Kevin Kawamoto
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

Photo of lions that were originally housed at the Wakamiya Inari Shrine on South King Street
Photo of lions that were originally housed at the Wakamiya Inari Shrine on South King Street

The multicultural identity of a community is often reflected in its publicly visible art and architecture, and few objects are more distinctively East Asian than the guardian lions positioned at the entrance to buildings or passages. These imposing beasts usually come in pairs — one on the left and one on the right — and are rich in symbolism and cultural significance. You may have passed by them without giving much thought to the details of their physical structure. But these details contain important “messages” about what these lions represent, beyond their more obvious roles as statues and adornments.

Photo of a traditional shisa lion-dog
These traditional shïsä lion-dogs, made from clay, were presented to the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa by the University of the Ryukyus in 2008 to commemorate the establishment of UHM’s Center for Okinawan Studies. They guard the walkway near Hamilton Library.

In their 2015 book, “Creatures Real and Imaginary in Chinese and Japanese Art,” authors Walther G. von Krenner and Ken Jeremiah discuss the symbolism of these lions, commonly referred to in China as shi-tse. Calling the lion a “universal symbol of bravery and strength,” the authors trace the stylized Chinese lion (also called fo-dog or foo-lion) symbolism to Buddhist folklore.

“Most Buddhist temples in China have two shi-tse,” they write, “one with its mouth wide open, exhaling, and the other with its mouth closed, inhaling. The open-mouthed one symbolizes yang, or positive energy, while the closed-mouth one represents yin, or negative power.”

A broad review of writings from different sources about the guardian lion statues — which are found throughout East Asia, including China, Korea, Okinawa and mainland Japan — reveals a wide spectrum of opinions and interpretations about the symbolism of the details, and not everyone agrees with each other about what the symbols mean. One must also be careful not to take the interpretations too literally, since many of them are based on ancient beliefs and philosophies, and Eastern concepts don’t always translate perfectly to Western sensibilities.

Informed observers generally agree that the lions are meant to symbolize protection at some cosmic level, with one version of this idea suggesting that the lion with the open mouth is keeping evil or negative energy from entering a dwelling, while the lion with the closed mouth is keeping positive energy from escaping. There are variations of this theory. Some believe that the lion with its mouth open is forming the beginning of the sacred chant sound “aum,” while the lion with the closed mouth is ending the sound, together representing the beginning and the end of the Cosmos. The space between the two lion statues represents everything in between the beginning and the end. Isn’t it interesting that even the empty space between the lions is symbolic!

Photo of lion at the East West Center, a gift from the Republic of China
The Republic of China gifted these two lions to the East-West Center in 1971. Note the ball-shaped object under each lion’s paw. (Photos by Kevin Kawamoto)

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Kevin Kawamoto is a longtime contributor to The Hawai‘i Herald.


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