Illustrated FURNITURE Glossary  ...............  Illustrated Architecture Dictionary . .............. Chinese Architecture Dictionary

Classical Chinese Dragons

Dragon motif:

1. Offers protection and good luck

2, Can fly, swim, change into other animals, can bring rainfall, ward off evil spirits

3. Symbolizes the yang, or male, principal, and by extension, the emperor

4. Parts: Snake body, deer horns, bull ears, hawk claws, fish scales

5. Many pictures of oriental dragons show a flaming pearl under their chin. The pearl is associated with wealth, good luck, and prosperity.

6. Clawed dragons represent the emperor. The Chinese five-clawed dragon, adopted by the first Ming emperor for his personal use, was used as decoration on the beams, pillars, and on the doors on Imperial architecture.

Jeremy Roberts, Chinese Mythology A to Z, Second Edition
(online Jan. 2014)

Architecture and Religion

Sculpted dragons and demon-like creatures from myths and legends were popular architectural features on the roofs of wealthy people’s houses and temples. These creatures had different magical properties; a dragon, for instance, was believed to prevent house fires...


The dragon is associated with the east, the direction of sunrise and, in general, positive actions. Some ancient Chinese held dragon processions or festivals, welcoming the dragons and their life-giving rains each spring. People also painted dragons with four claws on the doors of temples and on the walls surrounding villages and towns to invite the rains and to keep these places safe from harm.

The Chinese emperors had their own pattern, dragons with five claws on each leg. It became a crime for anyone but the emperor to wear an image of a dragon with five claws. These imperial dragons were painted on the royal palaces, embroidered on the royal family’s robes, and used to decorate the royal plates, porcelain vases, and other household items.

Dragons were also described as male and female. Male dragons had two wavy horns on the top of their heads, whiskers around the nostrils, and a luminous pearl imbedded in their chins or necks. Female dragons had no horns but were said to wear necklaces of huge and priceless pearls.

A common decorative motif shows two dragons guarding celestial orbs...

Buddhists made a distinction between the evil mountain dragons, which made trouble for the people, and water dragons, which were considered beneficial.

As time went on, myths about dragons became more and more complicated. Later writers counted 10 different kinds. Each had its own specialized task.  The earth dragon, ti-lung, ruled over the streams and rivers. The spiritual dragon, shen-lung, had the power to determine how much rain and wind to bring and was worshipped regularly on the first and 15th day of each month.

Dragon Battles

Spring thunderstorms be- lieved to be caused by the awakening of dragons from their winter slumbers. Dragon battles were a highly anticipated annual event...
Nine Dragon Baguazhang
(online Dec. 2013)

Some individuals suffer from the misconception that the Chinese Dragon is a symbol of evil. This erroneous belief stems from the mythology of the western world where the dragon was thought to abduct maidens, wreak havoc on the populace, steal gold and destroy villages. In the mediaeval context the Western dragon was often the symbol of Satan incarnate. This is not so in the dragons of the orient. In fact it is just the opposite. The dragons of China and Japan are almost exclusively benevolent mythological creatures.

... it has the following nine characteristics. Its head is like a camels, its horns like a deer's, its eyes like a hare's, its ears like a bull's, its neck like an iguana's, its belly like a frog's, its scales like those of a carp, its paws like a tiger's, and its claws like an eagle's. It has nine times nine scales, it being the extreme of a lucky number.

On each side of the dragons mouth are whiskers, under its chin or floating just out of reach is a bright pearl, on the top of its head the 'poh shan' or foot rule, without which it cannot ascend to heaven. The scales of the dragon's throat are reversed. When exhaling its breath changes into clouds from which can come either fire or rain.

The luminous ball or pearl often depicted under the dragon's chin or seen to be spinning in the air, pursued by one or two dragons is thought to be a symbolic representation of the 'sacred pearl' of wisdom or yang energy.

The dragon's pearl can also be thought of as a symbol for universal Qi the progenitor of all energy and creation. The dragons seem to be depicted in attitudes of pursuit. He is seen to be reaching out eagerly to clutch at the elusive object, mouth open in anticipation and eyes bulging with anticipation of achieving the prize afforded by clutching the pearl.
(online Dec. 2013)

In Chinese art, dragons are typically portrayed as long, scaled, serpentine creatures with four legs.

In yin and yang terminology, a dragon is yang and complements a yin fenghuang ("Chinese phoenix").

Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricane, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck for people who are worthy of it. With this, the Emperor of China usually used the dragon as a symbol of his imperial power and strength.

In the Qin Dynasty, the 5-clawed foot dragon was assigned to represent the Emperor while the 4-clawed and 3-clawed dragons were assigned to the commoners.

Ancient Chinese referred to unearthed dinosaur bones as dragon bones and documented them as such. For example, Chang Qu in 300 BC documents the discovery of "dragon bones" in Sichuan.

... the early dragon depicted a species of crocodile, specifically, Crocodylus porosus, the saltwater crocodile, which is the largest living reptile, and once ranged into China during ancient times. The crocodile is known to be able to accurately sense changes in air pressure, and be able to sense coming rain. This may have been the origin of the dragon's mythical attributes in controlling the weather, especially the rain.

The Dragon is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac which is used to designate years in the Chinese calendar.
Roof figures also served a mundane function. They sealed the nail heads that were used to secure the tiles to the roof ridge. Large wooden nails were used in ancient times. At first they added ceramic tile to the head of the nail, gradually, the nail head became an elaborate ceramic figure. The ends of the ridge required more nails and without some sort of covering, the roof would begin to leak quite quickly.

- Marilyn Shea, China: The Palace Museum (online Jan. 2014)
Let us first discuss dragons, for if one were to be asked to name one thing which symbolises the Forbidden City, the most likely answer would be the Dragon. But even this is different. It is not the fierce dragon that fills the legends of mediaeval England, which has to be slain by a legendary hero. But there are no legends about ferocious Chinese dragons (at least until the Buddhists introduced the concept of bad dragons). It may look like a serpent, but it is gentle, mild, and kindly and not at all aggressive; and it plays with pearls. It has remarkable eyesight, and the Chinese believed it could distinguish a blade of grass at a hundred miles.

It also developed whiskers on each side of its mouth, and a beard under its chin.

In the Yuan dynasty, the dragon initially had three claws. However, a four-clawed dragon started to increase in imperial popularity. It was, however, the first Ming emperor in his enthusiasm for eliminating anything that was Yuan, who introduced the five-clawed dragon.  He firmly adopted the dragon as the emblem of imperial power, and soon the five-clawed dragon became the standard emblem for the emperor and an indicator of imperial favour, with four and three-clawed dragons being relegated for use by those of lower rank.

- (online Jan. 2014)


Photos and their arrangement 2013 Chuck LaChiusa
| ...Home Page ...| ..Buffalo Architecture Index...| ..Buffalo History Index... .|....E-Mail ...| ..

web site consulting by ingenious, inc.