Chinese Door Guardians
“There’s a folk belief in China that you need door guardians. It manifests itself in two forms. One is that there is an actual door god, in traditional Chinese beliefs. He just watches over the safety of your home, and in some Chinese stories he comes to life. There are pictures of the door god and you paste him on your door, on both panels of the door, they look like actual soldiers standing at the door, the belief is that when your house is in danger they will actually manifest themselves as the door god’s spirit, and fend off whatever evil there may be. And to that effect, I think that stone lions work the same way, because they are menacing. Lions, dragons, phoenixes – those animals have specific connotations, particularly lions seem to be viewed as fierce and are used as door guards. Dragons and phoenixes also have different connotations, because they correspond to boys and girls. Dragon represents boy, phoenix represents girl. You’ll see these at Chinese restaurants sometimes, there will be a gold dragon and a gold phoenix wrapped around a Chinese character that means happiness. There are sayings associated with this, like ‘may your boy grow to be a dragon’ or ‘may your girl grow to be a phoenix’ because the dragons and phoenixes are viewed as the paradigmatic high of what a boy and girl should be.”
The informant who told me about these folk objects was born and grew up in Hong Kong for a great part of his life. He speaks fluent Chinese and has had significant exposure to Chinese culture, given the fact that he and his family still speak the language and practice many of the traditional customs. He moved to the US in 5th grade.
The informant points to the fact that animals have a strong significance in Chinese culture as forces of good and protection. Their presence as door guardians and as representations of the ideal put them in a very high place, especially in contrast to the downtrodden nature of most animals in Western culture. Although the informants family does not own door guardians, they are very common when he goes back to China. He first learned about the door guardians after visiting a Chinese temple, meaning that it is an older tradition. The belief still exists, however it has adapted based on urban living in Hong Kong and the West. While in China door guardians are very large and reside outside, in Hong Kong they tend to be small sculptures that are kept inside the house. Due to the fact that Hong Kong is quite westernized, many traditions, like this one, are downplayed for the sake of practicality but maintained for the traditional purpose of good luck.