Dragon as a symbol of might and enlightenment in Chinese art
With the countdown to the Year of the Dragon underway, the anticipation for this revered occasion is palpable. The only mythical creature in the Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Dragon, is believed to be associated with vitality, good fortune, and opportunities.
Chinese art has a rich history of incorporating dragon imagery, with depictions dating back to the Neolithic period (ca. 7000–1700 BCE). While the symbolism of the earliest dragons on jade and bronze objects remains shrouded in mystery, by the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), dragons were believed to be water creatures that inhabited rivers and oceans. They were considered divine rulers of moving water and could fly into clouds to control the weather and bring life-giving rain. Dragons were also symbols of masculine power and imperial majesty. In Chinese artworks, they are often depicted as chasing or catching a flaming pearl, which represents wisdom and enlightenment. Dragons have been so popular throughout Chinese art and culture that the Chinese consider themselves “descendants of the dragon.”
Chen Rong (1189–1268), a Southern Song dynasty artist, is renowned for his depiction of dragons in Chinese art. In a long handscroll, nine dragons are portrayed playing in dynamic clouds, mists, waves, and rocks. The number nine, or “jiu,” is considered to be an auspicious number that promises longevity and happiness. Emperor Qianlong (1736–1795) even used one of the numerous seals present on the handscroll on his 80th birthday.
The Year of the Dragon is a highly anticipated occasion in Chinese culture, and its depiction in Chinese art is a testament to its revered status.