From Myth to Muse

Covered-bowls with dragon in overglaze wucai enamels
Rubbing of sarcophagus of Wang Hui from Lushan County, Sichuan Province
Brush holder with dragon and cloud in sepia enamel
Cups with double dragon in overglaze red
Carved lacquer dish with dragon design and shou (longevity) character
Tile with walking-dragon design
Dish with dragon and clouds in underglaze blue
Dish with applique dragon and celadon glaze
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The Legacy of the Dragon in Chinese Culture

The Chinese University of Hong Kong’s Celebrating the Year of the Dragon and Amazing Clay exhibitions illustrate how the narrative of dragons transcends mere fairytales. Stories embedded in artefacts and artworks reveal the creature’s deep roots in Chinese culture. These exhibitions unveil how emperors, worshippers and artists unite to revere a symbol that defies mere myth. The dragon’s majestic form isn’t just a fantastical beast; it connects imperial might, religious devotion and artistic expression. Its appeal lies in its adaptability, morphing through dynasties and art forms with tales of power, hope and prosperity. Through these exhibitions, we gain a deeper understanding of the dragon’s enduring legacy, reminding us that even myths hold the power to connect us across time and space.

The Jade Emperor’s Zodiac Race

Legend depicts the dragon in the Jade Emperor’s zodiac race. Despite its power and flight, the dragon’s compassion led it to help a drought-stricken village and a struggling rabbit, delaying its arrival. The Jade Emperor, recognising its good deeds, still granted the dragon a place. This story highlights the dragon’s complexity – powerful yet kind, revered for both strength and benevolence.

Imperial Control of Five-clawed Dragons

Emperors used the dragon’s image to claim a divine mandate. Its majestic form adorned palaces, clothing, and regalia, a constant reminder of the emperor’s divinely sanctioned power. The exclusive use of the five-clawed dragon further emphasised imperial control.

Dragons as Celestial Guardians

Beyond imperial confines, the dragon assumed new roles. In temples, it became a celestial guardian and auspicious symbol. Murals depicted dragons swirling amidst clouds, while intricate carvings adorned incense burners. People sought the dragon’s blessings and good fortune, solidifying its connection to religious beliefs.

Eastern Zhou Dynasty Dragons

For millennia, the dragon has captivated Chinese art. Early depictions showcased fierce, dynamic forms, sometimes hinting at auspicious connotations. By the Eastern Zhou dynasty, dragons became associated with imperial power, morphing into powerful creatures with wings. The Han dynasty saw further transformation, with dragons becoming sinuous serpents.

Tang Dynasty Dragons

Artistic trends evolved with dynasties. Tang dynasty dragons reflected Buddhist influence, emphasising benevolence and wisdom. Song dynasty artists created a formula for the ideal dragon, solidifying its association with imperial authority. Under Mongol rule, foreign influences led to pet-like dragons outside the imperial realm.

Ming and Qing Dynasties Dragons

The Ming dynasty saw a resurgence of imperial authority with elaborate, five-clawed dragon robes. The Qing dynasty used porcelain as a canvas for graceful dragons, symbolising prosperity. Maritime trade led to unique motifs like the pearl-playing dragon.

Ferocious Protector to Benevolent Guardian

The dragon’s adaptability reflects the changing currents of Chinese society. It transformed from a ferocious protector to a benevolent guardian, mirroring anxieties and evolving beliefs. This adaptability ensures the dragon’s enduring resonance. Even today, artists across mediums draw inspiration from its form.

The Connecting Influence of Dragons

The dragon transcends mere symbolism. It connects Chinese civilisation, emperors, worshippers and artists. Its presence speaks to shared values and beliefs – strength, wisdom and a yearning for good fortune.

Celebrating the Year of the Dragon

Exhibitions like Celebrating the Year of the Dragon showcase the dragon’s narrative beyond fairytales. These displays offer a glimpse into a timeless realm, where the dragon’s majestic form connects the threads of imperial might, religious devotion and artistic expression. Through such exhibitions, we gain a deeper understanding of the dragon’s enduring legacy, reminding us that even myths hold the power to connect us across time and space.

Text Martin Wray / Photos Cammy Yiu & Martin Wray