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Ancient Chinese Dragon Art

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Dragons breathe fire and provoke terror, right? Not in Chinese art! Dragons have been important symbols in Chinese culture for thousands of years. In this lesson, let's explore ancient Chinese dragon art.

The Dragon in Chinese Culture

The dragon has played an important role in Chinese culture for thousands of years, and images of these creatures have been found on relics dating back to the Stone Age (roughly 6000 BC). Unlike the angry roaring images found in Western art, dragons in Chinese culture are benevolent, not dangerous. They represent cosmic energy, promote good fortune, and have been used to signal royalty. They are masters of transformation, symbolizing the opposing but combined life forces of yin (female, cool, restful) and yang (male, hot, vigorous).

Chinese dragons were associated with water, especially rivers, waterfalls, seas and rain. Early villages near bodies of water sometimes had temples dedicated to their dragon king (represented by the body of water), wishing for good fortune for the harvest and protecting against drought and famine. Dragons were one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac and played a role in seasonal celebrations like Chinese New Year. Through time, they came to be used as a symbol of powerful people and were commonly found on Imperial art objects.

A Symbol Evolves

From the Stone Age onward, the dragon evolved from basic images of a curving snake-like creature to the one common even today in Chinese art. Between 700 and 476 BC, it became more vivid with defined features. By the Qin (221 BC-207 BC) and Han (206 BC - 220 AD) Dynasties, it had developed long horns, a snake-like body, and sharp claws. Actually, the dragon is considered to have aspects of nine different animals: camel head, deer horns, rabbit eyes, bull ears, snake neck, clam belly, carp scales, eagle claws, and tiger paws. That's one fascinating and powerful creature!

Earthenware dragon, 4th-5th century AD
Earthenware dragon

An early example of dragon art is this small earthenware, or baked clay, figure from the Six Dynasties, 4th-5th centuries. It's a simple dragon with traces of red paint, but we can already see the long body, arching horns and cat-like paws that become common in later images.

Dragons Everywhere in Chinese Art

Throughout Chinese history, dragons have been pictured on many different kinds of art, from delicate painted scrolls to elaborate robes and other textiles. They've been carved out of jade, painted on ceramics, and used as elements of jewelry. Dragons were even used in architecture, sometimes molded into glazed terra cotta bricks for decorative touches on buildings.

Let's look at a few examples of dragons on different Chinese art media:

Painted paper scrolls are often found in Chinese art. This image comes from a scroll called The Nine Dragons. (Nine, by the way, is considered a lucky number in China.) The scroll features dragons weaving their way through clouds, waves and other natural phenomenon. This figure, rendered in beautiful detail, emerges from a foggy background. It was done by artist Chen Rey in 1244, during the Song Dynasty.

Image of a dragon from The Nine Dragons hand scroll
Section of Nine Dragons scroll

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