Skilled dancers from Xiiang,
Persian masks and lion masks.
The heads are carved of wood,
The tails are woven with thread.
Pupils are flecked with gold
And teeth capped with silver.
They wave fur costumes
And flap their ears
As if from across the drifting sands
Ten thousand miles away…
– Bo Juyi, 9th Century
With Chinese New Year, rapidly approaching, a post about the endangered Asiatic Lion seemed like a good idea. The Chinese along with many other Eastern and Southeastern Asian cultures usher the New Year in with a lion dance to banish evil spirits and sorcery and allow good fortune and joy to reign. Not native to China, common knowledge is that lions and their symbolism probably came east to China from India with the spread of Buddhism by the first century of the Common Era along the Silk Road (Some accounts call for the adoption of Buddhism in China to be in the first century or two BCE). Lions were quickly revered and incorporated into Chinese culture as symbols of majesty and power. Whether real or imagined, lions were believed to protect people against evil spirits by chasing them away and were conjured in protection rituals and carved in stone to be sentinel temple and palace guards.
There were, however, many opportunities for contact between Chinese traders and soldiers and peoples from lion-inhabited lands along the Silk Road. Bo’s poem, however, speaks of a lion dance that took place eight centuries later, in the T’ang Dynasty in what was then a western frontier region, Liangzhou, in which the dancers wore Persian masks. Since the Persian Achaemenid Empire reached as far east as Tajikistan by 500 BCE, it is not out of the question that the Chinese knew about Asiatic lions sooner than the first century CE, but perhaps their adoption of Buddhism gave greater zeal to the symbolism of the lion.
China is not alone in is reverence for lions, many Asian countries incorporate its symbolism into their myths, folklore and art. In Tibet, the snow lion is an imaginary beast that is said to represent unconditional cheerfulness, a mind free of doubt that is clear and precise. It has a beauty and dignity resulting from a body and mind that are synchronized, and a youthful, vibrant energy of goodness and a natural sense of delight. The snow lioness also is said to have a special milk which heals both physical and spiritual ills.
Lions are so honored in South Asia as to be symbol of India herself and are often used in depictions of Bharat Mata or Mother India.
The Lion Capital of India with its three lions placed with their backs together, facing outwards was first erected in 250 BCE by Emperor Ashoka has also become a national symbol for the country. Singh is also an ancient Vedic name meaning lion that dates back thousands of years. Narashima or Narasingha is also the half-man, half-lion incarnation of Vishnu and is held sacred by all Hindus. In Sri Lanka, the lion represents the ethnic Sinhalese – or people with lion blood – and a sword wielding lion is the central symbol on the country’s flag.
In considering bravery and fearlessness as two important aspects of the lion symbolism, whether Asian or African, I am reminded of a story once told to me by a former colleague. It is about his own adventures in Central Africa as an American epidemiologist. His research group was camped not far from a native village whose population part of an ongoing study. One night, he heard the usually peaceful village in an uproar. He heard lots of yelling and screaming going on, lots of drumming and other noise making. Not sure what was going on, whether it was a festival or trouble, he made his way towards the village alone. By the time he reached the village, it had grown quiet again and no one was about, so he left and went back to camp. He queried the village headman the next day about the cause of the noise and was met with disbelief that he was still alive. It seems that a lioness had made her way into the village and the noise was made to scare her off. She ran off through the trees in the direction of the path that he was walking. The headman made some consultation with other men of the village and then the good doctor was given a bracelet of lion claws – because he must have been a man beloved by lions.
Back in Europe, at the Pergamon, I’ve walked through the Ishtar Gates of Babylon and down the heavenly cobalt blue and turquoise path strewn with golden sunflowers and lions. Built by Nebuchadnezzar II around 575 BCE, it is one of the wonders of the ancient world that I am grateful for having experienced.
Reverence and symbolism aside, the last wild lion was seen in Western Asia in mid-20th Century Iran. How can we as a species value the idea of a lion and the symbolism we have assigned to it so highly and care so little for it in the world? Once roaming freely from Eastern Mediterranean Europe across Western Asia and North Africa and into Central India and the Northern Levant, less than a few hundred Asiatic lions remain in the wild, most living on the Gir Forest Reserve in Gujrat, India. Worse than these dangerously low numbers is that the exisiting wild lions are descended from an even smaller population that survived to the early 20th Century and are thus so closely related that they do not form a natural, healthy population. Now critically endangered, the lion has become mired in internal Indian politics between factions who wish to create separate populations of the animals outside Gujrat in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh and Gujrati’s who don’t wish to lose the designate of the last refuge of the Asiatic lion. Gene pools, zoos and captive breeding seem like the only hope for Asia’s last lions as habitat destruction, poaching, pressure from encroaching human villages in Gujrat and lack of genetic diversity continue to wear away its tenuous hold on existence.
So if you see a lion dance during the coming Spring Festival, and if they banish the evil spirits that afflict you and bring you gifts of oranges and good fortune, remember that your children may be telling their children about how lions – like the ones in Africa – once roamed Asia. (Words and photos of Nepalese Lions by Laura Kelley; illustration of Bharat Mata and Photo of the Ishtar Lions from Wikimedia Commons. Click here for more information about Asiatic Lions.)