The Chinese New Year, the year of the Dragon, begins on February 10, 2024, and ends on January 28, 2025. There are twelve sacred animals, one for each year, in the Chinese zodiac cycle. A person’s sign is determined by the year of birth in the twelve-year cycle. There are several colors of dragons that also cycle by year. The most unusual dragon is the wood dragon which appears in the zodiac every 60 years. The Chinese zodiac attributes to individuals born in 2024 charisma, confidence, intelligence, and luck. The wood dragon represents fire, one of the five natural elements. In the year of the wood dragon, the planting of tree is encouraged to replenish the forest. From the beginning, dragons also were associated with water. The ancient story of Four Dragons tells of a blight on the land. Dragons brought water to the dry land, and as a result the four great rivers of China were formed. There are more than forty rivers in China with the word dragon in their names.
Chinese dragons are an amalgam of several animals. Characteristics of dragons include long serpentine bodies with fish scales and sharp claws like eagles, but without wings. The dragon’s head is like a crocodile’s, with a large bump on the top that enables the dragon to fly. Cow’s ears and multiple antlers of the stag give dragons a remarkable sense of hearing.
The “Bronze Dragon” stands guard in front of the Palace of Gathering Excellence in the Forbidden City in Beijing. The Palace was the residence of one of the most important Chinese women, the Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908). The dragon holds a flaming pearl in its left claw. The pearl represents spiritual energy and immortality. Because pearls are white, they represent the moon, thunder, and power. It was believed dragons control not only rivers, but also rain, floods, and typhoons.
Symbol of great power, good luck, and authority, the dragon was associated with the Chinese Emperor, who was called “son of dragon.” The Nine Dragon Wall in Beijing (1406-1420) (Forbidden City) represents the nine sons of the Dragon King, wisest and most powerful of the dragons. The Nine Dragon Wall is made of glazed ceramic tile. It is one of many similar walls that can be found across China.
Two dragons often are seen tossing a ball representing the earth between them. The blue dragon coils above waves of water. The ball representing the earth, surrounded by golden rays, will be passed between the dragons.
More than 50,000 carvings and paintings of dragons can be found on rain spouts, beams, walls, and stairways. The Forbidden City complex covers 178 acres, and there are 980 extant buildings containing 8,886 rooms.
Pairs of Huabiao Columns with depictions of coiled dragons and auspicious clouds stand at the entrances of palaces, tombs, and other important locations across China. This Huabiao column is one of four at the entrance to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. The entrance is called the Gate of Heavenly Peace. The dragons are guardians, and they bring good luck.
Although Chinese artists and artisans have depicted dragons for centuries, Chen Rong, a painter and politician of the Song Dynasty (960-1127), is considered to be one of the greatest masters of dragon painting. His “Nine Dragon Scroll” (1244) (ink drawing) (18 inches tall x 49 feet long) depicts dragons flying over mountains, land, and rivers, engaging with each other in a dramatic panorama.
One of the oldest dragon images was found carved on a First Century CE tomb. Dragon images were common on bowls and plates, such as this Dragon from the Ming Dynasty (1426-1435).
Dragon images were woven into cloth. The Woman’s Imperial Longpoa Dragon Robe from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) is one more example of the important role of the dragon in China. Woven of silk satin brocade, the dragons are embroidered with two types of gold threads. This gold dragon is surrounded by blue clouds, the common symbol of the dragon’s ability to cause rain to replenish the earth. The robe contains images of the nine dragons and other imperial symbols.
The dragon is a masculine symbol that represents yang energy of heat, light, and action. The phoenix is a female symbol that represents yin energy of coolness, darkness, and repose. They are the Imperial pair, and together represent completion.
Kung Hei Fat Choi (Best wishes for a happy new year!)
Beverly Hall Smith was a professor of art history for 40 years. Since retiring with her husband Kurt to Chestertown in 2014, she has taught art history classes at WC-ALL. She is also an artist whose work is sometimes in exhibitions at Chestertown RiverArts and she paints sets for the Garfield Center for the Arts.