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.

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