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]

Gotheborg.com

Gotheborg.com

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    

Fine Antique 19thc Chinese Qing Guangxu M & P Dragon Porcelain Brush Pot VaseAntique Chinese Asian Robbins Egg Pi Tung 1790 Porcelain Dragon Brush Pot HolderFine Antique Chinese Porcelain Powder Blue Gilt Dragon Dish Plate Qianlong 18thcAntique Chinese Asian Famille Verte Gu Dragon Carp Floor VaseFine Antique 19thc Chinese Qing Tongzhi Mark Dragon Porcelain Brush Pot VaseVery Fine Antique Chinese 12thc Song Qingbai Dragon Incised Yingqing White DishAntique Chinese Wucai Phoenix & Dragon Squat Vase 19th CenturyFine Antique Chinese 18th / 19th Century Small Bronze 'dragon' Gu VaseChinese Porcelain Dragon Scholars Brush Washer In Robins Egg Enamels Wood StandChinese Antique Wucai Dragon Bowl - Square Ming Mark - Very Fine DecorationAntique Japanese Satsuma Pottery Tea Set Dragon Teapot Sugar Teacups & SaucersAntique Chinese Hardstone Lock Pendant Plaque W/ Dragons And InscriptionFine Dragon Fittings Tsuka Of Sword 18-19th C Japanese Edo Antique C685Chinese Antique Clair De Lune Glazed Dragon Vase, Qianlong Mark, 19th CenturyChinese Export Silver Tea Bowls (2) Wang Hing DragonsPair Antique Chinese Cloisonne Dragon Enamel Baluster Vase / Censer And Cover Late 19th Century Large Japanese Brass Bowl Censer With DragonsAntique Hand Painted Chinese Dragon Phoenix Chess SetD4464 Cjtm Japanese Samurai Dragon Menuki Daito Long Tsuka Katana KoshiraeA Rare And Important Chinese Qing Dynasty Yellow Summer Dragon Robe.Antique Chinese Kesi Chair Cover With 5-clawed Dragons, 19th CAntique Chinese Silver Dragon BroochAntique Chinese Hand Carved White Jade Dragon Belt HookChinese Famille Rose Porcelain Dragon Bowl W/ Jiaqing Underglaze Blue Seal MarkFine Old Chinese Bronze Etched Dragons Decorated Tripod Footed Censer Signed18/19th C. Chinese Carved White Jade Dragon Buckle.3 Crosses & 2 Dragons Christians Tsuba 19th C Japanese Antique Sword Fitting 818Chinese Antique Porcelain Jardiniere Planter Coral Red Four Claw Dragons Fine And Extremely Rare Chinese Dragon Gold On Silver Bangle - See Images!Fine Kozuka & Kogatana Sword 18-19th C Japanese Edo Antique “dragon“ C881Antique Sterling Silver Dragon Head Hinged Bangle Bracelet Chinese Vintage 21g4 Items Of Vintage Chinese Cloisonne 2 Flower Vase & 2 Pots Dragon ChinaFine Mirror Pair Of 19th C. Chinese Cloisonne Vases W/ Dragons & Flaming PearlsAntique Chinese Hallmarked Solid Silver Cocktail Shaker.dragon Design.A Chinese "dou Cai" Porcelain Vase With Hidden Dragon Lines "stunning" Good Pair Of Chinese Blue & White Vases Decorated With Dragons Kangxi Mark Large Antique Chinese Brass Censer Incense Burner 1800s DragonsLuen Hing Chinese Silver Salt And Pepper Pots Dragon Pearl Detail Antique PairD749: Chinese Colored Porcelain Teapot With Dragon Painting And Name Of An EraC1900 Lovely Chinese Export Silver Cigarette Case Dragon & Village SceneJapan Antique Edo Good Wood Dragon Red Katanakake Stand Yoroi Koshirae Armor Superb 19thc Japanese Cloisonne Octagonal Plaque With Three Toed Dragon C1880sVintage Dark Wood Hand Carved Japanese Dragon Snake Round Netsuke ZodiacOld Korean Porcelain 3 Bats 5 Dragon Blue White Pedestal Plate Bowl Wow4 Kg! Unique Agarwood Aloeswood Dragon Sculpture - Handmade! 沉香龙Vintage Chinese Large Bronze Cloisonne Bowl Dragon Chasing PearlsVintage Korean Porcelain Blue White Fire Breathing Dragon Corset Vase SignedChina Export Solid Silver (kg 90)teebox Case With Dragon DecorationDelicate Natural Certified A Level Jadeite Jade Carving Dragon PendantChina Old Bronze Handmade Carved Dragon Calabash Statue Cane Walking Stick HeadMiniature Chinese Jade Foo Dogs DragonsJapanese Makuri,honshi "ryu / Dragon" @s375Vintage Cast Iron Brass Chinese Dragon Bell Swing Chain ClapperAntique Large 8" Cloisonne Chinese 5 Claw Dragon Bowl 19th-20th Century19th.c Chinese Silk Panel Lot Of 4, Gilt Threading Dragons & PhoenixKatana Tsuba 18-19th C Japanese Edo Samurai Antique Sword Fitting “dragons“ C862Antique Chinese Red Coral Green Turquoise Jade Dragon Silver Necklace 052916350Antique Old Chinese Red Craved Dragon Plate It Marked And Signed Asian China Delicate Natural Certified A Level Jadeite Jade Carving Dragon Turtle PendantDelicate Natural Certified A Level Jadeite Jade Carving Dragon Pendant