Nine Dragons

Some art scholar described the painting as "a combination of utter brilliance, strong feelings, outstanding calligraphy and ink painting skill, and a completely sloshed mind."

For thousands of years the dragon has been highly revered in China. The legendary creature is deeply ingrained in Chinese culture, and images of dragons can be found on artifacts dating back more than 3,500 years ago.

The dragon is a Chinese version of the chimera, with a deer’s antlers, an oxen’s head, a donkey’s mouth, an eagle’s feet and a serpentine’s body.

Once associated with royalty, many Chinese believed that this divine animal is their true ancestor. Even today, Chinese still frequently refer to themselves as the “progenies of the dragon.”

Even today, people still find images of dragons almost everywhere they go in China, particularly in ancient buildings such as palaces and temples.

In the Temple of Confucius in the sage’s hometown Qufu in east China’s Shandong Province, magnificent stone columns are covered with exquisitely carved dragons. In Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, two white marble columns are decorated with reliefs of dragons and clouds.

Numerous Chinese artists have devotedly painted dragon images since ancient times. Chen Rong (1200-1266), one of the Southern Song Dynasty’s (1127-1279) great painters, has widely been deemed one of the very best dragon painters. His painting “Nine Dragons” has been praised by art critics as one of the greatest masterpieces in China’s history of dragon painting.

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SHINE

According to legend, Chen Rong usually painted dragons after consuming a large dose of wine. In a tipsy state of mind, he would shout loudly and tear off his scarf, dip it in the ink and frantically smear the ink on rice paper.

Chen was born in Fujian, a coastal province in southeast China. He once served as the mayor of Putian in his home province and also the register of the Directorate of Imperial Academy in Hangzhou, then the Southern Song capital in east China’s Zhejiang Province.

His career in the officialdom wasn’t a great success and he experienced many ups and downs and bitter political struggles. But he was widely recognized for his exceptional talent in poetry, calligraphy and painting, in particular his dragon paintings.

According to legend, Chen usually painted dragons after consuming a large dose of wine. In a tipsy state of mind, he would shout, tear off his scarf, dip it in the ink and frantically smear the ink on rice paper. Afterwards, the painter used brushes to paint some details and finished his work.

Chen’s inscription on Nine Dragons show that he created the 46.3 x 1096.4 cm horizontal scroll when he was completed intoxicated.

In the inscription, Chen also said that he was inspired by two earlier paintings, namely, Nine Horses and Nine Deer. They were, respectively, created by Cao Ba (AD 704-770), a general and painter of Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) and Huichong, a monk and painter active in early Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).

Nine is not a random figure here. It has long been considered as a very auspicious number in Chinese astrology and folk beliefs.

Chen’s painting was executed with monochrome ink with a few subtle touches of red. It depicts nine ferocious dragons rolling, swimming, writhing and dancing among clouds, mist, waves, fires and cliffs.

In the painting, the bold and random splashes of ink are miraculously integrated with meticulous fine line drawings. They demonstrate both the painter’s feeling of great frustration with his life and his superb skills in brush work.

Some art scholar once properly described Chen’s Nine Dragons as “a combination of utter brilliance, strong feelings, outstanding calligraphy and ink painting skill, and a completely sloshed mind.”

Other art critics have pointed out that the content of this painting also reflects the Taoist philosophy about the dynamic forces of the nature and an ever-changing world.

Currently, the masterpiece resides in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in the United States.

九龙图卷 (Jiǔlóng Tújuàn) 

Artist: Chen Rong (1200-1266)

Year: Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279)

Type: Ink and color on paper

Dimensions: 46.3 x 1096.4 cm

Location: Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, United States

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