Exhibiting Historical Art: Out of the Vault: Stories of People and Things

Five-Clawed Dragon

In Chinese lore, the dragon is a recurring symbol that is entrenched in all aspects of Chinese culture and civilization. The dragon is thought to be the origin from which all other animals evolved: birds from feilong (“flying dragon”), animals from yinglong ("small dragon"), fish from jiaolong ("scaly dragon"), and crustaceans from xianlong ("primordial dragon"). The dragon has long been associated with benevolence and fertility as a being who brought rain to the people, and has also come to symbolize strength, protection, happiness and goodness.

The imperial power first claimed the dragon as a symbol for the emperor in the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) when rulers looked to bring good fortune to their lands. As early as the Tang dynasty (618-907), the dragon motif became a symbol of power as an integral part of the emperor's robe. Today, the robe the emperor wears in ceremonial circumstances is even referred to as “the dragon robe,” even though it is embroidered with eleven other symbols that stand for the emperor’s power and the values he stands for. The dragon, “ever infinite in its changes, symbolizes the adaptability of the good and wise king, who published his laws and instructions according to the needs of the time.” It wasn’t until the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) that the emperor’s motif was specialized even further, and the five-clawed, two-horned dragon became the specific image of imperial might, and it became treasonous to use the image outside of the imperial circle.

The Chinese dragon and its depictions today follow very specific guidelines. As nine is a divine number in Chinese tradition, the dragon is composed of nine animals. The dragon’s features are an amalgam of a stag’s horns, a camel’s head, demon eyes, a snake neck, a belly like a clam, carp scales, a hawk’s claws, tiger paws, and ears like a cow. The number of scales of the dragon is 117 the sum of 81 which are imbued with the essence of yin and 36 yang, both numbers that are multiples of nine. Chinese dragons are also special in their abilities; they can fly without wings, shape-shift, be as large as the universe or as small as a silkworm. The symbol of the Chinese five-clawed dragon is a very prevalent one, especially in art of the Ming and Qing dynasties. It was carved into doors, embroidered on robes, and painted onto ceramics, among other pieces. 

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