Regarded as the most powerful symbol of protection, strength and the collective forces of nature, the dragon is highly recognized as the most popular and revered of creatures in the hierarchy of ancient and contemporary Chinese art and culture. Whether splayed or in profile, crouching or crawling, the dragon’s depiction on everything from decorative objects to imperial robes has a lengthy history that dates to the Bronze Age and Neolithic Period up to the Qing dynasty and the present day. At once a symbol for China itself, both as a commonly recognized motif in the West and a strong reminder of history in the East, the dragon can take on many forms, faces and nuances.
Snarling, spitting, slinking across a sky full of scrolling clouds, breathing fire and bringing rain, the dragon’s powers are plentiful and can be a force of generosity and benevolence as much as destruction and ultimate power. Thus, they became a powerful motif for the ruling Emperor, his family and officials, found on everything from court robes to badges, with strict limitations as to who could wear what and why; for instance, only members of the emperor’s family could wear round badges embellished with dragons, and the presence of either a four clawed or five clawed dragon could mean a vast difference in political rank.
Yet in the lower echelons of ancient and contemporary Chinese society, dragons have taken on a symbolic role not only in the quest for absolute power, but absolute truth and fulfillment. In Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery, Patricia Bjaaland Welch writes ‘dragons from the Tang Dynasty onward are commonly depicted chasing or holding a flaming disk, or “jewel,” which is believed by some scholars to represent the sun (both the dragon and the sun being the ultimate in yang symbolization).” This jewel takes on the form of a ‘sacred pearl,’ which traces its importance to early Taoism, but can also be interpreted as the jewel of the lotus, integral to Buddhism as the jewel that ‘grants all wishes.’ Thus dragons, ever in hot pursuit of this fire-rimmed jewel whether in mist, fog or rain, are seen as a representation of man’s quest for transcendental enlightenment no matter the cost. The elements of air and water are important motifs in differing depictions of the dragon, as clouds or rolling waves hint toward the creature’s life-sustaining nature and characteristic dwelling place, whether in the sky, marshes, mountains or ocean. Similarly, this combination also represents a powerful image in Chinese design, as the unification of heaven, earth and the sea. The ultimate symbol of cosmic energy, both a life force and destroyer, a scholar and a ruler, the dragon and its many attributes have pervaded every aspect of Chinese art and culture to the delight and wonder of both East and Western collectors alike.