Exhibition attempts to understand China's dragon fascination

Wu Huixin
An exhibition at the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History aims to comprehend the dragon's attractiveness to the Chinese people, as well as the mythology that surrounds it.
Wu Huixin
Exhibition attempts to understand China's dragon fascination
Ti Gong

From spiritual totems to festival props, the dragon has been a pervasive symbol of power, strength and good luck in Chinese culture.

To mark the Year of the Dragon, an exhibition at the Zhejiang Museum of Natural History features artifacts and historical documents relating to the fictitious totem.

Everyone in China is born with a zodiac sign, with each animal corresponding to a distinct year. Based on the ancient calendar, the existence of dragons is only mythical and cannot be found in the real world.

Why was the mythical creature adopted as a totem in China? The exhibition attempts to answer them in three parts: origins and legends, zoology and culture, and traditions and festivals.

The dragon in Chinese mythology is largely benign, with nine sons, unlike their Western counterparts. Suanni, for example, is a mythological lion-like monster and one of the dragon’s sons. It is always seen on censers since it likes the smoke. Craftsmen carve suanni on censers as a protective emblem. Bixi, another son of the dragon, is a massive turtle-like animal that bears heavy burdens.

The dragon appealed to the Chinese and eventually became the symbol of supreme authority in feudal culture. The royal family claimed to be the only ones who would inherit the dragon’s blood. Therefore, dragon patterns were mostly reserved for imperial courts and emperors.

As social development progressed, the dragon patterns became available to the commoners. Daily items such as mirrors, food containers, bowls, and plates began to include dragon motifs throughout the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911).

A set of Ming Dynasty (1368–1644) jade objects etched with dragons was thought to be a form of adornment for a belt or drape.

The exhibition also includes a traditional blue-and-white ceramic plate with beautiful dragon designs. The handles of the vessels were sculpted into dragons, as seen in the red lacquered food containers.

The dragon also represents power and grandeur. As a result, ancient ironsmiths forged dragons into swords in an attempt to imbue them with spiritual power. The display features a sword of this style from the Qing Dynasty.

Exhibition attempts to understand China's dragon fascination
Ti Gong

A sword bearing dragon motifs from the Qing Dynasty

When looking at antiques, visitors might wonder how the Chinese produced such a mythical creature. Historians believe the forefathers took inspiration from many creatures and then blended their qualities to create the imagined dragon.

The museum is displaying animal specimens believed to be the origins of dragons, namely snakes, deer, rabbits, oxen, tigers and hawks.

The primal dragon pattern could have originated in the Neolithic Period, when forefathers etched dragons into stones and jade. The pattern of dragon kept changing throughout the dynasties until the Song Dynasty (960–1279) when its imagery was largely stylized.

Today, the dragon is associated with exuberant gatherings. Dragon boats, dragon dances and dragon lanterns have long been connected with Chinese festivities, particularly the Chinese New Year.

The Lantern Festival, which falls on the 15th night of the first lunar month, is always decorated with dragon lanterns. It signals the end of the Chinese New Year celebrations.

This favorable astronomical phenomenon dates back to the Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 220), when records include vivid images of lantern scenes.

Today, the Lantern Festival celebrations are greater than ever, with people flocking to the streets to admire beautiful lanterns and attempt to solve riddles. The dragon lantern has traditionally been the centerpiece of all paper lanterns.

The dragon dance, which is frequently performed with parades and pyrotechnics, has remained popular over the years. It is the most important activity for the Chinese New Year, and because of its large population, it helps to bridge the generation gap.

Another traditional celebration is the Dragon Boat Festival, which takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar. At the exhibition’s entrance, a dragon boat model is displayed, demonstrating the dragon’s influence on Chinese culture.

Exhibition attempts to understand China's dragon fascination
Ti Gong

The museum is displaying animal specimens believed to be the origins of dragons.

If you go

Date: Through May 6

Admission: Free

Address: No. 6, West Lake Cultural Square, Xiacheng District


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