Bronze dragon (c) Angela Reich

Lóng 龍(龙)

Dragons are very significant in Chinese imagery, appearing on artefacts from ancient bronzes to ceramics and imperial robes.

The Nine Dragons handscroll is a stunning painting by Chinese artist Chen Rong (1244 CE).  The sons of the Dragon King writhe through mist and waves in a virtuoso display of ink work.  The original is in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Another wonderful dragon is Benificent Rain, by Zhang Yucai, in the Met collection.  Again, it shows the dragon as a spirit of water, the quintessential Daoist element.

Dragon sculpture at Beijing airport
The Chinese dragon, unlike western dragons, is associated with water – seas and rivers, lakes, rain and mist. It is beneficial and benevolent to mankind, though sometimes testy.

It is the most important of the mythic beasts, and is associated with yang and the emperor; the complementary yin beast is the phoenix, identified with the empress. The dragon and phoenix together show marital harmony. The Green Dragon is the animal of the East and of spring, signifying fertility.

The 5-clawed dragon is reserved for the Emperor: this probably started in the Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368). In the Qing (1644- 1911), 3-clawed dragons were also reserved for the imperial family, and 4-clawed allowed for nobles and senior officials.
Qing dynasty design

Painting dragons

  • Traditionally, the Chinese dragon has “9 resemblances”:
    • The head of a camel (or horse or cow)
    • The horns of a stag
    • The eyes of a demon, or possibly rabbit!
    • Ears like an ox (or elephant)
    • The neck of a snake
    • The belly of a sea monster or frog
    • The scales of a carp
    • The claws of an eagle
    • The pads (feet) of a tiger
  • It may also have  the nose of a bull, teeth like a tiger, the tail of a serpent, and a ridge of 81 scales along its back.  It also has whiskers and a beard.
  • A dragon is often shown chasing a flaming pearl, whose significance is disputed.  They are usually shown amongst clouds.

Dragon videos:

  • Henry Li demonstrates painting a dragon.  I find the style a bit fussy, but you can see the essential features – nostrils, horns, whiskers etc.
  • This drawing of a dragon shows the anatomy clearly.  you can see that he is following an underdrawing – this is a good idea !  It is particularly tricky to fit in all four legs.
  • This is Henry Li having fun with a “negative space” dragon.
  • This Chinese video (complete with stirring music!) shows the dragon sketched in charcoal before painting.  Remember to use calligraphy strokes – varying the thickness of the line will make the dragon more lively.

I love this amazingly dynamic ink dragon.