Dragons appear on all sorts of Asian antiques, from high art like hanging scrolls, jade figurines, and sculptures to utilitarian objects such as Japanese kimonos, Chinese robes, netsuke, dinnerware, and vases. Collectors of Asian lacquerware, porcelain, cloisonné, mahjong tiles, and screens are also likely to encounter dragons in their search for perfect pieces.

Unlike the Western concept of dragons, Eastern dragons don't kidnap fair maidens or burn people to a crisp. Instead, dragons are portrayed in Asian folklore as powerful, wise, and benevolent protectors. In China, dragons are said to have weather-controlling powers, and the ability to carry humans to the afterlife post-death. Charged with guarding treasures, they can fly, change shape, size, and color, and even disappear. These just, majestic, and mythical creatures, representing wealth, good fortune, and the strength to overcome adversity and repel evil.

A large Chinese dragon in particular is a pastiche of other creatures, made up of the "nine aspects"—a camel's head with a cow's ears, deer's horns, and rabbit's eyes, attached to a snake's neck with a gigantic clam's belly, a body covered in a carp's scales, plus tiger feet and hawk claws. In addition, it has cat whiskers, a shimmering gemstone under its chin, and a device on its head that allows it to transport to heaven at any moment. Because nine is a sacred number in China, a dragon also has exactly 117 scales—81 yang and 36 yin—ensuring the dragon's good-nature dominates. A dragon’s voice is often likened to the jangling of copper pans.

The original eight Dragon Kings of Chinese and Japanese mythology emerged from the Naga, a family of snake-like beasts thought to protect various aspects of Buddhism, which originated in India around 500 BC. Originally, Naga could be human-shaped water spirits with a crown made of snakes, half-human/half-snake creatures, serpents with human heads, or serpentine deities in the clouds. (Later dragons, as shape shifters, were thought to take on human bodies and breed with people.) The family of eight great Naga kings were enemies with the Phoenix and a bird-man beast called Karura. The Naga controlled the weather and guarded treasures and sacred spaces.

In China, however, dragon imagery is found as far back as the 16th century BC, seen in the bronze and jade pieces of the Shang and Zhou dynasties. The theme of protection is a common thread among dragon legends; dragons are found in tombs as early as the 2nd century BC, intended to ward off evil, particularly in times of war. Buddhism was introduced to China around the 2nd and 1st century BC. Over time, the Naga serpents were given the four legs of Chinese dragons, and dragons were incorporated into Buddhist symbols. Japan then adopted dragon mythology from China.

As a guardian, the dragon (called “qinglong”) was one of the four celestial emblems of China, also called four legendary creatures, which protect the directions of the compass. Each beast oversees a quadrant of the heavens, each holding seven constellations, or “seishuku,” which together account for the 28 lunar mansions. Each direction is also associated with a color, season, element, and virtue. The Dragon is the guardian of the East, identified with blue and green, spring, wood, and propriety. The Turtle or Black Warrior guards the North, tied to black, winter, water, and faith. The White Tiger protects the North, associated with white, summer, metal, and righteousness. The Red Bird (or Phoenix) takes care of the South, red, summer, fire, and knowledge.

In the Theory of Five Elements, China also identifies the “fifth direction” or center, which has its own seishuku and is naturally where China itself is located. The Dragon and P...

These early myths birthed a whole hierarchy of nine major dragon types in China (nine is a sacred number). There are the four Dragon Kings that dominate the four seas. Yinglong, the oldest of Chinese dragons, has wings. Tianlong, or celestial dragon, protects the mansions of the gods, while Shenlong, or spiritual dragon, controls the wind and rain. The five-toed Shenlong is also known as the Imperial Dragon, a symbol exclusive to the royal court. Fucanglong, or treasure-guarding dragons, which oversee precious metal and jewels, likely influenced Western fairy tales wherein knights fought dragons to claim treasures.

Dilong, or earth dragons, rule the underground and earth, sending the rivers and streams flowing into the ocean, while Panlong, the coiling dragons, have command over the lakes. The yellow dragon Huanglong is said to have given the Emperor Fuxi the gift of writing, and Jiaolong, or horned dragon, is a nomadic beast that haunts the sea and mountain caverns.

Generally, the number of toes a dragon has can give you a good indication of where its from. Chinese and Korean imperial dragons have five claws on each foot, while Indonesian dragons have four, and Japanese dragons have three. In early times, ordinary Chinese dragons only had four toes on each foot, as it was a capital offense for anyone other than the emperor to use a five-clawed dragon motif.

According to Chinese mythology, as a dragon travels from its homeland, it loses toes; that’s why Japanese dragons only have three toes. But Japanese legend says that a dragon grows more claws the further it gets from its origin. However, an imperial dragon depicted in the Korea’s Gyeongbok Palace features seven toes on each foot, suggesting Korea is superior to China.

Dragons were important to the royal courts because they symbolized everything a ruler wanted to be: They were seen as just, benevolent leaders, who brought wealth and good fortune to their subjects. They were also respected, feared, and approached with the same reverence one would have for an honest ruler. That’s why the dragon, a symbol of authority, was worn on the robes of the imperial families.

About our sources | Got something to add?

▼ Expand to read the full article ▼

Best of the Web (“Hall of Fame”)

National Carousel Association

National Carousel Association

Since 1973, the National Carousel Association has been dedicated to preserving and restoring carousels and carousel… [read review or visit site]

Asian Art Museum

Asian Art Museum

You can get happily lost searching through the 10,000 or so objects on the Asian Art Museum's website. For example,… [read review or visit site]



Jan-Erik Nilsson's extensive reference on antique Chinese porcelain. Jam-packed with information (e.g. on porcelain… [read review or visit site]

Most watched eBay auctions    

Exceptional Large Chinese Spinach Jade Dragon Figure Silver Wire Wall PlaqueAntique Chinese Jade Cup With Carved Dragon HandlesGreat C1920 Chinese Gold Gilt Sterling Silver Dragon Figural Bangle BraceletAn Old Chinese Canton Bovine Bone Okimono Dragon Puzzle Ball StandHighly Importnt 1045-221 Chinese Zhou Dynasty Jade Dragon Bird Carved Imperial BAntique Chinese 6 Character Marks Aubergene Famille Verte Dragons Dish - A/fLarge Antique 19thc Chinese Blue And White Porcelain Dragon Flower Plate ChargerPerfect Chinese Porcelain Colored Charger 19th C. Dragons 34cm - Guangxu M&pImportant &exceptional Chinese Jade Dragon Bi Disc Pendant Warring States PeriodAntique Chinese Asian Carved Needle Case Bodkin Dragon Butterfly Bovine BoneTruly Superb 17/18thc Chinese Thinly Carved Yellow Jade Dragon Figural Bi DiscAntique Chinese Silk Embroidered Dragon Robe Kesi Surcoat No Rank BadgeAntique Chinese Silver & Carved Jade Belt Buckle Dragon Magnifying GlassJapanese Ginbari Cloisonne On Bronze Vase Goddess Benton Riding DragonFine Pair Of Chinese Porcelain Bowls W Dragons + Phoenix And StandsFine19thc Chinese Celedon Jade Coiled Dragon Phoenix Bird Figure Bi Disc PendantAntque Chinese Jade Dragon Pendant White Jade Bat & Soapstone Man -- No Reserve Interesting Old Chinese Celedon Black Jade Dragon Scholars Water Pot CenserFine Antique 19th C Chinese Porcelain Blue And White Dragon Jar Vase & Lid CoverExtremly Rare Chinese Pure White Hetian Jade Dragon Pendant Shang To Han DynastyOld Chinese Blue & White Coral Red Glaze Dragon Porcelain Dish Plate MkAntique Japanese Aesthetic Movement Dragon Brass Vesta Match SafeOld/vintage Chinese Jade Sword Form Carving With Chilong And DragonSuperb Large Chinese Porcelain B/w Dragon Censer 19th C - 26cm - Qianlong MarkInlaid Tsuba 18-19th C Japanese Edo Samurai Antique Sword Fitting “dragons“ C674Chinese Export Silver Tea Set Dragons 35 OzC1900 Good Japanese Gold Dragon Inlaid Gunmetal Komai Vesta Match Safe (signed)19th Century 1830 Antique Chinese Blue And White Porcelain Dragon VaseOld Chinese Hardstone Bracelet With Carved DragonsEx.rare C1920 Chinese 14k Gold & Icy Emerlad Green Jadeite Dragon Figure BroochFine17th/18thc Japanese Arita, Kakiemon Type, Moulded Dish With Dragon And TigerJapanese Hanging Scroll : Kano Eishin Yasunobu "dragon" @e723Very Fine Chinese Jade Dragon Figural Belt Hook Clasp Ming Dynasty Or EarlierFineold Chinese Carved Jade Dragon Figure Sword Scabbard Slide Qing Ming DynastyNice Chinese Porcelain B/w Vase 19th C. Dragons 19th C. Kangxi Mark 26cmFine Antique Chinese Cloisonne Enamel 5 Toed Dragon Bowl 4 Character Mark C.1890Fine Antique Chinese Jade Dragon Mask Hair Ornament Disc Ring Song Ming DynastyInteresting Very Old Chinese Jade Archaic Dragon Huang Pendant Qing Or Earlier Antique Chinese Yixing Teapot Pewter Dragon, Impressed Chop & Touch Marks 19th CA Late Ming, 16thc, Wanli, B&w Chinese Porcelain Bowl With Dragons. No 2Fine Early Chinese Calcified Jade Dragon Figural Belt Hook Clasp Warring States3 Fine Antique Chinese Yellow White Dark Emerald Jade Bi Disc Dragon PendantsUnusual Old Chinese Jade Mythical Dragon Fish Figure Pendant Qing Or EarlierJapanese Silver Dish With Dragons.Japanese Meiji Era Silver Dragon BuckleFine Old Chinese 14k Gold Carved Celadon Jade Dragon Necklace PendantChinese Celedon Jade Dragon Figure Pendants Neolithic To Warring States PeriodFine 18/19thc Chinese Carved White Jade Archaic Dragon Figure Huang PendantEstate Lot Antique Chinese Jade Belt Hook Bi Disc Fish Sword Dragon PendantsFinely Carved Chinese Chicken Bone Jade Dragon Phoenix Figure Large Bead Pendant3 Very Fine Early Chinese White Jade Dragon Pendant Bird Bead Ming Or EarlierAntique 19c/20c Republic Chinese Yixing Zisha Clay/pewter Dragon Teapot Set3 Fine Old Chinese White Celedon Jade Dragon Pendant Figure Hongshan CultureAntique Chinese Textile Imperial Dragon (5 Claw) Clouds Sleeve Band EmbroideredJapanese Hanging Scroll "man Fighting With Dragon And Tiger" @c311kBeautiflul Chinese 20th C Famille Verte Dragon & Phoenix Teapot Signed QianlongTwo 19th Century Blue / White Lidded Vases With Dragons Chinese Export Exceptional Chinese Yellow Jade Dragon Pendant Bead Warring States Han DynastyAntique 19thc Chinese Mandarin Rank Badge Embroidery~dragon~qing DynastyEstate Lot 3 Interesting Chinese White Celedon Jade Dragon Figure Bead Pendant