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    

Antique Chinese Blue & White Red Snuff Bottle Hall Of Perpetual Joy Mark DragonsAntique Chinese Bronze Letter Opener W/ Rare Jade Belt Hook Of Dragon & MelonsPair Of Rare Antique Chinese Doucai Dragon Vases /box , Qianlong Mark, 19th CVtg Chinese Export Carved Celadon Green Jade Dragon Pierced Censer Covered VaseRare Antique Chinese 17th/18th Century Kangxi Yixing Teapot Dragons Gilt MountsAntique Hand Painted Signed Japanese Kutani Porcelain Vase W/ Dragons LampAntique Chinese 19th/20thc Carved Cinnabar Carved Lacquer Imperial Dragon Box19thc ~amazing! Cloisonne Dragon Handle Parasol Handle Umbrella ChineseAntique Chinese Qing Dynasty 5 Toe Clawed Dragon Orange Silk Embroidered Robe Japanese Sterling Silver Tray Dragon Signed 2 MeijiAntique 19th Century Chinese Export Silver Dragon Censer Tripod QilinSuperb Chinese Estate Porcelain Famille Rose Enamel Dragon Vase With Mark*1218 Japanese Edo Antique Signed Kogai Of Samurai Katana Sword "dragon"Antique Chinese Jade Jadeite Carved Marriage Bowl Qianlong Dragon Qilong CeladonAntique Chinese White Jade Dragon Pendant Qing Dynasty ............. N0 ReserveSuperb Antique Chinese Deeply Carved Cinnabar Lacquer Box "dragon & Phoenix"Japanese Big Hanging Scroll "rising Dragon" @w692Chinese Export Silver Cocktail Shaker Pitcher Dragons Signed Chinese Export Silver Tray Dragons Hammered Surface SignedPair Antique Signed Chinese Solid Gold Rings With Characters And DragonsNice Signed Chinese Famille Rose Bowl Qianlong Mk Green Glaze Dragon DecorationSuperb Large Antique Chinese Cloisonne Vase Decorated Wuth Dragons EtcChinese Export Silver Purse Dragons C1890 Tuck ChangChinese Nephrite Jade Plaque / Pendant, Happiness Character & Dragons, 19th C.Gold Gilt Wire Old Antique Japanese Meiji Cloisonne 2 Panel Jar Vase * DragonsFine Old Pair Of Chinese Cloisonne Imperial Dragons Motif Scholar's VaseSuperb Antique Green Jade Dragon Box & Cover. Antique Chinese 18/19thc Hand-painted Blue/white Dragon PlateGood 23cm Chinese Canton Famille Rose Medallion Vase 19th C 4 Golden DragonsAntique 126.50ctw Natural True Color Jadeite Jade Charming Dragon Bird AmuletA Fine Blue & White Jar With DragonsAntique Japanese/chinese Faux Tortoise Shell Pierced Dragon Cigarette Case-boxJapanese Hanging Scrolls : Yano Tetsuzan "dragon" @w675Fine Antique Satsuma Gold Dragon Hat Pin HatpinAntique Chinese Hand Painted Dragons Chasing Flaming Pearl Porcelain VaseAntique Chinese Card/cigarette Case Box Cloisonne Double-sided Dragon Very Old*1230 Japanese Antique Tsuba Sword Guard Of Samurai Katana "2 Dragons"Chinese Dragon Cloisonne Pedestal Vase And CoverAntique Signed Japanese Cloisonne Totai Tree Bark Vase W/ Dragon !Superb Vintage Collection Rare Old Bronze Casting Royal Dragon BowlAntique Japanese Cloisonne Vase * Inaba Dragon & Ho BirdAntique Chinese Metal Double Snuff Bottle Dragons Decoration & Four Character MaChinese Antique Clair De Lune Glazed Dragon Vase, Qianlong Mark, 19th Century19th C Chinese Porcelain Blue And White Scaly Dragon Rice BowlFine Old Chinese Brass Dragon Cobalt Blue Glass Imperial Temple RingAntique Chinese Carved Apple Green Jadeite Jade Dragon Amulet Pendant (11021440)Estate Fine China Chinese Carved Jade Jadeite Dragon Turtle Carving ArtFine Old Chinese Carved Green Jade & Carnelian Bead Dragon Pendant NecklaceJapanese Hanging Scroll "flying Dragon" @w665Peking Glass Carved dragon & Fish Pattern Snuff BottleLarge Pair Of Vtg Chinese Cloisonne Enamel Vases W Wood Stands Dragon & PhoenixBeautiful Antique Chinese 19th Century Dragon Embroidered SkirtAntique Chinese Jade Dragon Belt Buckle - Qing DynastyAntique Chinese Signed Seal Label Green Dragon Porcelain Plate Charger Low BowlExceptional Meiji Japanese Kutani Vase Children Feet Dragon Phoenix GoddessesPair Antique Chinese Porcelain Crackle Glaze Vases Pair Dragons Chengua Nian ZhiFine Antique Chinese 20thc Blue And White Dragon VaseA Nice 19c. Chinese Blue And White Porcelain Dragon Charger*chenghua M.Antique Chinese Export Armorial Plate Porcelain Dragon Shield Crest Blue CrestedAntique Japanese Sword Fitting Huti-kashira 美久-yoshihisa 'dragon ' Samurai