Borrowed Dragons

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Chinese parade dragon
© AMNH / D. Finnin

"There once was a king with magical powers who ruled the kingdom of Kuqa, near the western border of China. In those days, the markets were rich in gold, silver and precious gems. But one night, a mischievous dragon turned these treasures to charcoal, and the wealth of the kingdom was lost. So the king struck back. He took up his sword, tracked down the dragon and leaped on its back. Furious, the dragon belched fire like lightning, then soared to the sky. The king remained calm. 'If you don't surrender,' he quietly told the dragon, 'I'll cut off your head.' 'Please don't kill me!' the dragon cried. 'I'll take you wherever you want to go!' And from that time on, the king traveled by dragon instead of by horse, flying swiftly all over the realm."

--based on a story from the Silk Road, recorded by Chinese scholar Li Fang (AD 925-996)

Chinese paper dragon, close up
© AMNH / D. Finnin

Cultural Exchange

The Chinese dragon is a powerful force, and its influence has spread well beyond China's borders. When the empire was flourishing, Chinese rulers often sent richly embroidered dragon robes to neighboring kingdoms as a gesture of good will and diplomacy. These garments radiated so much power, they were sometimes venerated--and often imitated. In some areas, people made ceremonial clothing that echoed the imperial robes, adapting the dragon to local traditions.

So They Say

"Last year you bestowed on me a mang four-clawed dragon robe. I placed it on the sleeping couch, and morning and evening I raised my hands and worshipped it. But I was afraid, and did not dare to wear it. Now I am preparing to venerate the former kings, and I am about to wear it in order to honor my ancestors."

--From a letter sent by King Sonjo of Korea to Chinese emperor Wanli, 1588

Dragon and phoenix illustration from Chinese book, rare book collection
D. Finnin/American Museum of Natural History Library

Happy Couple

In Chinese art, the dragon is sometimes paired with another legendary creature, the fenghuang, or phoenix. Both are considered auspicious symbols. Together, the phoenix and dragon are often equated with the harmony of marriage, and the union of complementary cosmic elements yin and yang. During the Ming dynasty, the phoenix became a symbol for the empress--the bride of the dragon.

Along the Border

For many centuries, Chinese emperors sent robes and bolts of satin covered with dragon designs to rulers in Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, Burma (present-day Myanmar), Mongolia, and many other neighboring countries. With these gifts intended to maintain ties, the Chinese image of the dragon spread across much of East and Central Asia.

Wedding robe (back): 19th-century wedding robe from the Nanai people on the Amur River includes patches of a Chinese dragon robe and is cut and styled after an imperial robe.
© D. Finnin/AMNH

Bridegroom's Coat

Chinese dragon designs appear in the spectacular textile arts of the Nanai people, who live along the far-eastern Chinese-Russian border. Pieced from many fragments of silk and cotton cloth, this wedding coat captures the spirit of the dragon robes worn by emperors of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). Patches of color form scales on the back, bits of brocade cut from a dragon robe mark the shoulders, and wavy stripes suggest water at the hem.