a king. According to the Indian belief, kings and sages were born with lion’s jaw or upper part of the body.
In Buddhism, lion symbolizes courage, generosity, constancy and is thought to bring luck and happiness. Lion frequently incarnated in the image of Buddha. In China, lion was considered one of the four most important animals and symbolized the power.
Flag of Tibet which is often considered to represent deep symbolical meaning of Tibetan culture, also embraces the image of lions sitting in front of the mountain. In the center of the picture, there is Snow Mountain that symbolizes the great Tibet, known as the “Land of Snows”.
Six red rays against the background of blue sky symbolize the six original Tibetan nationalities – Behold, Mu, Dong, Tong, Dru, and Ra. The colors of rays and the sky mean the protection of religious and secular life of Tibet. Two snow lions sitting at the root of the mountain testify the courage and determination of success in spiritual and temporal matters. Tricolor jewel in the paws of lions symbolizes the acceptance of the Tibetan people to the Three Jewels (Buddha, the Doctrine, and the Sangha (the community). Two-tone jewelry symbolizes respect for moral principles, including the Ten Virtues and Sixteen Rules of Conduct. Conway yellow flag means growth and prosperity similar to the pure gold of Buddha’s teaching, in all times and directions.
Tibetan mythological snow lion came from India and is a local presiding deity living on the mountain ridges. It is significant to say snow lion became a special animal in Tibetan culture, representing one of the four ancient dignities, along with garuda, dragon, and tiger. This animal introduces the earth element, happiness, and unconcerned mind. Snow lion is often depicted as a white lion with turquoise mane playing and jumping from one snowy peak to another like Buddhism itself, which “jumped” over the Himalayas from India. Snow lions, being a part of the Tibetan national emblem, appear on the flag, coins, banknotes and stamps of Tibet, as well as on the symbol of Dalai Lama. Usually, these lions are painted on a snow-covered mountaintop. In addition, two of them can form an ornamental pattern.
Lions can also be presented playing with a ball, like kittens, though in Tibetan art they usually depicted with tricolor wheel instead of balls.
In Chinese tradition, the image of lion still has a symbolic meaning, as evidenced by sculptures of lions usually put near the houses.
Traditional Chinese art often use the pictures or figures of animals which bring luck and joy and are able to protect their masters, thus, the image of powerful and strong lion fully meet these needs. Lions are thought to be good defenders from evil forces and bring happiness to both homes and entire streets.
The symbolic significance of the image is inextricably linked to the socio-economic background of the territory where they were found. For instance, the Middle Kingdom population was affected by four religious factors: folk religion, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The territory of China was influenced by religious diversity and, therefore, by different beliefs and traditions. Against this cultural situation, the image lion evolved from realistic and artistic conception and correlated with the surrounding traditional norms. In China, sculptures of lions were put together with those of elephants, horses, sheep, goats, camels, and tigers to decorate burial shrines which date back to the tradition of wooden images. Sculptures of lions resemble fantastic animals that preserve the tombs.
In Buddhism, we can also find numerous references to the lion features, correlated with the merits of the Buddha’s body, for instance the body or jaws of a lion on the traditional images of Buddha.
In conclusion, it could be seen that symbolism of Tibet and China is based on Buddhist motives and is very similar in these two countries.
Both in China and Tibet, lion is a symbol of divine solar energy and pervasive forces of fire, the royal authority and power, military strength and courage, wisdom and justice, nobility and generosity, fortitude and willpower, patronage and protection. However, the lion can be regarded not only an image of the good, but also as a personification of evil, and in this case, it symbolizes fierce anger, ferocity, and cruelty.
It is also significant that religious diversity in China affects worldview of people causing the merge of different symbols and figures.
Therefore, in both cultures lion can be considered a very important, mostly positive symbol.