Divine Power - The Dragon in Chinese Art

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 January, 2012, 12:00am


Divine Power - The Dragon in Chinese Art
Art Museum, Chinese University of Hong Kong

For centuries in China, the dragon has been a symbol of authority that was fit, literally, only for emperors. During the Qing dynasty, for instance, anyone found wearing garments that bore motifs of dragons with five claws (the three-clawed variety was reserved for princes) would be beheaded.

Such is the significance, and power, of the dragon in Chinese culture. In fung shui, the giant mythical creature is one of the four 'celestial animals' (others being the turtle, tiger and phoenix) that protect a house; the dragon stands guard in the East. Chinese have always regarded themselves as offspring of the dragon.

As we enter the Year of the Dragon tomorrow, the Art Museum at the Chinese University of Hong Kong will be holding a large-scale exhibition that looks at the ubiquitous presence of dragons in Chinese art and history. Divine Power - The Dragon in Chinese Art will also mark the museum's 40th anniversary.

Borrowed from members of the Oriental Ceramic Society of Hong Kong as well as public and private collections, the pieces showcase 200 works dating from the Neolithic period to the 20th century, covering ceramics, bronze, gold and silverware, jade, glass, lacquer ware, paintings and textiles.

'The dragon holds a very high place in Chinese art, as you can find it featured in a wide range of mediums. Everyone likes to look at these objects,' says Art Museum director Peter Lam Yip-keung.

The image of the dragon is first seen on jade and bronze objects of the Neolithic period and Bronze Age, according to Lam. During the Han dynasty, a prototype of the dragon was established, often as the Green Dragon of the East, associated with the other creatures of the four directions: the Vermilion Bird of the South, and Xuanwu (Black Tortoise and Snake) of the North, and the White Tiger of the West. From the Tang (618-907) to the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, dragons were a symbol of imperial authority used on decrees and the regulation system as well as the emperor's emblem. From that tradition, they are also considered auspicious creatures.

Among the highlights is a rare piece of imperial garment from the 11th and 12th centuries. 'It's more a piece of tapestry than embroidery as peacock feathers were weaved into the fabric. The feathers give the garment a brilliant glossy texture, which is even more attractive than gold threads,' says Lam.

Also on show are ceramics that date back to the 4th century as well as dragon-themed ornaments commissioned by the imperial court during the late Ming dynasty (17th century).

Because the dragon is such a popular subject in Chinese art, there is no shortage of artefacts bearing its motif, explains Lam. 'The real challenge is to find items that are of extremely good quality, and we are lucky to have found so many,' he says. Kevin Kwong

Gallery II and III, Art Museum, Institute of Chinese Studies, Chinese University of Hong Kong, Sha Tin. From Feb 11, Mon-Sun, 10am-5pm, closed on public holidays. Inquiries: 39437416