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The Dragon in Chinese Iconography and Culture

The dragon is the fifth of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, which is used to designate years in the Chinese calendar.

Mythology

According to Chinese mythology, the legendary Yellow Emperor Huangdi (said to have reigned during the 3rd millennium BC) was immortalized into a dragon at the end of his reign and ascended to Heaven. Since the Chinese consider Huangdi as one of their ancestors, they sometimes refer to themselves as "the descendants of the dragon”.

The legends also contributed towards the use of the Chinese dragon as a symbol of regal power already from the Zhou dynasty (1046-256 BC). The imperial throne is known as the Dragon Throne. The dragon is featured in the carvings on the steps of imperial palaces and tombs, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Symbolism

In contrast to European dragons, which are considered evil, Chinese dragons traditionally symbolise auspicious powers.

The dragon is also a symbol of authority, strength, and good luck. In Chinese daily language, excellent and outstanding people are compared to the dragon while incapable people with no achievements are compared with other, disesteemed creatures, such as the worm. Chinese proverbs and idioms refer to the good qualities of the dragon.

Origins

The origin of the Chinese dragon is not certain. The presence of dragons within Chinese culture dates back to the fifth millennium BC from the relics found in neolithic cultures. Some scholars believe that the Chinese dragon form originated as a merger of totems of various tribes.The coiled dragon form played an important role in early Chinese culture. The character for "dragon" in the earliest Chinese writing has a similar coiled form, as do jade dragon amulets from the Shang period.

Some have further suggested that the Chinese dragon form comes from stylised depictions of existing animals, such as snakes, fish, or crocodiles. The crocodile's ability to accurately sense changes in air pressure, and to sense coming rain may have been the origin of the dragon's mythical attributes in controlling the weather, especially the rain.

In popular belief, dragons are strongly associated with water: they are thought to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers and seas. In premodern times, many Chinese villages (especially those close to rivers and seas) had temples dedicated to their local "dragon king". In times of drought or flooding, it was customary for the local gentry and government officials to lead the community in offering sacrifices and conducting other religious rites to ask for rain or dry weather.

Depictions

In Chinese art, dragons are typically portrayed as long, scaled, serpentine creatures with four legs.They are traditionally thought to bear nine anatomical resemblances. There are a number of different lists of these resemblances. According to one of them, his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam, his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow. Upon his head he has a broad protuberance that allows him to ascend to the sky.

Many pictures show dragons holding, chasing or competing for a flaming pearl. The pearl is associated with wealth, good luck, and prosperity. Chinese dragons are occasionally depicted with bat-like wings growing out of the front limbs, but most do not have wings.

The rule that the five-clawed dragon represented solely the emperor was first enforced during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). The four-clawed dragon was typically for imperial nobility and certain high ranking officials. The three clawed dragon was used by lower ranks and the general public. (widely seen on various Chinese goods in Ming Dynasty). Improper use of claw number was considered treason, punishable by execution of the offender's entire clan.

Neolithic depictions

Dragons or dragon-like depictions have been found extensively in neolithic-period archaeological sites throughout China. The earliest depiction of dragons was found at Xinglongwa culture (6200-5400 BC) sites, mainly around the Inner Mongolia-Liaoning border. Dragon and tiger images made of clamshells have been found in a tomb of Xishuipo Yangshao Culture (5000 BC to 3000 BC) site in Puyang City of Henan Province. Yangshao culture sites in Xi'an have also revealed clay pots with dragon motifs. The Liangzhu culture (3400-2250 BC) in the Yangtze River Delta of China produced dragon-like patterns. Jade dragon amulets in the form of a coiled, elongated creature with a head resembling a boar have been found in Hongshan culture (4700-2900 BC) sites in present-day Inner Mongolia.

Classical depictions

Chinese literature and myths refer to many dragons besides the famous long. Here below follows a list of some of the dragon names attested in Chinese classic texts.

  • Tianlong ("heavenly dragon"), celestial dragon that guards heavenly palaces and pulls divine chariots.
  • Shenlong ("god dragon"), thunder god that controls the weather.
  • Fucanglong ("hidden treasure dragon"), underworld guardian of precious metals and jewels.
  • Dilong ("earth dragon"), controller of rivers and seas.
  • Yinglong ("responding dragon"), winged dragon associated with rains and floods.
  • Jiaolong ("crocodile dragon"), scaled dragon, leader of all aquatic animals.
  • Panlong ("coiled dragon"), lake dragon.
  • Huanglong ("yellow dragon"), hornless dragon symbolising the emperor.
  • Feilong ("flying dragon"), winged dragon that rides on clouds.
  • Qinglong ( "Azure Dragon"), the animal associated with the East in the Chinese symbols of the four directions.
  • Qiulong ("curling dragon"), contradictorily defined as both "horned dragon" and "hornless dragon".
  • Chilong ("demon dragon"), a hornless dragon or mountain demon.
  • Longwang ("Dragon Kings") divine rulers of the Four Seas.
  • Hong ("rainbow"), a two-headed dragon or rainbow serpent.
  • Shen ("giant clam"), a sea monster believed to create mirages.
  • Bashe ("ba snake"), a giant python-like dragon that ate elephants.
  • Teng or Tengshe ("soaring snake") , a flying dragon without legs.

Children of Dragon

Several Ming dynasty (1368-1644) texts list what were claimed as the Nine Offspring of the Dragon, whose shapes are used as ornaments according to their nature. The following is one version of such lists:

Bi An

Bi An, the fourth son of the dragon is known for his fairness and impartiality. He is wise and can tell good from evil, and honesty from lies. He was normally part of the decorations of courts and prisons in ancient China. His images are ferocious and have the appearance of a tiger with very large fangs.

Tao Tie

The dragon’s fifth son, Tao Tie loves to eat. He is often depicted on bronze food vessels. It is believed that by having his image on tableware your home will never be without food.

Bi Xi

The eldest son of the dragon, Bixi has the body and shell of a tortoise with the head of a dragon. Ba Xia is capable of carrying incredibly heavy things. His image is usually carved as the base of stele and pillars.

Qiu Niu

A lover of music, Qiu Niu is normally depicted on the head or bridge of traditional Chinese instruments (erhu). He is generally thought of as the patron of musicians and a protector of homes.

Ya Zi

Bad tempered, powerful, and inclined to fighting, Ya Zi, the dragon’s seventh son, according to legend, is said to frequent battlefields and take part. His image is carved on edged weapons and it is believed that his image makes these weapons more powerful and accurate.

Chi Wen

The second son of the dragon, Chi Wen is in charge of rainfall. His image is seen on the ridges of buildings to protect the building from fire. Chi Wen can be seen on virtually every imperial building made of terracotta and colorfully glazed.

Gong Fu

Believed to reside in lakes and pools, Gong Fu, the dragon’s sixth son loves water. Gong Fu’s image is usually carved into drains on bridges, and palace balustrades. It is believed he will fight against flooding and water disasters.

San Mi

Fond of fire and smoke, the eight son of the dragon, San Mi, can be seen depicted on incense burners and as a guardian in front of doorways. He is depicted with fire all over his body. It is believed that by having him in your home, your children will all be attractive.

Pu Lao

Added to bronze bells, Pu Lao is said to be fond of roaring. His image is can be seen on bells, drums and any musical instrument which produce loud tones. He is most commonly cast as the loop on top of bronze bells which the bells are hung from.

Cultural references

Number nine

The number nine is special in China as it is the largest possible single digit, and Chinese dragons are frequently connected with it. For example, a Chinese dragon is normally described in terms of nine attributes and usually has 117 (9x13) scales - 81 (9x9) Yang and 36 (9x4) Yin. This is also why there are nine forms of the dragon and the dragon has nine offspring (see Classical depictions above). The "Nine Dragon Wall" is a screen wall with images of nine different dragons, and is found in imperial Chinese palaces and gardens. As nine was considered the number of the emperor, only the most senior officials were allowed to wear nine dragons on their robes - and then only with the robe completely covered with surcoats. Lower-ranking officials had eight or five dragons on their robes, again covered with surcoats; even the emperor himself wore his dragon robe with one of its nine dragons hidden from view.

Modern belief

In modern times, belief in the dragon appears to be sporadic. There appear to be very few who would see the dragon as a literally real creature. The worship of the Dragon Kings, however, as rulers of water and weather continues in many areas, and is deeply ingrained in Chinese cultural traditions such as Chinese New Year

Dragonboat racing

The Chinese Dragon Boat Festival on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month is a significant holiday celebrated in China, and the one with the longest history. The Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated by boat races in the shape of dragons. Competing teams of up to 12 rowers row their boats forward to a drumbeat racing to reach the finish end first. The head of the boats is carved in the shape of a dragon.The boat races during the Dragon Boat Festival are traditionally a symbolical attempt to rescue the patriotic poet Chu Yuan. Chu Yuan drowned on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month in 277 B.C. Chinese citizens now throw bamboo leaves filled with cooked rice into the water. This is done so that the fish could eat the rice rather than the hero poet. This later on turned into the custom of eating zongzi made of glutinous rice with different fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves and rice dumplings.

Dragon dancing

On auspicious occasions, including Chinese New Year and the opening of shops and residences, festivities often include dancing with dragon puppets. These are "life sized" cloth-and-wood puppets manipulated by a team of up to 50 people, supporting the dragon with poles. They perform choreographed moves to the accompaniment of drums and music. The dancers mimic the supposed movements of the dragon in a sinuous, undulating manner. The movements in a performance traditionally symbolise historical roles of dragons demonstrating power and dignity.The Dragon Dance itself originated during the Han dynasty (206 BC-220AD) as a sign of respect towards the dragon and in connection with the agricultural cycle.

August 27

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Saturday 08 Feb 2015 - Sale commences 10:30 AM

Catalogue now online

Viewing times:

Thursday 22nd August, 9am-5.30pm

Friday 23rd August, 9am-5.30pm

Saturday 24th August, 10am-12.30pm

Morning of the sale from 9am

Please note our saleroom will be closed on Bank Holiday Monday 26th August