Arriving in Sishilipu town in Suide County first-time visitors can not but help be surprised by the dozens of stonemason workshops lining both sides of the main road.
Sounds of hammering rise and fall, while a phalanx of stone lions seem to await new arrivals in this rural town in northern Shaanxi.
Averaging 3 meters tall and 4 meters mounted on a base, stone lions can often be found standing guard at the gateways to offices and commercial buildings across China. In a phenomenally fast changing nation, it is an enduring symbol of bygone times.
Sishilipu‘s 300 or so stonemasons will explain that different designs are employed for the big lions which they categorize into those of the Forbidden City, Europe, Yinchuan in Ningxia where the ancient Xixia Kingdom once lay, or imitations of ancient styles.
The posture of each varies from crouching, to sitting and walking.
Each of the big lions is carved from a single piece of stone, quarried from Xuejiaping some 20 kilometers away.
The county, with a history dating back to the Southern and Northern Dynasties (AD 386-589), is known for its reverence of stone lions.
The Thousands of Lions (qian shi) Bridge which spans the local Wuding River is engraved with 1,000 small lions, almost everyone with its own pose and expression.
According to a popular local legend, a little orphan girl was carried by a magic wind to a lonely island guarded by a lion. The creature cared for her and later when she grew up, she returned to her homeland and became the bride of the emperor.
At the new empress‘s insistence, her husband honoured the lion with the title "King of all the Animals."
Another tale of local masons tells that the earliest stone lions their ancestors made were ones placed upon the kang--a brick bed popular in northern China.
Parents traditionally had a stone lion guardian carved before the birth of their first child.
When a baby boy was born, the parents often tied a piece of red cloth with one end attached to the baby and the other to the lion, to prevent the infant from falling off the kang.
Girl babies, though, had to fare for themselves.
The carved lion also doubled as a children‘s toy.
In the local Suide Culture Palace a collection of stone lions shows the array of "personalities" from the humble nature of the farmer, the benevolent gentleness of a mother, to the proud and courageous warrior.
Records show a history of stone carving in the area going back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 221).
Down the centuries, local stonemasons have created various sculptures, in addition to lions.
One example is a pair of 1-meter high stone blocks bearing fine base relief carvings and which once adorned the outside of a local noble‘s mansion--a public display of the household‘s power and wealth.
The carvings include a dragon, lion, fish and lanterns hanging in the shade of the clouds under the moon.
Believed to have been carved at the turn of the 19th-20th century the pair are now housed in the county‘s Cultural Heritage Bureau.
They are the work of a master craftsman, Ma Lanfeng who originated from neighbouring Mizhi County.
His workmanship can also be found in an old residence in Yangjiagou, where the late Chairman Mao lived during the years of the War of Resistance Against Japan (1937-45). Yan‘an was Mao‘s revolutionary base, and Yangjiagou fell well within its jurisdiction.
Stonemason Wang Haoxin, whose father Wang Wenyi once worked as an assistant to Ma, used to recall how the master created vivid dragons, phoenix, turtles, cranes, lions, pines, bamboo, plum blossom and lotus flowers, all auspicious symbols in Chinese culture.
Although Ma left behind a wealth of stone works of art, he only carved a rough headstone to make his own grave.
Wang, who learned stonemasonry from his father regrets his own skills cannot match those of Ma.
But a trained architect, he is proud of his modern contribution--he has designed and helped construct multi-storey buildings in the area.
The tradition of carving individual lions to adorn beds has vanished with the changing times. And there is a uniformity among their larger cousins.
But as folklorist Feng Jicai points out, folk art is an expression of a traditional way of life. When the tradition is gone, the folk art often disappears with it.