The Dragon in Chinese Art

Long before written languages were developed, symbolical images were used in art for both magical purposes and for communication. Animal forms were especially important, and judging from the art produced during ice age, a number of animals were worshipped in prehistoric times. In China, animal forms, probably with some kind of magical meaning, decorated ceramic wares which were made some five thousand years ago in the Yellow River Valley in Northern China.

They consist of various birds, fish, serpents, and tortoises, and, at least in one case, a dragon. Prehistoric jades in the shape of dragons have also been found in recent years. Since there was no written language at this early date, we have no texts to tell us what these animals meant to the villagers of ancient China, but since they occur not only in prehistoric China but are common in later Chinese art and legend, there is no doubt that they had some kind of sacred meaning.

While most of these symbolical animals were derived from real creatures, this was not true of the dragon, which was the most frequently used animal image in Chinese culture. The closest parallel in nature is the Komodo dragon, a large reptile found in the Komodo and Flores islands in Indonesia, but all kinds of lizards, snakes, salamanders, and crocodiles have also been suggested as the source of the myth.

The dragon of legend was supposed to be a winged creature with the body of a giant lizard or snake, claws with sharp nails and a long tail, a combination not found in nature today. Perhaps the memory of some flying lizard of prehistoric times was preserved in the collective subconscious of the human race, a memory which accounts for the fact that dragon-like creatures appear in many different mythologies.

The earliest known dragons occur in the art and mythology of ancient Mesopotamia where it was associated with water, sea and fertility. It is one of the attributes of the great god Marduk. Tiamat, the goddess of the sea, was sometimes represented in the form of a dragon. It is probably from Mesopotamia that the dragon made its way to ancient China.

A character signifying long, or dragon, was found in the oracle bone writing of Shang China (14th-11th c. BC), and dragon images appear on innumerable Shang and Zhou bronzes and jades. In fact, it was the most popular ornamental motif in early Chinese art, occurring on lacquers, jades, bone carvings, and bronze vessels; and it probably also decorated the sacred robes worn by the priests and rulers of the time as well as being painted on the walls of the temples and palaces.

Pair of Archaic Jade Dragon Pendants

That the dragon was looked upon as an auspicious and magical creature is indicated by the fact that according to legend, the ancestor of the earliest Chinese dynasty, the Xia house, is said to have transformed himself into a dragon at a sacred place.

Furthermore, the great Han historian Sima Qian reports that the first emperor of the Han, Gao Zu, was born from the union of a dragon and the Lady Liu; and a dragon was supposed to have appeared when Confucius was born. Even in historical China it was often said that the emperor had a dragon face and his throne was called the dragon throne.

In Chinese mythology, dragon is a sacred animal associated with the imperial family and the abstract deity Tian, or Heaven, on the one hand, and with clouds, rain and fertility on the other. Rivers, lakes, and seas were said to be inhabited by dragon deities, and sacrifices were still being made to them in quite recent times.

The dragon boat festival continues to be celebrated in Chinese communities throughout the world on the fifth day of the fifth month, and even today, the year of the dragon is supposed to be very auspicious and everyone born at this time is believed to be endowed with superior gifts.

The dragon is also one of the twelve lucky symbols and it was embroidered on garments as an auspicious emblem. As late as the early twentieth century, dragon robes were worn by the Emperor and his high officials as a sign of their exalted rank.

In Chinese art, no symbol has been used more frequently than the dragon. Paintings of the legendary creature are found as early as the Han period and they were especially popular during the Song and the Ming dynasties. The great Song artist Chen Rong specialized in dragon paintings and innumerable other celebrated Chinese painters depicted these mysterious creatures.

Dragons appear in decorative designs from the Shang period to the end of the Qing Dynasty and are especially common on Ming and Qing Dynasty porcelains. Ivory and jade carvings, cloisonné and lacquer vessels and various metal objects were often fashioned in the shape of dragons or had dragons as an important decorative emblem.

An Extremely Rare and Large Blue and White 'Dragon' Moonflask

That the dragon was originally a religious and magical symbol cannot be doubted since many inscriptions and legends, as well as the contexts in which the motif occurs, suggest some sacred meaning.

Although dragon deities are still worshipped in provincial temples in China and Taiwan, the dragon of later times probably lost its specific religious associations
and was regarded merely as an auspicious symbol or lucky sign without being linked to a particular deity.

However, even divorced from its religious meaning, the dragon with its long, undulating body is a magnificent creation, combining dynamic energy with the subtle use of line and form. Indeed, it is the most beautiful animal in Chinese art.

Hugo Munsterberg
New Paltz, New York