These masks invoke the fierce qualities of lions to repel evil spirits, and when found among Chinese antiques often possess a charming, folk-art quality. The ones shown here measure from less than two inches to about five inches across. The features on these lion masks are very stylized rather than realistic, and mythical elements may be incorporated.
|(Click on images to enlarge.)|
Painted red and with traces of the original gilding, this round example is very typical. The lion has large bulging eyes, with a prominent nose and forehead. The mouth is open, exposing the teeth, fangs, and protruding tongue (some varieties also carry a sword in their mouths). Tufts of fur are indicated in various places, and around the perimeter.
Veering from the Western concept of lions is the single horn in the middle of the forehead. Also on the forehead is the Chinese character wang, ( 王 ) meaning King. In this example the word King is carved on the horn itself. Finally, there are three small holes, from which small bells were originally hung further to help scare away unwanted spirits.
Here is the back of the above example. A rounded fretwork border surrounds a ba-gua design. These eight-sided figures containing eight trigrams are important in Chinese religion. The configuration of the trigrams conveys meaning, perhaps in this case personalized for the original owner. In the center of the ba-gua is a yin-yang symbol, here charmingly carved as two complementary fish.
Some masks are carved in a style allowing for more freedom depicting the features. In this rather squared-off example, the ears and especially the horn are allowed to protrude. The eyebrows are almost shaped like bats, and the King symbol has been replaced by four dots.
The above rather elaborate lion mask has well preserved paint of black, red, gold and white. Tufts of fur typically appear as odd geometric shapes and patterns, highlighted in red. Even the arms of the King symbol seem to flow as though they were part of the fur. The eyebrows have assumed a flame-like shape. The bright red tongue is plainly visible, and the white teeth have a startling and strangely human quality.
If I were giving these masks names, this one would have to be called Dopey. His double chin, broad grin, and beady, narrow-set eyes all conspire to give him an unintelligent yet genial look. Still, this piece is carefully carved: the horn is so accurate that it looks like the real material, and shaggy tufts of fur form his asymmetrical beard.
|The back view of those irregular tufts is a favorite detail of mine.|
The reverse side shows a mortise instead of a simple hanging device, suggesting that this once may have been part of a larger object. If so, the imagination boggles at what the entire original creation must have looked like.
|This one makes me want to brush my teeth.|
I am not sure why some of these have such flat sides, as though reflecting the shape of the board they were carved from. This red and black example has a bushy fringe of beard, and the King symbol has the three cross bars carved, but not the vertical stroke, giving this lion the appearance of having worry lines.
Lion masks are still very much a part of Chinese culture. The above mask, a recent gift from local friends, adheres faithfully to the ancient model—the round shape, fierce, exaggerated features, bared teeth, small bells and King symbol are all present. The horn, however, has disappeared and been replaced by a miniature ba-gua.
Similar lion masks can be spotted frequently exerting their good luck spell on door-knockers and in colorful tile work. Shields often assumed this form, as in this battle scene of warriors in a boat storming a walled city. I find this carving amusing because the lion shields look ready to be cut out and hung as individual amulets.
Other countries also display talismans in the home to bring protection and luck. Horseshoes and Pennsylvania Dutch hex signs come to mind, as do the intriguing witch balls recently featured by ChronicaDomus.
Among the wide array of Chinese amulets, lion masks were popular choices. Let me know which one of the masks presented here you would rely on to keep evil spirits at bay, or whether you have other good luck pieces protecting your home.
|Another round example, this one very tiny, only about 1.5 inches across.|
All photographs and original objects property of the author.