Legendary dragons in Chinese art


FILE PHOTO: A detail of “Born of Gautama Buddha” by the Tang artist Wu Daozi

In a past interview, American actor Nicolas Cage shared that he had once believed he was born in the Year of Dragon, but later discovered that the Chinese New Year actually began in February, 1964, the year when he was born, which means that he was born in the Year of “Bunny.” “And I had this incredible identity crisis that I was no longer a dragon but a bunny, after I had a dragon tattooed on my back and I had a dragon fire furnace,” said Cage. The Year of Dragon that once caused confusion for Cage will begin following Chinese New Year, which will fall on Feb. 10, 2024.

The dragon, or long in Chinese, is the only mythical creature among the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. Embedded in legendary tales for millennia, it is revered as a totem of the Chinese nation and has long held spiritual importance in China. The Chinese dragon, believed to have originated in early agricultural civilization, is thought to possess the power to control rain. This association has been the inspiration behind various Chinese customs and art. Throughout the long history of imperial China, dragons became increasingly synonymous with the Emperor, who alone was permitted to incorporate dragon iconography into his residence, clothing, and personal articles.

Early artistic images of dragons

The image of the dragon has been portrayed in Chinese artwork for millennia, appearing in various mediums such as bronzes, jades, porcelain, and stone carvings. Research indicates that the dragon was conceptualized by the people of the Shang Dynasty (c. 1600–1046 BCE), drawing inspiration from the physical appearance of numerous animals. Prior to the Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), the dragon was portrayed in an abstract manner. It was not until the Song Dynasty (960–1279) that the image of the dragon became standardized into its archetypical representation.

Pre-Qin era paintings featuring dragons are quite rare, and are mostly characterized by abstract drawings and simple lines. Two silk paintings by unknown late Warring States Period (475–221 BCE) artists unearthed at Changsha, Hunan Province, respectively depicting a man riding a dragon, and a lady with a dragon and a phoenix, are the earliest known dragon paintings discovered to date. The theme of “riding a dragon” has been a popular motif in traditional Chinese art. According to Shiji, after completing the production of a bronze ding vessel [a symbol of authority], the legendary Yellow Emperor rode a dragon to ascend to Heaven [at the end of his life]. The location of his ascension to Heaven was called “Ding Hu,” thus the Chinese idiom “Long Qu Ding Hu” [lit. a dragon left Ding Hu] refers to the death of the emperor.

During the Qin and Han dynasties, drawings of dragons became increasingly artistic, revealing a progression of drawing techniques. The T-shaped silk banner unearthed from the Mawangdui Tomb at Changsha, dating to the Western Han Dynasty, depicts the Heaven (upper part), the human (middle part), and the afterlife realms (bottom part). Within this depiction, a blue dragon and a red dragon are seen plying through a giant jade bi disk, their bodies intertwined, as they move through the three realms. As a funeral banner, this T-shaped silk was believed to have the power to help the soul ascend to Heaven and find peace in the afterlife. Therefore, art historian Wu Hong notes that the depiction of the two dragons intertwined through the holes of the jade bi as they are ascending [to Heaven] highlights the jade bi’s mythical role in facilitating the transformation of the tomb occupant from their temporary existence to their eternal existence.

Budding dragon art

During the Wei and Jin dynasties (220–420), dragon painting began to gain popularity, with artists such as Cao Buxing, Zhang Sengyou, Lu Tanwei and Gu Kaizhi developing a deep connection with dragons. Zhang is associated with a story that gave rise to the Chinese idiom “Hua Long Dian Jing” [lit. to draw a dragon and dot in the eyes]. Legend has it that Zhang was commissioned by the emperor to paint four dragons on the walls of Anle Temple in what is now Nanjing, but he refrained from drawing the eyes. He believed that his dragons appeared so lifelike that they would come to life and fly away if he dotted the eyes. People thought Zhang’s idea was absurd, and urged him to paint in the eyes of two dragons, which caused them to immediately spring to life and soar into the sky.

The Tang Dynasty (618–907) witnessed the heyday of the Chinese art, with the era’s religious prosperity infusing depictions of dragons with added sacredness and mystery. Among the artists of the Tang Dynasty, Wu Daozi was renowned for his mastery in portraying dragons. Wu drew “Born of Gautama Buddha” based on Buddhist scriptures, illustrating King Suddhodana holding his son Sakyamuni after his birth, paying homage with his wife Queen Maya to the temple of Mahesvara. On the right side of the painting, a deity is seen riding a dragon with a follower holding a rein alongside. The dragon’s mouth opens wide, revealing its fangs and tongue, its claws bending, tail straight upward, looking up to the sky—a gesture indicating that it is roaring. Given the Tang people’s admiration of plumpness, many images of plump dragons also appeared during this period.

The people of the Song Dynasty consolidated the dragon iconography of previous dynasties and put forward standardized guidelines for painting dragons. In a historical treatise on painting written by the Northern Song scholar Guo Ruoxu, it is proposed that dragons should be depicted with “the horns of a deer, the head of a camel, the eyes of a ghost, the neck of a snake, the belly of a shen [a mythological creature resembling a giant oyster], the scales of a fish, claws of an eagle, palms of a tiger, and ears of an ox.”

During the Song Dynasty, the rise of “professional artists” specializing in dragon painting became apparent. Among them, the “ink dragons” painted by the Southern Song painter Chen Rong garnered significant praise. It is said that Chen often painted after drinking, as he seemed to see real dragons when slightly tipsy. The Southern Song Dynasty marked a turning point in the history of Chinese dragon art. As intellectuals and even scholar-officials became increasingly aware of national hardship, the image of the dragon, symbolizing the Chinese nation, was utilized to convey the people’s emotions and spiritual aspirations.

During the Ming (1368–1644) and Qing (1644–1912) dynasties, dragons began to embody more traits of imperial power. To mirror the majesty and grandeur of the emperor, painters imitated the frontal portraiture of humans and for the first time created a frontal depiction of the dragon, with its eyes facing the viewer. During the Qing Dynasty, in order to highlight the auspiciousness of the dragon, the nose was often depicted to resemble a jade ruyi [a Chinese curved decorative object that represent power and good fortune], with its lower jaw longer than the upper jaw.

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