There's Wikipedia page List of loanwords in Chinese (listed as "incomplete" at the time of writing) which contains the entry:

獅子 (shīzi) "lion"
شیر (šīr) "lion"

So the page is claiming that the Chinese word for lion 狮子 (shī​zi​) originates from the Persian شیر (šīr) "lion". But is it true? Sure, they vaguely sound similar, but they didn't provide concrete evidence of this claim. I'm hoping to fact-check this:

Question: Did the Chinese 獅子 = "lion" originate from the Persian شیر (šīr)?

Googling reveals this Wikipedia page which begins:

狮子与太阳(波斯语:شیر و خورشید‎,Šir o Xoršid)是伊朗的一个主要象征……

This doesn't feel very conclusive: the similarity could still just be a coincidence.

  • That claim is technically wrong, because that table is non-rigorously presented, as if the word was borrowed from modern Persian.
    – dROOOze
    Oct 16, 2021 at 0:50
  • 1
    @dROOOze I searched the net and found that شیر could be traced to middle Persian, which started before Han dynasty. China doesn't have lions. It's very likely that lions were a tribute from other countries. Also, 獅(or 師 to refer to lion) first appeared in Han dynasty (東觀記:疎勒王遣使文時詣闕,獻獅子,似虎,正黃有髥耏), a supporting evidence that lions entered China through the Silk Road. Still, there is no definitive proof that 獅 is from شیر.
    – joehua
    Oct 16, 2021 at 2:01

1 Answer 1


The mainstream consensus is that the Chinese word for lion was earliest attested as 「師子」 (Zhengzhang OC: /*sri ʔslɯʔ/) in literature roughly contemporary to the Book of Hàn:



Book of Han: Chronicles of the Western Regions

The lands of 烏弋* are hot in the summer, physically flat, and flourishing with vegetation. Its greenery, livestock, essential crops, fruits and vegetables, cuisine, palaces, marketplaces, currency, weapons, and treasures are the same as those of 罽賓, and has [creatures such as] 桃拔, lions, and rhinoceros. The common folk enjoy blood sports.§ The obverse of their coinage has the likeness of a person's head, and their reverse depicts a horse-rider. Their weapons are adorned with gold and silver. [These lands] are extremely remote, and Hàn envoys rarely travel here; from the Yùmén or Yáng passes, through the Shànshàn Kingdom, to 烏弋山離 (Alexandria), one reaches the end of the southern path.

* /*qaː lɯɡ/, approximate English rendition: Alek, Alex. Abbreviation of 烏弋山離 (/*qaː lɯɡ sreːn rel/, Alexandria).
/*krads mpin/, maybe Kashmir, Kabul, or Capisa
Qílín-like creature
§ My own very liberal interpretation - may not be accurate

Alexandria points to one of the many settlements in current-day Afghanistan, at that time under the Parthian Empire, and the Parthian language is a Middle Western Iranian language, in the same family as modern Persian.

Based on all this, there is an idea that /*sri ʔslɯʔ/ is a loanword from Late Middle Persian /šēr/.

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