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    

Huge Antique Chinese Porcelain Famille Rose Nine Dragon Bowl Plate Qianlong 38cmRare 19thc Chinese Yellow-ground Green And Aubergine Enamelled 'dragon' DishLarge And Heavy Chinese Antique Bronze Enamel Mirror W Ming Jade Inlaid Dragon19 Th Century Chinese Blue & White Dragon Snuff Bottle & Marked Famille Rose Antique Chinese 19th Century Pale Celadon Jade Belt Hook Dragon & ChilongAntique Chinese Silk Kesi Dragon Robe With Very Fine Details & Original Buttons.Lrg 19thc Chinese Porcelain Kangxi Marks Blue White Double Dragons Jar & CoverPair Fine Antique Japanese Cloisonne Meiji 8.5 In Tall 2 Dragon VasesVintage Chinese Long Cloisonné Silver Metal Opium Pipe DragonA Chinese Silver Cigarette Box Decorated With Dragons.Rare Chinese Coral Snuff Bottle - Top! - 72 Gram - DragonAntique Japanese Satsuma Pottery Teaset White Dragon Teapot Sugar Creamer TeacupLarge Important 17th / 18th Century Antique Chinese Temple Embroidery - DragonsLarge Antique Meiji Japanese Satsuma Vase, Marked Hodota, Immortals, Dragon, 12"Antique Chinese Silk Embroidery Textile Framed Picture Dragon & Phoenix RepublicPr Antique 19thc Signed Miniature Japanese Satsuma Vases W/ Dragon & FiguresOld Chinese Export Bronze Figural Dragon Foo Dog Lion 7.25" Statue Sculpture NrFine Old China Chinese Republic Silk Embroidery Dragon Gold Stitch Jacket RobeLovely Antique Chinese Ruby Red Glass Dragon And Gilt Silver Pendnat NecklaceGia Certified Jadeite Jade Pendant Of DragonA Rare B&w Chinese Traditional Dragon Brush Pot Probably From KangxiAntique Miniature Japanese Painted White Dragon Satsuma Pottery Vase Covered JarGenuine Antique Chinese Large Bronze Vase Character Marked Dragons Fine QualityNyjewel Antique Gold Vintage Victorian Ruby Dragon RingGorgeous Vintage Cloisonne 5 Toed Dragon / Pearl BowlAntique Chinese Ruyi Form With Carved Dragons Jade PendantsAntique Chinese Ming Qing Dynasty Carved Russet Jade Serpent Dragon Amulet BeadChinese Export Scholars Caligraphy Paint Brush Set W/ Wood Carved Dragon Holder G918: Chinese White Porcelain Ware Kashiki Bowl With Dragon Sculpture Inkoku Chinese Vintage Collectible Mystery Red Leather Jewelry Box Dragon Phoenix BookAntique Chinese Silk Gauze Dragon Robe 18th - 19th C Chinese Bronze Censer Brush Pot Dragon Decoration, Tripod FeetFine Pair 19th C Chinese Porcelain Famille Verte Green Dragons VasesVintage Chinese Silver Mounted Porcelain Enamel Pig Dragon Signed TeapotEarly 20th C Chinese Yixing Blue Dragon & Elephant Monkey Snuff Bottles - MarksSuperb Quality 19th / 20th Century Chinese Green Dragons Bowl - Signed DaoguangJapanese Samurai Sword Tsuka Menuki Fuchi Kashira Bk Dragon Bird 7a-22Very Large Antique Japanese Satsuma Lion & Dragon On A Rock Figure GroupDragon Horimono Carving: Edo Antique Japanese Samurai Long Katana SwordAntique Chinese Soapstone Carving Immortal Riding Dragon Fish Holding Peach, Fan19 Th Century Chinese Crackle Ware Blue & White Fish Bowl Dragon Jardiniere Fine Japanese Edo 18-19th C Samurai Antique Dragon Fuchi Kashira 6 Pieces Set Good Chinese Porcelain Square Jardiniere With Blue Dragon Decor 19thcRare Antique Chinese Relief Bottle Vase Featuring 18 Figures(luohan?) And DragonAntique Chinese Carved Dragon Shoushan Stone Soapstone Seal, CalligraphyThe Ornament Of The Dragon Of The Pure Silver. Japanese Antique. Stunning 19th Century Chinese Soapstone Carving With DragonsGood 19th C Chinese Porcelain Double Dragons Square Character Marks Jar & CoverCert'd Fine Natural Grade A Jadeite Jade Hollowed Hand Carved Dragon Statue Nr Antique Old Chinese Celadon Nephrite Jade Carved Snuff Bottle Dragon & PhoenixFine & Unusual Pair 19/20c Chinese Enameled Green Dragon Stem Bowls, Perfect, NrJapanese Samurai Sword Tsuba Dragon Br 8a-14Nice Antique Chinese Silver Dragon & Shou Character Choker NecklaceFine Antique 19th C Chinese Canton Sterling Solid Silver Dragon Vase Sing FatVintage Chinese Porcelain Double Gourd Vase ~ Dragons & Clouds On Blue GroundImpressive Large Chinese 19th C Blue & White Dragons Vase - Signed KangxiChinese Cloisonne Dragon VaseChinese Cloisonne Dragon Bowl Brush Washer & Hardwood Stand Ming Dynasty MarkJapanese Edo 18-19th C Samurai Antique Iron Tsuba 3 Pieces Set Dragon, AbaloneChina Collectible Decorate Handwork Old Copper Dragon Head Statue Candlestick