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A Long Tradition: Dragons in the East Asian Collection

by Eric Hughett, Curatorial Assistant of East Asian Art


Year of the Dragon , Zodiac , East Asian Art

2024 is the Year of the Dragon, according to the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac, which presents a perfect opportunity to look at Chinese dragons as a theme in East Asian art. What are the hallmarks of Chinese dragons? How have artists traditionally depicted them? Luckily, we can turn to the museum’s rich East Asian collection for help.

The mythical Chinese dragon (龍 lóng) first appeared in Chinese literature during the late Zhou dynasty (771–256 BCE). The Book of Changes (Yijing 易經) identified the dragon as a creature able to exist in and travel between all three realms: sea, land, and sky/heaven. Later, after the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE), other sources more clearly defined the dragon’s attributes, many associated with other animals including the antlers of a stag, the body of a snake, the scales of a carp, and the talons of an eagle. Two millennia later, these characteristics remain relatively unchanged, thus the dragon is an easily recognized motif throughout East Asian art history.

Dragons feature heavily in Chinese stories and mythology and appear in art depicting those stories. This painting by Kanō Tsunenobu 狩野常信 (Japanese, 1636–1713) portrays a story where the Daoist veterinarian Ma Shihuang (or Bashiko in Japanese) treats an ailing dragon. A master horse doctor during the legendary rule of the Yellow Emperor, Ma was reportedly so adept he could accurately predict the lifespan of a horse by just looking at it. In the story, he heals a sick dragon by applying acupuncture to its mouth, which is the moment captured here by Tsunenobu. Ma sits and calmly holds the needle in his right hand while the dragon emerges from dark clouds to be treated.


Three hanging scrolls depicting a kneeling figure surrounded by tigers and waves
Kano Tsunenobu 狩野常信 (Japanese, 1636–1713), Tiger by the River, Bashiko (Ma Shihuang) Performing Acupuncture on a Dragon, and Tiger and Cub Swimming, 17th century, set of three hanging scrolls, ink and color on silk, The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial, 2008.15a-c


Detail of a hanging scroll featuring a kneeling man in robes and a dragon head rising out of waves
Kano Tsunenobu 狩野常信 (Japanese, 1636–1713), Bashiko (Ma Shihuang) Performing Acupuncture on a Dragon (detail), 17th century, one of a set of three hanging scrolls, ink and color on silk, The Edwin and Virginia Irwin Memorial, 2008.15b


In Imperial China, dragons were strongly associated with the emperor, a tie that existed since the Han dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) when emperors were first referred to as the “Son of Heaven.” Due to this association, dragon motifs often appeared in imperial contexts, most notably on clothing created for members of the court. This robe was made for a lower prince of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) court, indicated by the five-fingered dragon (a motif reserved for the emperor and his closest family) and the blue color. A large dragon is emblazoned across the chest with smaller dragons on the lower left and right as well as on the arms and back. Here the dragon represents the emperor’s authority as the Son of Heaven, as well as the wearer’s proximity to that authority.


A blue robe with a dragon around the collar and multicolored stripes at the bottom
Semi-Formal Court Coat, 1775–1800, China, silk and metallic thread, Gift of Helenrose Reis, 2000.166


Dragons regularly appear outside the imperial context as potent symbols conveying themes of strength and prosperity. Their auspicious nature lends the dragon to be used as a decorative motif on everything from ceremonial items to daily use objects, such as in this lacquerware chest from Korea. The theme depicted here, Dragons Chasing a Flaming Pearl (shuanglong xizhu 雙龍戲珠), is one of countless traditional designs which center on dragons. This dazzling example features inlaid mother-of-pearl used to create the writhing bodies of the dragons as well as the glittering clouds which surround them.


A brown chest covered with inlays depicting two dragons in the clouds

Chest, late 19th century, Korea, lacquer, wood, mother-of-pearl, and metal, Gift of Walter and Vanida Davison, 2013.118


Detail of the chest, featuring the heads of the two dragons in the clouds
Chest (detail), late 19th century, Korea, lacquer, wood, mother-of-pearl, and metal, Gift of Walter and Vanida Davison, 2013.118


These three examples, in different mediums from various points of origin, exemplify how widespread the dragon is in East Asian art. Chinese dragons not only represent power and abundance, but also embody over 2,000 years of continuous culture across a whole region of the world. Come by the museum this Year of the Dragon to see for yourself the significance and power of the dragon!