Friday, May 19, 2017

DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - Eastern Dragons through the Medieval Ages

We continue on to our next entry in DINOSAURS: From Cultural to Pop Culture - the Medieval Times:

Medieval Times:
Eastern Dragons through the Medieval Ages


In this entry we move from the dragons of European history to the Eastern dragons of China and elsewhere. Like the dragons of Europe, the origin of the Eastern (or Chinese) Dragon is also unknown. Based on the number of fossils that have come out of China and the surrounding regions there is a possibility that they helped to shape the future of what dragons eventually became (New World Encyclopedia).   

There are as many stories about how the dragon came to be (as you can imagine from a culture where the dragon is as deeply imbedded as the Chinese culture is). Here are just a couple of them: 

There is a theory that the Eastern Dragon is a conglomeration of many animals into one "super beast". The theory is that six to seven thousand years ago early Chinese people believed that certain animals and plants possessed the power to overcome nature's fury. Different tribes would adopt a different animal, or totem. One tribe, ruled by the legendary Emperor Huang Di (the Yellow Emperor), used the snake as their totem and as they conquered other tribes they would acquire their totem and merge them with the snake. Eventually the dragon was born with the head of a camel, horns of a deer, eyes of a hare, ears of a bull, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, and paws of a tiger (PrimarySource.org).

Another dragon origination theory suggested by the archaeologist Zhou Chongfa was that the initial inspiration for the dragon was lightning. The Chinese pronunciation of the word dragon "long" resembles the natural sound of thunder. This theory combined the early settlers need for water and the relief that the lightning provided as it was intricately linked with the much needed rain (People's Daily). 

Is there any proof that dinosaur skeletons influenced the historical creation of dragons, No. But the possibility is there. This is something that will never be disproven or proven, the evidence just doesn't exist either way. So I say let's just have fun with it and explore the "evolution" of the Chinese dragon through time.   

The Zigong Dinosaur Museum, Zigong, China (CNN)

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Disclaimer: Unfortunately trying to find legitimate images of ancient Chinese dragons is near impossible on the internet with the plethora of  Pinterest posts that don't actually link to anything, rampant auction sites with their often dubious claims of authentic dates (and personally I can't condone the selling of ancient pieces of history, "It belongs in a museum!"), or Creationist websites with their own variety of distorting the facts. I tried my best to filter out those images, and only focus on the ones I could determine were seemingly legitimate dragons representations dating to the time periods represented. That being said:
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Here are some of the Eastern Dragons as we progress through history.

Hongshan Culture (~3000 BCE)



Hongshan culture "C" shaped plate of a dragon (showchina.org). This looks like many of the early dragon forms which are termed the "pig" dragon. Pig dragons are dragons with pig-like heads and snake bodies, often coiled up in some manner.


Xia Dynasty (1994 BCE - 1766 BCE)


One of the earliest dragon sculptures ever found. This dragon sculpture is made of over 2,000 pieces of turquoise from Erlitou, which was possibly the capital of the Xia Dynasty (china.org.cn)


Shang Dynasty (1766 BCE - 1027 BCE)


Shang Dynasty "pig" dragons (chaz.org).  


Zhou Dynasty (1122 BCE - 256 BCE)



Early Eastern Zhou dragons (chaz.org). In these I feel the dragon shaped head is starting to progress to the stereotypical dragon we know of today.

Qin Dynasty (221 BCE - 206 BCE)

Qin Dynasty bronze dragon design - Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an, China (travelblog.com). Here I feel we have more snake-like representations than many of the previous forms.

Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 AD)

Han Dynasty stone relief engraving showing a form of Dragon Dance (Wikipedia). This is the first real showing of the dragon having limbs. Previous snakes all had a rather snake-like representation and here we are starting to get more of a mixture of animals. The Dragon Dance is the dance often seen in parades where many people dress up inside a giant dragon and dance/march down a street.

Gold hook buckle with jade dragon, Western Han dynasty, from the mausoleum of Nanyue King Zhaomo, Xianggang, Guangzhou - Hong Kong Museum of History (Wikimedia.org).


It appears that at about this point in history, we move away from the generic "pig" dragon, with a head and snake body, into one that is much more detailed with many of the now iconic features of the Chinese dragon, such as the fish scaled body, the clawed arms, and the now famous dragon head.

Sui Dynasty (589 AD - 618 AD)

Model of a Sui Dynasty dragon boat (cultural-china.com).

Tang Dynasty (618 AD - 907 AD)

Gilded bronze dragon from the Tang Dynasty (cultural-china.com)

Close up of the head (Art Gallery NSW).

From this point on, I feel we have reached a modern dragon.

Sung Dynasty (969 AD - 1279 AD)

Piece of the Nine Dragons handscroll created by Chinese artist Chen Rong from 1244.



Yuan Dynasty (1279 AD - 1368 AD)

Yuan Dynasty dragon hanging scroll ink painting (The Met).

Dragon images on a Yuan Dynasty porcelain pot (cultural-china.com).
Ming Dynasty (1368 AD - 1644 AD)
The Nine Dragon Wall in Beihai Park, Beijing was built in 1402.

Close up of some of the dragons (Wikipedia).


Flask decorated with a dragon and wave scrolls in underglaze blue, Ming dynasty, 14th century.

Courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Encyclopedia Britannica)


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Although created first, there is little evidence that the Chinese dragon influenced the European dragon in design and creation. It is possible that Marco Polo brought back information on dragons after his travels, which were during the late 1200's and early 1300's. But it is never mentioned in his Travels of Marco Polo diary account of his trip. But regardless, it can't be denied that the Chinese developed their dragons to a high degree of detail, far earlier than the Europeans, who were only producing rudimentary dragon artwork at this time.

And we will end this episode there, matching the time period our travels through the European Middle Ages had brought us to, the end of the 1400's. Also, you can see that dragons in modern day China greatly resemble, if not are identical, to many of the dragons being created over 500 to 1500 years ago. The dragons produced in China's history showed remarkable detail and exquisite design, in a style that was imitated and matched for over 1,000 years.

Until the next time...

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