On Evolution of Images of Chinese Dragons Through Jade Artifacts of Chinese Neolithic Culture: Part I

In European countries, a dragon has been viewed as a legendary creature that exists in the myths or tales. On the contrary, the Chinese dragon is more than just a mythical creature. It has been considered as a sacred creature symbolizing the sovereignty and supremacy of emperors.

Blue and White ‘Dragon’ Tianqiuping Vase. Yongle period, Ming dynasty (1368-1644). Collection of the National Palace Museum.

In Chinese society, a dragon is believed to be the incarnation of Yan Emperor, a legendary ancient Chinese ruler in pre-dynastic times, and hence Chinese people call themselves “the descendants of dragons”. Dragon was a popular motif used by the emperors and Chinese nobility in the past.

Compared with its counterpart in China, the European dragon is represented in a distinctively different image and carries a completely opposite connotation. Derived from European folk traditions and ultimately related to Balkans and Western Asian mythologies, the European dragon is mostly depicted as reptilian creatures featuring four legs and a separate set of wings. It is a symbol of evil in both chivalric and Christian traditions.

Jade plaque of dragon. Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD). Collection of the National Palace Museum.

The Chinese dragon is commonly depicted in a snake-like form with four legs but they come in various shapes. According to an extract on various types of “long” (dragon) from Chinese ancient encyclopaedia Guan Ya, “Jialong is a dragon with scales; Yinglong is a dragon with wings; Qiulong is a dragon with a horn; Chilong is a dragon with five horns.” It explains the diversity in the representations of Chinese dragons. Thus, dragons that we found from the design of Chinese artifacts also come in different shapes and images.

In Chinese society, Jade is prized for its hardness and durability. In particular, it is associated with Chinese conceptions of the soul and immortality due to its subtle and translucent colours. It was also used for ceremonial and ritual purposes.

Jade dragon of Lingjiatan Culture.

The protective quality of jade makes it an ideal medium that goes in line with the emblematic meanings of dragons. Cravings of dragon jade can be dated back to as early as Chinese Neolithic period. A jade dragon of Lingjiatan (shown in the image below) is one of the most striking jade works. It is the only known jade dragon excavate from Lingjiatan site in Hanshan County, China.

Though it was made in around 5300 years ago, the jade dragon still stands as an extraordinary work of art with its delicate craftsmanship — the details shown at the dragon’s eyes, nose, spine and scales. One can imagine the difficulty in making such a vivid dragon during that time given the hardness of jade stone as the medium.

A photo taken in Shenzhen Museum

Illustrated in the image above, during the ancient periods, a disc of round shape was used in the process of jade carvings for cutting, shaping and drilling. A great deal of effort and hard work must have been put in making the jade dragon of Lingjiatan Culture when you take into account that it is a piece of art with a diameter of only 4.4cm and thickness of 0.2cm.


Jade dragon of Lingjiatan Culture (left) and jade dragon of Hongshan Culture.

Being an important part of the Neolithic Age in Northern China, Hongshan culture is also known for its burial artifacts, including some of the earliest known examples of jade working. We look into dragon jades of Hongshan culture in our coming articles. Please stay tuned!