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by Kate Hunt
|The Chinese New Year on Feb. 5 ushered in the auspicious Year of the Golden Dragon. The dragon occurs only once in every 60 years, and anyone born under this sign is said to be blessed with superior gifts.
The dragon easily qualifies as the most frequently portrayed creature in Chinese art, and is found on a wide range of materials including ceramics, textiles, jade, lacquer and cloisonné. As one of the 12 animals of the zodiac, the dragon is often modeled in ceramic with a human body and animal head. A rather comic example of this sort of hybrid is included in the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) pottery group in the British Museum's "Gilded Dragons" exhibition, Oct. 23, 1999-Feb. 20, 2000.
Stories of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals abound. One legend has it that before the Buddha departed the earth he summoned all the animals to come bid him farewell. Only 12 paid their respects so he honored each with a year. Another story records how the Jade Emperor summoned the 12 most interesting animals to come to him. The cunning rat caught a ride on the back of an ox, arriving ahead of the game and thus becoming the first of the zodiac signs.
If in the West mention of this mythical beast conjures up images of stranded maidens waiting to be rescued from the jaws of a scaly monster, in the East the dragon is the undisputed Lord of the Seas and the Skies, controlling the heavens and the rains. He is gloriously depicted in his celestial home writhing in and out of the clouds on an imperial Kangxi period (1662-1722) porcelain doucai enamel bowl offered for sale at S. Marchant & Son.
The dragon is the symbol of the emperor, power and creation. It is most often depicted as a magnificent beast, as exemplified by an 18th-century textile from John Eskenazi Ltd. Embroidered in couched gold thread on a dark blue ground of silk, there is no doubt as to the importance of the dragon's symbolism.
Some of the earliest representations of the dragon in Chinese art appeared on bronzes, jades and pottery in the Shang dynasty (1500 BC-1050 BC). This extraordinary archaic bronze bell dates to the succeeding Spring and Autumn period of the Eastern Zhou (770-475 BC). A pair of dragon-like creatures form the handle.
The dragon became associated with the emperor as early as the Han dynasty (206 BC -221AD). The great historian of the time, Sima Qian, recorded that Gaozu, the first Han emperor, was born of the union between a dragon and his mother, Lady Liu, as she lay dreaming by a pond. The dragon eventually became paired with the phoenix to symbolize the emperor and the empress, the masculine and the feminine.
The image of a carp leaping out of the water at the Longmen Falls (Dragon's Gate) is also coupled with the dragon and is synonymous with the struggling scholar trying to pass his civil office exams. If the carp manages to jump up the falls he will turn into a dragon. Similarly, if the scholar attains his goal he develops power and newfound status. The carp can be seen jumping at the falls on the blue and white Kangxi (1662-1722) porcelain brushpot from Spink & Son, Ltd.
The dragon evolved in Chinese art from a limbless snake-like creature in the pre Qin dynasty (pre 221 BC) to the composite creature thought to have hawk-like talons, a scaly serpent's body and tail, tiger paws, the head of a camel, ears of an ox and the horns of a deer.
Various combinations of this creature coexist in Chinese art. Some simple qilong dragons enclosed within the cartouches on the rim of a Kangxi (1662-1722) famille verte charger take one of the earlier forms. A fabulous example of famille verte porcelain, this piece is literally fit for a queen -- it was once owned by the Queen Mother's Bowes-Lyon family. It is also offered for sale by S. Marchant & Son.
By the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), sumptuary laws decreed that images of five-clawed dragons should be reserved for works of art destined for the Emperor and his imperial household. These rules were not always strictly adhered to. A blue and white leys jar made for the Zhengde Emperor (1506-21) is decorated all over with imperial five-clawed dragons, but below the rim of the vessel is an unprecedented six-clawed dragon. Undoubtedly a slip of the painter's hand, it's remarkable that the piece was not destroyed at the time for its imperfection. It will be exhibited along with S. Marchant & Son's other pieces at the International Asian Art Fair, Mar. 24-29, 2000, at the Seventh Regiment Armory in New York.
Because of their auspicious and protective powers dragons were often depicted on clothing. For example, take a magnificent silk satin imperial dragon robe dating to the Yongzheng period (1723-35), to be offered by Linda Wrigglesworth at the International Asian Art Fair. Yellow was the color reserved for the clothes of the emperor and his consorts and the robe is embroidered in satin stitch and couched gold wrapped thread.
The design of the dragons, bats and good luck characters predate the more commonly incorporated 12 imperial symbols found on robes in the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Sometimes only eight dragons were embroidered on these dragon robes, and the wearer was to become the ninth.
Dragons were also cast in metal. A striking example in gilded bronze stars in the "Gilded Dragons" exhibition. In a feat of agility and strength, the beast balances on its powerful forelegs, its tail bent over its body to counterbalance the weight, poised to leap to the heavens. It was made during the Golden Age of the Tang dynasty (618-906AD) and excavated from a tomb in north China, where it may have served as a guardian figure to ward off evil spirits. The Green Dragon of the East is one of the directional animals along with the Red Bird of the South (phoenix), the White Tiger of the West and the Black Warrior of the North (tortoise).
With all its powerful and auspicious symbolism, it is fitting that the Year of the Golden Dragon should begin the new millennium. For those wishing to maximize their good fortune in the year to come, it may be worth bearing in mind that traditionally the Chinese take care not to sweep their houses over New Year for fear of sweeping all their luck out of the door.
For the objects mentioned above visit:
John Eskenazi Ltd.at 15 Old Bond Street, London.
KATE HUNT is a London-based specialist in Asian art and a freelance journalist.