So, welcome to the Year of the Dog and if, like us, you marvel at the celebrations for the Chinese New Year, you’ll know the highlight of the colourful spectacle. Performed as a prayer for a good harvest and household safety for the year, a troupe of dancers parade the huge mask of a mythical beast’s head and its long body through the streets leaping and prancing to bring the fearsome, writhing creature to life.
But is it a lion, or a dog, or neither? I’ll leave that for someone more knowledgeable than me.
The origin of the Chinese lion-dog is shrouded in antiquity and be traced back to the Han Dynasty which lasted 400 years from 206 BC to AD 220. Although not native to China, the lion became a Chinese emblem of valour, courage, energy and wisdom, while in Chinese mythology it was believed that tian gou xing, the “heavenly dog star”, devoured the moon at the time of an eclipse.
In Buddhist religion the lion is sacred and was sometimes offered as a sacrifice. The Buddha Shakyamuni, who lived about 2,500 years ago in India, is referred to as Lion of the Shakya and is depicted seated on a lion throne.
The Chinese word for Buddha is Fo and when Buddhist stories of the religious significance of lions reached China, where the animal was unknown, devotional statues of it were modelled after the country’s native dogs. Thus they became known as “Dogs of Fo” and were placed either side of the entrance to temples as protectors of sacred Buddhist temples.
The ferocious mythical creatures, carved in bronze or stone, were quickly introduced into Chinese art to symbolise courage, strength and defence of the law. Subsequently, they were quickly adopted as guardians of tombs, government buildings, businesses and homes to ward off evil spirits and exclude demons.
Based on lunar rather than solar cycles, the Chinese calendar is the world’s oldest, having measured time for more than 4,500 years. The Chinese New Year festival began last Sunday with the new moon, and will end 15 days later, on the night of the full moon.
As their popularity grew, the dogs were sculpted in porcelain, cloisonné and precious metal as ornaments for the home, the finest often given as gifts to the emperor in the hope of receiving favour.
The dogs are always found in pairs, male and female, their distinctly different modelling making it easy to identify their gender.
The male, also known as the Celestial Dog and the Happiness Dog, was intended to stand on the right and is modelled with his right paw resting on a globe representing his feeling the pulse of the earth. The female is almost identical but is always modelled with her left paw playing with or resting on her small cub, newly hatched from an egg. This symbolises continuity of empire.
The male is said to guard the structure, while the female protects those living or working inside. Their mischievous, almost devilish faces hide a ruthless power.
One of several stories attached to Dogs of Fo concerns a famous alchemist and queller of demons by the name of Chodoryo. When one of his pupils was threatened by the servants of one such demon, who had been turned into tigers for the purpose, Chodoryo countered by creating a giant lion which, in the magic battle that ensued, attacked the tigers and made them turn tail.
Legend also has it that Dogs of Fo were not averse to throwing their cubs from a high rock into a deep abyss as a test of their powers of resistance. Those that were smashed were too weak, while those that climbed out were considered good stock.
Despite this cruel side to their nature, objects decorated with Dogs of Fo and their cubs are representative of happy family life. Interestingly, the creatures are also depicted in a tender playful mood, whereupon they resemble the Pekingese dog of today.
As China opened up and began trading with the West in the 19th century, Dogs of Fo were among the many decorative exports that were picked up by collectors in Europe. As a result, they were reproduced by manufacturers abroad, notably this country’s porcelain factories, and they remain popular today.
Pictures show, top: A large pair of Dogs of Fo, made in about 1680 and crisply modelled in blanc-de-Chine, the name given by European collectors to the undecorated hard paste true porcelain made in China and much prized in the West. They are worth £60,000-80,000, although 19th century versions can be had for a fraction of the cost
Below: These silver Dogs of Fo were made in Portugal and decorated with hardstones – their orange eyes being particularly menacing. They’re worth £3,000-4,000