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The Dragon, friend or foe?

Nic Saintey, Head of the Ceramics and Glass Department, wonders why the dragon is such a popular motif on Chinese porcelain.

A pair of dragons amongst clouds competing for a pearl.

A pair of dragons amongst clouds competing for a pearl.

To most western eyes dragons are vulgar reptilian foes, an enemy to any Christian man, particularly one with a strong heart and an equally strong sword. The Latin word Draco is interchangeable meaning either dragon or snake, both symbolic in western art as the triumph of good over evil. So you have to question, outside of the Christian narrative, why the dragon, a creature with such a bad track record, is such a popular motif on Chinese porcelain. Well the answer is simply that our Oriental brethren perceive this mythical beast not as an ogre, but in a surprisingly more auspicious and benevolent light.

A powerful creature, that forms part of the Chinese zodiac, it is also the guardian of the East, the cosmic source of the sun, it is primarily a creature of the water. I say creature, but it comes not from the animal kingdom although formed from an identikit of primarily mammalian body parts having the 'head of a camel with horns of deer, ears of an ox, eyes of a hare with bushy eyebrows, a formidable beard with long streaming bristles and the body of a serpent with scales of a fish, a formidable beard with streaming bristles from the mouth to the tail'. Its primary function in an agrarian society (which China was and arguably still is) was to bring rain, plunging into the water in autumn and remaining there until spring when it ascended into the sky to bring rain to the earth and with it fertility, vigour and the opportunity of prosperity and happiness.

The dragon, how friendly do you think he is?

The dragon, how friendly do you think he is?

The closest the dragon comes to violence is in its role as protector. The Buddhists who arrived in China during the first and second century bought with them the notion of the dragon as a guardian, both of the religion, but also particularly, bearing in mind its supernatural powers, as a tomb guardian that would watch over and protect the souls of the deceased. Certainly from the Tang Dynasty (618-906) onwards it was a popular motif on all manner of grave goods buried with the deceased and bearing in mind its rather ferocious appearance presumably all it had to do was hang around tombs to undertake this task effectively.

The dragon is perhaps more often depicted chasing a flaming disc or pearl, the former is symbolic of the sun, the latter is seen in Buddhist iconography as the wish granting jewel symbolic of transcendental wisdom. Whether the dragon's association with the sun and the rain shows it as a benevolent bringer of fertility and prosperity, or as a supernaturally wise beast, or that of a powerful guardian of ones ancestors, when seen as a whole there is little wonder that it was also hijacked as an emblem of Imperial power. The use of the dragon as an Imperial emblem came with the first emperor of the Han Dynasty, Han Gaozu, who perpetuated the myth that his mother was impregnated by a dragon, to legitimise the fact that he came from peasant stock – a neat and successful spot of propaganda that lasted for nearly 2,000 years until the fall of the last of Qing emperors in 1911. It all sounds entirely plausible to me and benevolent or not, I'm not about to start an argument with a dragon.

The dragon, how friendly do you think he is?

An upcoming lot in our Autumn 2014 Fine Sale - a Chinese porcelain vase with a dragon motif (FS24/410).


  • Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood
  • Chinese Porcelain

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About the Author

Nic SainteyNic Saintey
Ceramics and Glass

Nic Saintey has been a director of Bearnes Hampton & Littlewood since 2003 and heads up the Ceramics and Glass Department. He is part of the team specialising in Chinese ceramics and works of art.

Nic's first career was in the Armed Forces where he served both as a military parachutist and paramedic. He joined a firm of Somerset auctioneers in early 1995 and Bearnes during a period of expansion in June 2000.

His effervescent nature, sense of humour, broad knowledge and experience has seen him appear as an expert for BBC television programmes. He undertakes regular talks to both academic and general interest groups talking on subjects as diverse as Staffordshire pottery and pop culture, Chinese porcelain and the troubled relationship between Britain and the Orient, the English drinking glass and the Donyatt potters.

He is an occasional contributor of articles for national and local publications and is equally fascinated by the stories attached to pots as he is about the objects themselves.

His personal interests include Oriental and domestic pottery, but especially that produced in the West Country.

Accompanied by his Lurcher Stickey, he is a keen Moorland walker (but only in the winter), an increasingly slow runner and a chaotic cook who always eats his own mistakes and, yes of course, he collects pottery!