China | Fu Dog | Ancient Art | Lion | Tiger | Dragon

In China-heavy posts, Historical Slant postings on February 16, 2009 at 6:03 am



After researching and posting on ancient India and the lion iconography created in that continent (however briefly), I needed to research ancient China to get at the origins of the Fu Dog, as imported and modified from the Asiatic Lion. So, first I wanted to look at some of the older Chinese images of dogs and lions and fanciful creatures and such, just to see how the ancient Chinese representation of these known and imagined four legged animals was accomplished.

I found a book China: a History in Art in my SPSU library from which I took some notes and cell phone photos to post here. In looking for a dog picture I found the following, a ceremonial vessel in bronze from the late Shang period/dynasty/era located now in the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington DC, Smithsonian Institution. I tried to find a picture of it but failed (the original photo copyright and credit of all images remain the property of the images owner). 


The top of it features a dog. Not a Fu Dog and not a lion or mythical beast but an honest to goodness dog. Here’s a close-up (albeit a shabby cell phone one):


I am glad to see that, in addition to other animals, the presentation of a dog is not a difficult or avoided thing for the early Chinese bronze artisans. Another image, which I did find on the Freer/Smithsonian site is this one of a single guard dog.  What I like about this image and the previous one is that the idea of a pair of guard dogs, or presenting a dog in a paired setting isn’t yet embedded in the mythos of creating such an animal talisman. At least not with the ‘common’ dog.


I enjoyed browsing the Chinese collection of the Freer/Smithsonian and recommend it to everyone. Another image, of a lone animal which, whilst being a dog, has an artistic stylization that hints at the possibility of a Fu Dog hidden within, is below. The image is older than the indicated date from which Fu Dogs are reputed to have first been imported into China (more on that later, or, in another post). It is easy to see the burgeoning fanciful Fu Dog hair ‘accessories’ – the mane not quite a coiling traditional Fu Dog mane, the tail not really a tufted explosion of fancy only at its tip, the elbow curls not so prominent, the mouth not that of a lion nor the paws those of a lion. And yet, the image as a whole conveys a sense of the ‘Fu Dog yet to be’, at least for me.


Before moving along to more interpreted imagery and ‘fantastic’ representations of ancient animals, I have few other images to share. The first is an item from the book China: Ancient Culture Modern Land (Cradles of Civilization) and contains a tiger representation with a blurb that reads: “This emblem of authority, a bronze tiger 7 1/2 in (19cm) long, with gold inlay and inscription, was probably intended as a token that conveyed permission to call out troops in an emergency. it is from the tomb of the king of Nan Yue, approx 122 BC.”


No matter how I tried, I couldn’t get a better cell phone picture of the image, and I failed to find a good online reference to cite. What I liked about the image is that it is a tiger and yet it has a sinewy decorative quality – and it is not a Fu Dog, not even slightly. All the markers and design work for this piece speak directly to a history of representing tigers in a straightforward manner. Also, none of this tigers features have been transposed with Fu Dog imagery. At this point no dog image (nor any tiger image) looks like a blend of the two animals.

This following image, from the same book, takes the tiger motif and uses it as the two handles of a vessel (at least I’m guessing the interpretation of their placement is to indicate handles). In this image you can see how realistically the tigers have been represented. I couldn’t say if the pairing of the tigers serves any function beyond, if not literally then figuratively (ha), as handles. The blurb from the book reads: “Bronze 20 9/10 in (53 cm) approx. 108 B.C. in Yunnan Province, in a grave identified as one of the Kings of Dian (a subordinate kingdom of the Han Empire).”


And that image is not the only one using Tigers in this fashion; here is another image found on Wikipedia where the Tigers are positioned on the vessel, again in ‘handle’ formation, but more crouched, more in the ‘about to spring on their prey’ posture. There’s even a close up available of one of the tigers and that close up shows the tigers non-Fu Dog like presentation; not even a hint of a Fu Dog even though the tiger has exposed ears, long tail, powerful paws and open mouth. I worry that the image might one day be removed and so I have pasted a copy of it below (all rights of/to the image belong to its owner, as does all images here pictured):


Now for a few “more interpretive” images. First is a pair of tigers from that first book, China: a History in Art.


These also are in the Chinese collection of the Freer/Smithsonian, however, they are only shown there individually so it looks like maybe they took a couple of pictures of the same piece. But, they exist as a pair – since my cell phone photo isn’t the best I’m providing the links to the images, first one and then the other. I really think that they are just a pair, probably made by the same artist, without any deeper meaning behind them (as a Fu Dog pairing has). Obviously the artist has taken some liberty in presenting the image of lion, in abstracting the features to meet some emotional or ideal objective. This artist did not consider the merger of a couple of species in this interpretation, whether real or imagined, and so this pairing (for me) in no way hints at the future Fu Dog.

This next piece, also from China: a History in Art is a Stone Chimera. The blurb reads: “Stone chimeras that guard royal tombs originated in Mesopotamia, but the style of this statue is thoroughly Chinese.” I don’t know where they got the idea to call it a ‘chimera’; is that what the artist carved on its belly, was there a tablet with the phrase ‘this is a stone chimera’ – unlikely at best. It is listed as being from the Nelson Gallery – Atkins Museum, Kansas City MO; I was unable to find an on-line image to link to and so here is the cell phone photo from the book:


This sculpture has some interesting features. The wings coming up off the elbows and the exposed ear-like structures, and the large paws, all are reminiscent of the Asian lion images I’ve already presented in my India post. These features, as presented here, don’t appear to be solidly inherited from those stylizations – instead, they look to be fabrications or stylistic elements unique to this beast. The open mouth isn’t a snarling one, there is no mane apparent, no tail, and there is a goatee that as yet hasn’t shown up on other animal representations. I wanted to show this piece to illustrate how creatively artists of the time could become when creating a sculpture that may have an animal that hasn’t been seen before as its subject matter. If anything, this piece could be said to be a re-interpreted, fantasy image of a tiger (sans the tail), but maybe that’s just me.

This next piece takes the idea of a fantasy animal even further. It is from the book Ancient China – Great Ages of Man – A History of the Worlds Culture Series. I was able to find a clearer, if not larger, posted online image here, but I’ll post the cell phone photo I took in case that website disappears. The blurb from the book reads: “The rain spirit of the ancient Chinese was the dragon, the sacred symbol of the east and the ‘gatherer of clouds’ whose beneficence was essential to a rich harvest. This bronze is thought to be a lamp dating from the Han Dynasty, approx. 206 B.C.” I believe this piece is also in the Freer Gallery of art but didn’t see it online there (could be my oversight). (Just as an aside, most people are familiar with the Chinese artistic infatuation with Dragons, Dragon Imagery, and Dragon lore – since this post is about Fu Dogs I won’t be going into that rich and abundant realm of Dragon representation or interpretation.)


I include this image to mention its snarling Fu Dog like face, the exposed ears and the wings coming off the shoulders. Also, the large paws, the mane, and the tail ending in flourish are indicators of future Fu Dog stylistic devices. This piece does not, though, speak to me of having the merging of two animals of which one is a dog – no, I see no dog in this ‘rain spirit dragon’ image. Below is an image I found online (I didn’t save the link to it so if you know where it came from please let me know so I can credit it) which does have a remarkably dog-like face and body but the remainder of the ‘dragon’ is distinctly bird like. Taken as a whole this is more a mixture of a dog and a flying creature and less like a guardian animal or Fu Dog. Particularly note its lack of mane and claw-like feet and strangely elongated neck.


Finally, to end this rather lengthy posting of imagery, I take you back to that first book, yet again. This is the odd duck inclusion for me because it is so fitting. The blurb reads: “A lion carved from white marble is a rare work sculptured in the cultural peak of the T’ang period – early 8th century.” It too is listed as being from the Nelson Gallery – Atkins Museum, Kansas City MO; again, I was unable to find an on-line image to link to and so here is the cell phone photo from the book:


Isn’t it a shame I couldn’t find a better online image? This lion, due no doubt to the period it was carved in, is far and away the most Fu Dog like creature presented on this page. And yet, it isn’t a Fu Dog – and even still, it isn’t a direct Asiatic lion either (as fully described in my last  post). The elements of each are present and yet disconnected as if the artist were trying to capture an Asiatic Lion through the eyes of Chinese stylistic history when creating a creature not seen before. This image is, I think,  around the time Fu Dogs were making their entry into the Chinese artistic lexicon and it is truly weird to behold such an image that, while being an Asiatic Lion, is more that just a direct animal-as-sculpture carving. The mane is there, the ears present, the tufted tail, the large paws, the powerful body, the teeth, the elbow wings, even a smallish goatee – and yet presented not quite as a Fu Dog; the imagery and imagination haven’t coalesced those features into a cohesive and artistic whole. Each element, even while successfully working for the whole of this sculpture, doesn’t transcend it – this is a Chinese interpretation of a lion, possibly from a written description (conjecture on my part), and nothing more. This image mesmerizes me, actually. I’d love to see it in person.

So, there it is, a brief and none-to-in-depth exploration of what I’m terming a history of animal representation leading towards the eventual creation of a genuinely unique talisman animal, the Chinese Fu Dog. The history of presenting four-legged animals, fantastic animals, and the artists willingness to add their own fanciful and culturally creative solutions to animal representation to achieve their desired outcome, have been shown (of course narrowly and briefly). The ideas later connected with Fu Dogs (that we take for granted now), of having two, having one be female and one male, having accessories like a ball or a cub, are topics I’m looking forward to exploring. If I come across more information pertinent to this post I’ll be certain to return and and post it here.

This information was copied to my History Page, under the China link.
  1. I was wondering if the Chinese (or other far eastern culture for that matter) put images of fudogs into the sky as stars or constellations. For example, we have Canis major and minor and Sirius, the dog star. It would seem to me that protectors of such significance would find themselves placed in the sky the same way Greeks and Romans put their gods and protectors in the sky. I would also imagine if this is true that there would be some rather impressive engravings or artwork. Perhaps a future post, even if it turns out they didn’t have fudog constellations?

  2. I Like Your Thinking! – I’ll look into it, thanks!

  3. Here is what I found about Fu Dogs and the stars!

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