Beijing, 19 October 2013

Anyone who visits China for more than a few days cannot fail to notice the many, many pairs of stone animals standing guard in front of any building which has pretensions to be something (although “something” can be no more than a second-rate noodle restaurant). Here is a typical pair of these animals, which my wife and I recently came across in front of the China National Philatelic Corporation.

chinese lion 003

The Chinese call these animals “lions”, which is really a bit of a joke. In today’s globalized world, where images of this iconic animal must surely have been beamed into every corner of every house on the planet, we all know that lions actually look like this:

real male and female lions

One theory has it that the original model for these “lions” was the Asiatic lion, of which a few miserable specimens still linger on in the Indian state of Gujarat. According to this theory, some live samples were brought to China along the Silk Road from Central Asia or the Middle East some 2,000 years ago, as gifts, tribute or whatever. Artists copied them, and then the originals stopped coming. So the artists copied the copies, and then copied the copies of the copies, and … Anyone who has seen the film Multiplicity, where Michael Keaton makes copies of himself and then the copies make copies of themselves

Multiplicity movie

knows what happens: there is a high loss of quality in the picture the further you get from the original.

A second theory is that actually the original model wasn’t a lion at all. It was a chow chow, which is a dog from this part of the world. It seems to have originated somewhere in northern China or Mongolia, or possibly in Siberia. I don’t know what readers think, but I’m not convinced that this

chow chow dog sitting

is the model of the above. Nor am I convinced that another ancient Chinese dog breed, the noble Pekingese (only members of the imperial family were allowed to have them), is the model

Pekingese dog

Such an irritating little dog, I’ve always felt, as it raspily yaps around your feet at some apartment door – a good, swift kick is what it deserves, but one has to be polite to the apartment owners. In any event, while it’s true that the Pekingese’s face has certain resemblances to my stone “lions” (and in fact it’s often called a lion-dog because of this resemblance), I rather think this is an example of convergent evolution: the sculptors went their way with their designs, the dog breeders with theirs, and one day someone said, “Ooh look, the Peke looks just like the stone lions!”.

A third theory, which I find quite convincing, is that actually the models for the Chinese stone “lions” are the stone lions which are often found outside Indian temples. See the following link for a further development of this theory, while here is a picture of one such Indian lion from Mahabalipuram:

indian carved lion

It really does look quite similar, doesn’t it?  I presume that proponents of this theory would argue that it is Buddhism which brought to China the idea of placing stylized “lions” at the entrances of temples and then with time they migrated to the entrances of any important building.

However the design came about, the fact is that this being China, where everything eventually became (and still becomes) formalized, codified and rigidified, these pairs of stone “lions” have been made in exactly the same way ever since the Ming dynasty. The key is that they look nearly exactly the same. Both have the same ritualized snarl on their faces. Both have the same mane of tight curls. Both have the same strong legs. Both are sitting on their haunches. There is only one important difference, fruit of a typical male chauvinism: the male is always – always – made with his paw resting on a ball (representing the male’s mastery over the world)

chinese lion 001

while the female is always – always – made with her paw resting on a cub which is playfully lying on its back (representing the female’s nurturing nature).

chinese lion 002

And sited as they are on either side of the entrance, their heads are always slightly inclined towards the enterer.

There must be literally millions of these stone “lions” scattered across the length and breadth of China, large, small, and every imaginable size in between. I swear, somewhere in China there must be a factory like this


that churns these damned things out by the thousands every day.

So tedious! So boring! Change, for God’s sake!

So you can imagine that it is with some small relief that I occasionally run across variations on this monotonous theme. Take this pair of “lions” which I recently came across in Beiing, in front of a restaurant.

lions looking at one another

How exciting! They are looking at each other and not the enterer.

Or take this “lion”, which I came across during my recent trip to Fujian.

river gorge 008

Why, rather than glaring at you he really looks glad to see you! And he seems to be offering you the ball to play with. It could almost be a playful Pekingese (assuming those damned dogs play). What a refreshing site for sore eyes.

Or how about this pair of “lions”, which we bumped into in Hong Kong? They were outside some bank as I recall, and not even guarding an entrance. A wonderful postmodern take on the old, very tired stone lion design.

lions in HK

And now, I even see real lions! This picture was taken five minutes after the picture with which I started the post

realistic lion

It was sitting in front of a furniture shop as I recall.

So when will I see two giraffes guarding the entrance to some place?

sitting giraffes

Change, for God’s sake!


pair of Chinese lions: my picture
Real male and female lions: [in
Multiplicity movie: [in
Chow chow dog: [in
Pekingese dog: [in
Indian carved lion: [in
male Chinese stone lion: my picture
female Chinese stone lion: my picture
Huge industrial factory: [in
Chinese stone lions looking at each other: my picture
Chinese stone lion in Fujian: my picture
Chinese stone lions in Hong Kong: my picture
Realistic stone lion: my picture
sitting giraffes: [in


2 June 2013

On our last visit to Hong Kong, my wife and I wandered into an antiques shop to poke around among the offerings. The owner, an ethnic Chinese, struck up a conversation with us. After discovering that I came from the UK, she lit up and became positively garrulous. It turned out that her son was completing a Masters at Oxford University, and she described, lovingly and in great detail, a trip she had recently made to the UK to see him. It soon became clear that she regretted Hong Kong no longer being British. In short order, her misty-eyed regrets over the UK leaving turned into a rant against the “Mainlanders”, Chinese from mainland China. This is a common topic of converstation in Hong Kong, where many of its ethnically Chinese residents determinedly stress that they are different from the Mainlanders. This determination is becoming fiercer as Mainlanders come in ever larger numbers to Hong Kong to gawp, buy, and generally get in the way. For this lady, there were two things which symbolized all the differences between Her and Them. She proceeded to tick them off on her fingers with disdain: “they spit, and they squat”.

I think we can all agree that the generalized Chinese habit of spitting is really quite revolting, particularly when it is preceded by a noisy hawking of the throat and – most disgusting of all – a blowing of the nose without a handkerchief. And it is true to say that you see very little of this in Hong Kong.

Our interlocutor’s hostility to the prevalent Chinese habit of squatting is more interesting. Everywhere in China – on pavements, in malls, at bus stops, in railway stations; anywhere, really, where people stand and wait – you will see people who have dropped down onto their haunches for a rest

squatting men beijing-wangfujing

reading, more often than not these days, their text messages.

squatting woman-5

I have to say that I also find this habit disquieting. It seems such a … humiliating posture, is the only way I can describe it. Every time I see people squatting, I scold them mentally: “Get up, get up! You are not a slave!”

And yet … when you think about it, in a world where chairs didn’t exist, which must have been 99.9% of the time that we have been human beings, it was really quite natural for us to drop down  onto our haunches when we were tired of standing and when there wasn’t a nice log or large stone to sit on. So I’ve come to the conclusion that I think the way I do about squatting because of the chair.

The chair, or rather the throne, was obviously an instrument used by Kings and Emperors, from the earliest times, to overawe their subjects. Here we have an Assyrian emperor lording it over some subject of his

throne-assyrian throne

And the temple of Abu Simbel in Egypt must surely be the epitome of rulers lording it over their lands while sitting on thrones

throne-abu simbel

Shelley’s poem Ozymandias, which I quoted in an earlier post, comes to mind when I look at these statues.

Egypt’s dry desert air, in which buried things do not rot, allows us to contemplate today a real Egyptian throne, this one from King Tut’s tomb (“Tutankhamun, King of Upper and Lower Egypt, Lord of the forms of Re, Strong bull, Perfect of birth, He whose beneficent laws pacify the two lands, He who wears the crowns, who satisfies the gods” to you, mere mortal, and don’t you forget it …):

throne-king tut-1

Even in more modern times have thrones played their part in elevating the splendour of the sitter, as in this case of the Qing emperor Kangxi

throne-Qing Emperor Kangxi

And of course Chinese emperors, along with many copy-cat Asian emperors, liked to have their subjects not just squat in front of them but to really debase themselves by kowtowing:

kowtowing before the emperor

Which led to the famous diplomatic incident of 1793, when, Lord Macartney, King George III’s envoy to the Chinese Emperor, refused to kowtow but did accept to get down on one knee as he would have before his King:

kowtowing before the emperor-English ambassador

Even more recently, thrones have played their part to prop up monarchies. The last Shah of Iran, for instance, was fond of using the Naderi throne to impart some sheen to his tawdry reign.

throne-peacock throne-Shah in front

And of course we in the UK have our venerable King Edward’s Chair in which all English, and then British, monarchs (bar two) have been crowned since 1308 – by the way, King Edward I commissioned the chair to house the Stone of Scone after he stole it (a.k.a. war booty) from the Scots.

throne-king edwards

Those of us who have the seen the film The King’s Speech will recognize the throne, which appears at some point in the story and whose portentous humbug is mercifully taken down a peg or two by the egalitarian Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue (played by that wonderful actor Geoffrey Rush), who slouches around in it provoking a burst of monarchist anger from King George VI:

throne-king edwards-Geoffrey Rush in it

Luckily, Lionel Logue’s egalitarian comments about the chair in question was preceded a century or so ago (not more, I suspect) by a move to make the chair a product of mass consumption, which meant that I (but probably not the Chinese of my generation) have spent my whole life sitting on chairs and not squatting on the ground. I try to remember the chairs of my childhood but fail. A chair’s a chair, some of you might say, it’s a functional object. True, but even functionality for the masses can be beautiful. It took my wife to introduce me to Italian furniture design and to make me realize that a chair could be both beautiful and functional. The moment we could – in the early 1980s – we bought ourselves a set of dining chairs. My wife has scoured the internet for photos of the model of our chairs but has found none. This photo of the spaghetti chair is the closest I can find:

chair-sled based-spaghetti

I designed and put together a dining room table to go with our chairs, the only thing I have ever designed in my life. All slumber in a warehouse in Vienna, awaiting our return to Europe.

Later, when we were living in New York, we came across Shaker chairs (and other furniture) during a weekend trip in upstate New York which took us to an old Shaker colony. Beautiful things.


We would have bought some reproductions if we hadn’t already had our chairs – and if they hadn’t been so expensive.

Over the years, we’ve seen some “trophy” chairs (chairs which don’t just sit quietly around a dining room table) which we wouldn’t have minded buying, if the price had been right (and if we’d had the space).

The Danish harp chair:

chair-danish harp chair

The Mondrian chair (this would have been more my choice than my wife’s):

Chair-Mondrian chair

Chairs designed by the Glaswegian architect, designer and artist Charles Mackintosh (again, my choice I think):

chair-Mackintosh chair

Here in China, chairs from the Ming period:


The reader will have noted by now that our tastes in chairs (indeed, all furniture) lean towards the simple and clean line …

I suppose that with consumption on the rise in China, the habit of squatting will disappear, as will – I fervently hope and pray – the habit of spitting.  In the meantime, I will continue to mentally exhort my fellow Beijingers to stand up straight and proud every time I see them squatting on the ground.


Squatting men:
Squatting woman:
Assyrian throne:
Abu Simbel:
King Tut throne:
Qing Emperor Kangxi:,Qing,Emperor,Kangxi,Painting,Color.jpg
Kowtowing before the emperor:
English ambassador Lord Macartney before the Emperor:
Shah of Iran in front of peacock throne:
King Edward’s Chair:
Geoffrey Rush sitting in King Edward’s Chair:
Spaghetti chair with sled base:
Shaker chair:
Danish harp chair:
Mondrian chair:
Mackintosh chair:
Ming chair: