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    

18th/19th C. Chinese Huangyangmu Wood Carved Dragon Ruyi ScepterJapan Antiques Edo Hirado Dragon Sukashi Tsuba Yoroi Samurai Katana Koshirae 8 Fine Old Chinese Cloisonne Bowls - 5 Clawed Imperial Dragon V-fine Chinese 19c Cloisonne Dragon Vase Oriental Enamel AntiquesVintage Beautiful Large Chinese Cloisonne Dragon Bowl With StandLarge & Very Rare 19c Antique Chinese Bronze Dragon Box & Cover, 22 Cm, N/rNice Antique Chinese Ceramic Vase With Dragon & Many Lingzhi Ruyi Oatmeal GlazeCert'd Natural Type A Jadeite Jade Lotus Dragon Big NetsukeFine Old Chinese Carved Pierced Jade Chilong Dragon Peach Necklace Pendant Old Chinese Cinnabar Lacquer Carved Jewelry Box Cosmetic Jar Dragon Qing DynastyManual Unique Cloisonne Large Dragon Statue Crutch Walking Stick Cane HandleAntique Chinese Peking Glass Dragon Overlay Snuff Bottle Cert'd Natural Type A Jadeite Jade Lotus Dragon Turtle Big Antique NetsukeAntique Chinese Pewter Dragon Decorated Tea KettleAntique Silver Plate Chinese Motif Raised Dragons Bowl - SignedChinese Fengshui Bronze Guan Gong Yu Warrior God Sword Stand In Dragon Statue 19th Century Chinese Porcelain Footed Dish Bowl With Dragon Tongzi Period 19th C. Qing [ching] Chinese Silk K'o-ssu Kesi Blue And Gold Dragon Robe PanelChinese Hanging Scroll "dragon God" @u444Large Antique Chinese Ox Horn Carved Cup Pot-dragon S1026.4 Inches Great Chinese Ming Dy Celadon Glaze Porcelain *dragon* Vase S070Oriental Huge Tibetan Silver Copper Handwork Carved Luck Dragon Statue -- DragonCollectible Handwork Shoushan Stone Carve Two Dragon Exorcism Auspicious Statue Old China Bronze Cloisonne Dynasty Palace Emperor Dragon Crutch Walking StickCollectible Decorated Old Handwork Tibet Silver Carved Buddha & Dragon Statue Chinese Tibetan Silver Hand-carved 2 Dragon Incense Burner W Hollow Foo Dog Lid China Shoushan Stone Old Hand Carved Dragon Statue F3252: Japanese Old Kutani-ware Dragon Chicken Pattern Incense Burner W/box Old China Royal Bronze Gilt Cloisonne Enamel Dragon Crutch Cane Walking StickMarked China Dynasty Silver Dragon Beast Fu Bat Wine Tea Pot Flagon CollectionOld Red Copper Handwork Dragon & Animals Play Hydrangea Lid Incense BurnersChinese Bronze Carving Successful Dragon Horse On Ball Beast Statue NrOld Chinese Tibet Silver Handwork Dragon Motif Flagon W Qianlong Mark Gd8988Chinese Tibetan Silver Hand-carved 2 Dragon Incense Burner&peacock Lid X0217Chinese Tibetan Silver Hand-carved 2 Dragon Incense Burner W Hollow Foo Dog Lid Chinese Brass Longevity Crane Dragon Turtle Statue Candle Holder CandlestickAntique Chinese Beautiful Old Celadon Nephrite Jade Bracele Two-dragon Bracelets18c Qinghua Porcelain Silver Hand Made Drawing Dragon Phoenix Flower Pipa StatueFolk Chinese Fengshui Bronze Copper Dragon Head Mask Statue Gate Door Knocker NrChina Collectible Shoushan Stone Carve Buddha Sit Dragon Ing0t Exorcism StatueChinese Porcelain Famille-rose Dragon&phoenix Gourd Vase Qianlong Mark S74Oriental Huge Tibetan Silver Copper Handwork Carved Luck Dragon Statue -- DragonRare China Old Jade Carving Buddha Fish Dragon Flower Vase Bottle VasesVintage Brass Walking Sticks Canes Trekking Strong Crutch Dragon Handle Strong5" Lucky China Chinese Bronze Fengshui Dragon Tortoise Turtle Statue Sculpture NOriental Vintage 100% Natural Jade Hand Carved Dragon Boat Statue10'' Oriental Vintage Handwork Chilong Dragon Silver Copper Incense Burner & LidChina Dragon Play Bead Temple Purple Copper Candleholder PairCollectible Tibet Silver Hand-carved Big Tower Dragon Incense BurnerCollectible Tibet Silver Hand-carved Big Tower Dragon Incense BurnerOld Red Copper Handwork Dragon & Animals Play Hydrangea Lid Incense Burners A1 Tibet Silver Buddhism King Kong Hercules Dragon Censer Incense Burner StatueChinese Brass Dragon & Phoenix Statues.a Pair Of Light Nr Qianlong & Xuande MarkCollectibles Decorated Chinese Handwork Carved Dragon Bone Long Smoking PipeOriental Vintage Copper Hand Carved Dragon Crutch Silver Bronze Handmade Dragon Phoenix Incense Burner W Peony & Lid Phoen China Silver Carved Dragon Buddhism Shakya Mani Buddha Sculpture StatueChinese Cloisonne Brass Handwork Carve Dragon Flagon W Xuan De Mark Chinese Collection Old Wooden Hand Painted Dragon &phoenix Box G249Asia Collectible Decorated Old Handwork Bronze Carved Dragon Gecko Vase