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Chinese Symbolism: Origins of the Chinese Dragon

The dragon is one of China's most ancient symbols and has appeared in practically every facet of Chinese art. Depictions of dragons can be found on objects dating as far back as the Shang dynasty (circa 1570 - 1045 BC).

Origins of the dragon

They first appeared amongst the ornament of archaic bronze ritual vessels. Early small jade carvings are also found depicting dragons but more in the form of the Chinese character meaning dragon. This could therefore suggest that the Chinese character was naturally derived from the dragon's basic form. Another theory is that the symbol of the dragon evolved from various emblems of animals used by the ancient tribes of China. However, this could easily become a paradoxical case of the chicken or the egg scenario!

Hybrid animal

Dragons are without a doubt the most hybridized creatures ever to have been created from the human imagination. Its characteristics can be compared to many different existing animals, whether it be, for example, the body of a snake, scales of a carp, claws of a hawk, tail of an alligator or horns of a deer. Personally, It is most likely that the outline of the snake was the basic foundation of its creation. The reasoning behind this is that snakes appear on very early Shang dynasty pottery and then after this, dragons were implemented into similar ornamental arrangements. However, there are some archeologists who believe that the dragon originated from the symbol of a fish or crocodile with finds supporting each of these theories.

Five claw Imperial dragon

One interesting feature of the dragon which is disputable is its number of claws. A normal Chinese dragon generally has four claws. The Imperial dragon has five claws and this may have come in to force at some stage when the dragon came to symbolise the emperor of China which was most likely during the Han dynasty (206 BC - AD220). What is also interesting is that in contrast Japanese dragons usually only have three claws. However, there is no strict rule as there are enough exceptions to almost suggest otherwise. Therefore one can only conclude that this rule simply changed with the centuries.

Read about the symbolism of the Chinese Phoenix.

If you have any Chinese jade or Asian art items in general, please contact Robin Newcombe at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent.