Monday, January 23, 2012

Happy New Dragon Year! --Plus a few Old Dragons.

Fragment from a miniature chair, probably a base for a seated god statue.

Today, January 23, 2012, is officially the start of Dragon Year. Dragons are auspicious in Chinese culture, so Dragon Year should be a lucky one. Dragons are common in place names, personal names, and brand names, and their images are everywhere. If you enter a Chinese temple, you will see thousands of dragons deeply carved on every surface.

The word dragon (long) is used to name many everyday objects in Chinese. Translating literally, a faucet is a dragon’s head, a tornado a “dragon spinning wind”,  a lobster is a “dragon shrimp”, and a dinosaur is a terrifying dragon. The common longan or longyan fruit is literally a dragon’s eye. It is similar to a lychee, but more transparent, so the dark stones in the middle show through, really giving the effect of eyeballs:

Some Dragon Eyes (longyan) from last summer.

Chinese dragons are different from Western ones. More reptilian in their design, they are usually rather thin, wingless, and do not breathe fire. In recent times there have been some combined forms--I once saw in Taiwan a giant Santa's sleigh on the roof of a building, pulled by a huge fire-breathing Chinese dragon whose eyes lit up red (eat your heart out, Rudolph). Unfortunately I didn't have my camera that day.

Since my previous post on good luck charms concentrated on newer objects, I decided for the new year to look back at a few of the older dragons I have encountered in my collecting adventures. My opening post featured a carved wooden dragon, which was almost certainly the head of a cane.

At the top of this post is a gilt fragment from a dragon chair, showing three dragons cavorting among the clouds on top of a mountain. Can you make out all three? They are all looking upward and to the left, with their tongues sticking out. More substantial furniture also relied on dragon imagery, as in these wooden armrests below:

I mentioned the use of dragons in temples; smaller ritual objects used at home also employed the symbolism and good luck of dragons. This rather extraordinary small holder for sticks of incense is shaped as a red table, with a protruding gilded dragon’s head and claws. The dragon is proffering a lucky double gourd, and some of the metal incense tubes are still present.

Here is an insert from a votive plaque, its intriguing inscription flanked by gilt dragons: 

Not all dragons were indoors; some adorned the exteriors of public buildings as did this painted, cast-iron dragon face. This piece is fairly large, about a foot across. I am keeping my eyes open to see if I can spot any of these still in situ.

Here is the world’s cutest baby dragon, less than an inch long, stamped into the side of a brass yuan-bao. His whiskers, horns and scales are all evident, although I don’t see any feet—maybe this is some sort of larval stage. The Chinese characters on the bottom mean “pure gold”, which unfortunately in this case is merely wishful thinking.

It seems that nothing is officially Chinese without some reference to or depiction of dragons. Dragon Year is a good opportunity to look around and start noticing them in their great abundance. The only thing left to say is 龍年好, (long nian hao), Happy Year of the Dragon!


  1. You have a fascinating collection, and my favorites would have to be those armrests. The cast iron outdoor tile is not unlike a ceramic one that I have from Vietnam. The very same eyes. It would be interesting to see a compariosn of dragons from different Asian countries.

  2. Hello Mark,

    To explore international variations among dragons would probably require a book. And that might not even get to all the dragon varieties, not to mention the creatures that look like dragons, such as qilin, chao feng, etc., although qilins will definitely come up in future posts here, because that is the second-most common Chinese mythological creature, after the dragon.

  3. Hello:
    And Happy New ear of the Dragon to you too!! Thank you so much for this fascinating tour of things dragon-like. Clearly the dragon is a well loved and well used 'motif' in Chinese art and architecture, let us hope that it brings us all a year of good luck and good fortune!

  4. Hello Jane and Lance, Yes, we all hope that the new year will provide luck, but as always we have to help it along with resolutions. Fortunately, in case we're amiss, we'll get another chance soon with Cambodian New Year coming up in April.

  5. And the Thai one in April too - same thing - Songkran. So much for thinking that it wasn't a holiday here, over CNY. Much was closed yesterday, because so many Thais, (particularly good business Thais) are of course Sino-Thai.

    Anyhoo, let's hope the dragon is auspicious, and brings good fortune in every sense. After the rabbit perhaps it can only get better?

  6. Hello Columnist, I'm with you in hoping the dragon will usher in a prosperous year. That makes sense about Cambodian New Year being the same as Songkran--I had never thought of them together before.

  7. Happy New Year to you. What a wonderful collection you have young man. I love the fragment from a chair, beautiful. Thanks for dropping by, it's always nice to hear from you so far away. Kev

  8. Hello Kevin, Thanks for your kind words. I have several other pieces of that chair, and they are just as loaded with dragons. I imagine the piece shown would have gone on the side, between the armrest and the seat; perhaps the top dragon would have formed the armrest itself.


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