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The symbolism of dragons in Chinese art Research Paper

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Updated: Nov 15th, 2019


Chinese people are highly influenced by Taoist thinking. They do not place man at the centre of the world; they instead think of him as a minor element in the grand scheme of things. This explains why living and non living things are the central figures in most artistic works from China.

Some representations focus on real creatures while others dwell on mythical ones. One particular object that is hard to miss is the dragon. It is essential to find out why this creature is so common in paintings, sculptures, vases and other functional objects such as lanterns. Some of the explanations are historic while others are religious; all of them bring out man’s attunement with nature as taught in Taoism.

How the dragon is represented in Chinese art

The dragon in most Chinese works of art is depicted in a positive manner. It is often located in the sky and can be interlaced with flames of fire or other similar natural elements. Unlike western understandings of the creature, the dragon is crucial to the well being of its people as it usually provides them with appropriate supernatural interventions. These depictions may be found in vases, clothing as well as other functional forms.

In certain circumstances, dragons are represented in items of clothing. Here, it is represented as a symbol of authority. Starting from 1759, emperors symbolized their authority through the use of various items such as stars and dragons. The emperor wore a robe that had nine dragons on it.

This was meant to demonstrate power and authority. In fact, the emperors themselves were called dragons. Normally, this type of dragon has a yellow color. In ancient China, yellow was a color that only the emperor could wear. Even roof tiles outside the palace could not be colored yellow. Therefore, the dragon in historic times captured this sentiment (Sullivan 55).

In most paintings and illustrations of the dragon, one can find a series of characteristics that resemble other conventional animals on the dragon. These traits are subdivided into nine elements that can be easily studied. For instance, the head is likened to that of a camel. It is stated that this part reflects wisdom. It also possesses scales that are one hundred and seventeen in number.

The scales are likened to a fish which is regarded as flexible. A fixed number of scales is attached to the yin and yang (the bad and good respectively) in order to manage the temper inside the dragon. It also possesses horns that look similar to those of a deer. This portrays longevity in the life of the creature (Sleebom 15). Its eyes are those of a hare, and this captures the element of power. The dragon has a tiger’s paws and an eagle’s claws.

The claws epitomize bravery. It also possesses a horse’s teeth to show diligence. Its belly is like that of clam while its neck looks similar to a snake. All these nine elements may have different interpretations depending upon the context under consideration. Certain types of dragons have more claws than others while others possess longer parts such as tails or body coverings.

Some drawings have likened the dragon to a snake. They achieve this by emphasizing body parts of the dragon that look similar to the snake. Furthermore, sometimes the dragon is seen in water; it also sleeps or hibernates during the winter season.

Dragons can be curved or drawn on numerous materials today. However, certain backgrounds are preferred for portraying this creature. In ancient China, dragons were drawn on stone tablets. Sometimes they would also appear on banners. Here, the creatures would be joined to one another. Rulers would use the banners to send messages to their followers about enemy interferences. Another place in which one is bound to find an image of the dragon is on a sword.

This is meant to liken its qualities to that of a sword. In modern times, one can find carvings of dragons on monuments, especially spiritual ones like the ones found in the Buddha temple. In other instances, dragons can be sculpted on bells and fiddles. It is argued that dragons make loud noises during battle, so this location is quite fitting (Nickel 151).

What the dragon symbolizes

As explained earlier, the dragon has nine elements that make its features distinct. This number has a special relevance among the Chinese people. It is a multiplication of the undivided number (3) by itself. Taoist adherents believe that when the good (Yang) is multiplied in such a manner, then this represents unyielding divine authority. The dragon, therefore, appears in various art forms in order to symbolize the latter element.

In several instances, a dragon is always drawn besides clouds or an unclear sky. By associating the dragon with the clouds, which are a source of rain, artists intend on indicating that the dragon is a source of fertility. This creature has the capacity to control rain and hence the productivity of its people. As affirmed in the introduction, the Chinese are strong believers in man’s attunement with nature.

Man’s fate is directly controlled by other components of the universe such as dragons. In fact, some of the earliest depictions of it were of the creature in rice fields. Since the beast has rain-inducing properties, then one is bound to get good rice crops if the dragon comes there.

The ancient Chinese usually believed that winter took place because this rain-giving creature was hibernating. At the beginning of summer, wind caused the dragons to awaken and rise up to the sky. It is at this point when some rain starts to pour. It was important for the dragon to rest because this would facilitate the preservation of its body, just like the snake does.

However, the dragon’s power does possess its limits. If too many dragons start fighting one another, they will create excesses in the form of thunderstorms. This means that rain will pour down on man in extreme volumes, and it will ruin his crop. Therefore, even though the dragon is desirable, it can lead to undesirable consequences when it exceeds the limits of its power.

Sometimes dragons were treated as symbols of water. This usually occurred when they were represented on tablets. In the same way that man came to represent plains, or tigers came to represent the mountains, the dragon symbolized water. It demonstrated the spiritual quality of the water under consideration because it resided in water.

The dragon can also be understood as a symbol of greatness. Most works of art will have illustrations of scales that have more Yang than Yin. In this regard, the dragon is filled with light, and must represent the coming of a great man. Artists will sculpt or draw this creature in such a manner in order to show that a great man is about to come in the midst of others. In fact, the Emperor was chosen as the ultimate depiction of power. This was the reason why his garments were filled with drawings of the creature.

One may conclude that the people in ancient China believed in omens. Certain signs would warn them about incoming dangers or blessings. The birth of an emperor would be indicated by the appearance of a dragon. The coming of winter was preceded by the departure of dragons.

Dragons would be a good omen or bad one depending on the circumstances under consideration. If people saw dragons fighting, then this would be regarded as a warning of imminent danger. Perhaps a war, or a dynasty’s fall was looming. The most common disaster that most people would ascribe to the dragons was excessive flooding. Such was the case in 523 BC when a Duke of Lu – Chao saw two dragons fighting one another inside a pool (Visser 39).

Even travelers believed that they would not succeed in their journeys if they came across fighting dragons. It should be noted that sometimes emperors or other influential people would dream about dragons in a certain way. After waking up, they would consult with their wise men to find out the meaning of their dreams. In other scenarios, emperors would actually see the dragons.

These creatures never appeared clearly; they would always be covered in mist or smoke. In other words, citing dragons was highly dependent on a subject and it was quite debatable what these beasts were about. In several instances, the dragons would come out in the middle of the night. An observer would always be taken aback by a specific quality in the dragon, such as its eyes or its speed.

In 25 AD, an Emperor called Lu Kwang claimed to have seen a dragon as it surrounded his palace. Other attendants supported his affirmations when they found huge scales of the same creature. It was also asserted that these scales were washed shortly after owing to the rain that occurred then. Artists today may not necessarily believe in these signs. However, they still play an important role in preserving the historical and cultural values of ancient China.

In fact an analysis of the symbolism of dragons reveals that the ancient Chinese were a highly superstitious group. They believed in bad omens and good ones. They claimed that events could be predicted after seeing these beasts. It is difficult to determine whether observation of these creatures was more of a divine or spiritual encounter than a physical one as its existence dates back as far as 1550 BC in the Shang dynasty.

In modern times, the dragon is now considered as a spiritually significant creature; not necessarily a physical one. Nonetheless, the beliefs held by the ancient Chinese people about this mythical being are still perpetuated today. They still think of dragons as a sign of power, rain and good fortune. Modern Taoists know that dragons are fictitious, but they do not ignore the spiritual relevance of the beast. It is given as much respect it was given in the past.

Works Cited

Nickel, Helmut. “The Dragon and the Pearl.” Metropolitan Museum Journal 26.5 (1991): 146-155. Print.

Sleebom, Margaret. Academic nations in China and Japan. London: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Sullivan, Michael. A short history of Chinese art. California: University of California Press, 1970. Print.

Visser, Leiden. The dragon in China and Japan. Cornell: Cornell University Press, 2007. Print.

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