Imperial Dragon

Part of the Mythic Creatures exhibition.

Chinese court robe (front): In the East Asian world, the dragon symbolizes imperial power. The dragons on this Chinese court robe rise from the water to the sky, bringing necessary rain.
© D. Finnin/AMNH

"Long ago, there was a poor farmer who lived in a wild and rugged land, far from the great cities of China. One day when he was coming home from the fields, he came to a pond. There he stopped and stared in amazement. On the banks of the pond lay his wife, fast asleep. A great scaly dragon loomed above her. Clouds blackened the sky, lightning flashed, and the air shook with thunder. Months later, when the farmer's wife gave birth to a beautiful son, the couple were filled with joy. This boy grew up to become Emperor Gaozu, the first ruler of the Han dynasty."

--adapted from a story recounted by Chinese scholar Sima Qian in Shiji (Historical Records), c. 109-91 BC

Mighty Ruler

Revered above all other creatures in East Asian tradition, the dragon is also a symbol of imperial rule. The Chinese emperor was known as "the dragon." His hands were the dragon's claws, and his seat was the dragon throne. United with heaven and earth, a wise emperor ruled in harmony with the cosmos and brought peace and prosperity to all.

From Sea to Sky

Chinese dragons are said to spend winter on the floor of a lake or the ocean. Each spring they rise to the heavens with a clap of thunder, to form clouds and water the land. The dragons embroidered on imperial robes are shown soaring up to the sky from the sea, represented by the broad expanse of diagonal lines near the hem.

Precious Pearl

Dragon, cover of the end-folio of a 10 tablet book, 'The Song of the Jade Bowl', written by the Emperor Qianlong, 1745
Credit: The Trustees of the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin/The Bridgeman Art Library

Imperial robes and other East Asian works of art often show the dragon with a pearl surrounded by branching flames. Some scholars view this as a symbol of rolling thunder, belched from the dragon's mouth as it reaches the sky. Others regard it as a luminous "pearl of potentiality," a philosophical sign linked with Taoist ideas of the ever-changing and indefinite.










True Dragon

More than 2,000 years ago, the Chinese emperor became known as the True Dragon, Son of Heaven. In this portrait, Ming dynasty founder Zhu Yuanzhang (1328-1398) wears a dragon robe, a symbol of his divine and omnipotent rule.

At a Glance: Chinese Dragon

  • bump on the forehead called chi mu helps the dragon float up to the heavens.
  • 81 scales, equal to nine times nine, a lucky number.
  • sweet-smelling saliva.
  • excellent eyesight.
  • four legs with up to five claws on each foot.
  • Chinese dragons live underwater in winter. In spring, they rise to the sky and make rain.

So They Say

"The dragon's nature is rough and fierce, and yet he likes beautiful gems and the Stone of Darkness, and is fond of roasted swallows. He is afraid of iron, the wang plant, of centipedes, of the leaves of the lien tree, and of five-colored silk thread."

--Chinese scholar Li Shizhen (1518-1593)