Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.
"None of the animals is so wise as the dragon. His blessing power is not a false one. He can be smaller than small, bigger than big, higher than high, and lower than low."
--Chinese scholar Lu Dian (AD 1042-1102)
Between Heaven and Earth
The dragons of East Asian legend have sweeping powers. They breathe clouds, move the seasons, and control the waters of rivers, lakes, and seas. They are linked with yang, the masculine principle of heat, light, and action, and opposed to yin, the feminine principle of coolness, darkness, and repose. Dragons have been part of East Asian culture for more than 4,000 years. In the religious traditions of Buddhism, Confucianism, and Taoism, they have been honored as sources of power and bringers of rain.
The Dragon in Many Lands
According to Vietnamese legend, the rocky islands of Ha Long Bay were spat out by a dragon that guarded the country in ancient times. The name of the bay means "descending dragon."
One of China's most subtle delicacies is Longjing (Dragon Well) tea, named for a tea-growing region near Hangzhou, in Zhejiang Province. It is said that centuries ago, people believed that a rain-bringing dragon lived in the area at the bottom of a clear-running spring.
A long, low mountain in the shape of a blue dragon lies to the east of the old city center of Seoul, South Korea. A higher one called the white tiger stands to the west. The Korean capital was founded some 600 years ago below these peaks, an auspicious spot according to the principles of spatial planning known in Korea as p'ungsu (feng shui).
A dragon king was once said to live in a pond at Shinzen'en, the imperial garden of Kyoto, Japan. During times of drought, Buddhist monks held ceremonies there to persuade the dragon king to rise and bring rain.
In a folktale from Borneo, a dragon guards a precious jewel on the top of Mount Kinabalu.
So They Say
"The dragon's horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam, his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow."
--Chinese scholar Wang Fu (Han dynasty, 206 BC to AD 220)
Chinese Dragon Dance
A dragon was recently used to perform the dragon dance, a Chinese tradition linked with the Lunar New Year. In Chinese communities all over the world, performers celebrate the season by parading through the streets moving a brightly colored dragon made of bamboo, cloth and paper. This custom may have ancient roots. The dragon is a symbol of spring, and its image has been used in rain ceremonies dating back at least to the Han dynasty (206 BC to AD 220).
Asian dragons are centuries old, but they continue to make magic in popular culture. In the Japanese anime series Dragon Ball Z, the dragon Shenlong has the power to grant wishes.
In East Asian stories, the dragon is a master of transformation. It can shrink, stretch, or disappear--or take the form of a fish, a snake, or a human being. In this illustration, a Buddhist monk persuades a dragon to shrink small enough to fit in a rice bowl.
Helmet, Mask, and Body Armor
Worn into battle by Samurai warriors, the dragon was used in Japan as an emblem of masculine power. Japanese families celebrate the same spirit during the Boys' Festival each May 5, decorating their homes with a miniature display of warrior figures and other symbols of combat, including a sword, helmet, and suit of armor.
Samurai warriors used tsuba, or sword guards, to protect their hands during combat. Later sword guards were finely decorated, often with classic Chinese or Japanese symbols or scenes. On one tsuba shown here, a dragon carries Lu Dongbin, one of the legendary figures in Taoist tradition known as the eight immortals.
Snakelike dragons decorate the rafters of many Korean temples, helping carry prayers up to heaven.
On the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, the traditional houses of the Kayan and Kenyah people have long verandas, with crouching dragon shapes carved in the rafters above. The artists who created these flowing dragon designs may have borrowed ideas from porcelain jars brought to the island by Chinese traders. In Borneo, the dragon is a goddess of the underworld. She protects the living, guards over the dead, and is associated with earth, water, thunder, and lightning.