The Year of the Dragon (Long): Depictions in Chinese Art

In the Chinese lunar calendar, the year 2024 is known as the Year of the Dragon, or ‘Long’ (). In Western contexts, the dragon is a fearsome, fire-breathing beast that often symbolises danger or malevolence (like in the story we can see illustrated in the ancient Greek vase by Douris, for example). In traditional Chinese culture however, the dragon holds fundamentally different connotations. 

Douris was an Athenian red-figure vase-painter and potter active c. 500 to 460 BCE. This vase shows Jason being regurgitated by the dragon who keeps the Golden Fleece (center, hanging on the tree); Athena stands to the right. Red-figured kylix, c. 480–470 BC. From Cerveteri (Etruria)/ Vaticans Museums

The idea of the Chinese dragon ‘Long’ originated in the Neolithic era. One of the earliest images of a dragon discovered in China is the green jade ‘C’ shaped dragon from Hongshan culture (c. 4700 to 2900 BC). It is finely carved from dark green Xiuyan jade and has the reputation of being the first, and the best, dragon of China.

The depictions of ‘Long’ changed during the Bronze Age, around the first millennium BC. Initially resembling stylised versions of real animals, they evolved into mythical creatures; powerful, serpentine figures with deep symbolic meaning. Bronze vessels from this time frequently depicted elaborate scenes of dragons, highlighting their revered position in early belief systems. 

A Chinese Hongshan ‘C-shaped’ ‘dragon’ pendant, Neolithic period, Hongshan culture (4700-2900 BC), National Museum of China / Alamy

Following this period, the image of ‘Long’ took a more devotional turn. The dragon held a revered status, helping to communicate between the realms of heaven and earth. Unearthed in 1977 from a tomb dating back to the Warring States period (475-221 BC) in Anhui Province, were three similar pendants in the form of dragons. They were positioned symmetrically on either side of the pelvic bones, suggesting that they formed part of a set worn by the tomb’s occupant that symbolised an aspiration for everlasting life beyond death. The fact that the pendants were exceptionally well-preserved and meticulously crafted also shows the high status of the individual interred in the tomb.

As Buddhism took root in China, its artistic imagery underwent a transformation to resonate with Chinese cultural norms. Gradually, the figure of ‘Long’ assumed the role of a protective guardian, with artwork of this time often illustrating the dragon safeguarding the Buddha. 

Blue and white dish depicting the five-clawed dragon

From the Han dynasty onward, the most acknowledged symbolic meaning of ‘Long’ was that of imperial authority. Beginning with Emperor Liu Bang (reigning from 202-195 BC) who claimed his conception was linked to a dragon encounter by his mother, this majestic creature gradually evolved into a potent symbol associated with rulership. Emperors adopted the title ‘heavenly son of the real dragon,’ while images of dragons embellished palaces, imperial furniture, clothing, and daily utensils. 

From the mid-Ming dynasty (15-16th century) to the end of the Qing dynasty (20th century), the five-clawed dragon was the symbol of the emperor, for everlasting prosperity and the continuity of the empire.

The close connection between dragon motifs and imperial authority can also be found in the strictly controlled court attire system, especially in the Qing dynasty. By the regulation announced during the Qianlong period (1736-1795), bright yellow garments with a five-clawed dragon rank badge (Buzi) were exclusively reserved for the emperor and empress. Lower-ranked members of the imperial family were entitled to wear robes with the rank badge of a five and four-clawed serpent, or without a rank badge but still adorning their ceremonial robes with the motif, as seen in a beautiful, embroidered robe to be offered by Leonard Joel later this year. 

As illustrated in these examples throughout history, in Chinese culture, no mythical creature is more revered than ‘Long.’ 

By Luke Guan, Head of Asian Art

Top Image: A Chinese embroidered blue-ground ‘Dragon Robe’, Mangpao, Qing dynasty (1644-1911). $5,000-$7,000

May 2024