Monday, July 25, 2011

The origin of the Dragon (Chinese) - Hongshan Jades.

Plaque with confrontational Dragon, Jade (length10cm),
Ming Dynasty - the Glorious Age of Chinese jade.
A confrontational dragon, also to be seen on ceramics
and other media. (Keverne 1991:142)

The origin of the Chinese Dragon can be traced back to the earliest of royal families during the Ban Gu and Nuwa periods; the slave-owning and feudal landowning eras in Chinese history. The research is based on legends defining the origins of the dragon as depicted on archaeological artefacts.
Ritual Bi, Jade (21.7 cm diameter)
Central hole - carved with an open-work dragon,
rearing around a smaller bi disc. Two massive and
elegant dragons prowl around the perimeter
These mainly date back to the Shang and Zhou periods. Artefacts from these cultures indicate that the forms and shapes of the dragon were already well established. Early pottery shards from the Erlitou and Xiajiadian Lower Level Cultures, reveal that dragon patterns were already well developed. It can therefore be assumed that the dragon, in various forms and shapes, could possibly be traced back to the Neolithic period.

Jade as Jewellery.
'As a broad principal it is possible to postulate that in Neolithic times, before the emergence of the working of gold and silver as commodities and treasures of extreme value, the great obduracy of jade and the commensurate difficulty of working it meant that it was used as jewellery to bestow citizens with wealth or high status or to symbolize meaningful ceremonial purposes. It was an extreme luxury and not available to the common man. The inordinate length of time it took for jade to evolve to this status gave it an aura and esteem that even gold and silver were not able to dislodge until very recent times' (Keverne, 1991:55). 
Dragon head Bi, Spring and Autumn period.
Jade (5 cm). The inner and outer bevelled borders
enclose a field of dissolving dragon heads.
It was however the discovery of Hongshan Culture Jades, depicting dragon shaped and related beasts, that the origins of dragons can be traced back to the earliest forms of cultures, labeled as ‘primitive times”.

Pig Dragons, Hongshan Culture,
are in the form of "C" shapes.
Determining the dragon’s earliest forms and shapes, configurations of the dragon (animal mythology), is an ongoing complex academic study.  Whether its body is associated with the snake, the crocodile and or lizard and its head with that of a horse and or ox has strong literary claims. The jades mentioned above, clearly indicate that the body is representational of a snake (serpent) and that the head is mainly associated with early farming animals such as pigs (the animals early man knew best – primitive Chinese agriculture). 
The evolution of the dragon.
patterns on pottery shards.
It would seem that the characteristics of the beast shaped jades therefore feature a large head, protruding lips, thick ears, facial wrinkles and teeth protruding out of the mouth, and best fits the description of a pig.
Four Bi-shaped Pendants, Liangshu Culture.
Jade (diameter 4.8 cm)
Dragon head patterns.

Slender Dragon Plagues.
During the Neolithic period the dragon transformed and developed substantially even though a number of artefacts continued to resemble the characteristics of the pig. A creature associated with there livelihood.

'The worship of dragons has been connected with sun worship, itself directly related to the worship of heaven (which influences agricultural fertility); the so-called “cloud following the dragon”, “flying dragon in the sun” (Zhou Yi) and “dragon Makes rain” (Zhou Li – Kao Gong Ji), all which reflect the relation between the dragon, agricultural, and consequently climatic, matters'. 
Claims were made that pigs were sacrificed and that they became spirits associated with thunder and rain. Text and images as cited in the book titled Jade, edited by Roger Keverne and published by Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York in 1991.
Bi with Taotie Design, Jade. Han Dynasty (19.4 cm)
as cited in the book titled Jade ( Keverne, 1991:110)

Monday, July 18, 2011

The meaning and significance of the Chinese Dragon - 2012 is the year of the dragon

Dragon in Hon's ceramic installation with projected animation
all images - Jan the UJ 
Next year is the year of the dragon, in terms of the Chinese horoscope for 2012.  What to expect, is determined by various factors as explained and disseminated in publications such as Your Chinese Horoscope 2012. However as designers and artists, the meaning and significance of the dragon is a complex subject. Details such as its claws could have radical differences in terms of the dragon’s meaning and significance. Every effort should therefore be made to thoroughly investigate the mythology of such creatures, especially with regard to their cultural, religious and sectarian value and importance.  This is of particular significance, when the dragon is incorporated as the main design feature; referenced as central to the design concept and or idea. Getting it wrong, at this stage of the design development process, could have disastrous consequences. It could lead to the disqualification of your design in a competition. It can also be very offensive and or insulting on a national and cultural level (public relations) if the symbol is used without thorough research. Remember, the dragon is the cultural symbol of China and if used inappropriately could seriously infuriate a nation.  This is true when they are targeted as consumers, in the design and manufacture of goods, and if incorporated as signs and symbols in marketing and communication products, especially advertising campaigns. Conduct your research thoroughly and make sure you have grasped the true meaning of the creature (from a cultural representation perspective), empowering you to incorporate the sign and or symbol confidently in terms of product development.  This will ensure that you can explain its significance and incorporate the dragon in a design creatively, ensuring a sound and innovative end product.

Dragon in Hon's ceramic installation with projected animation
It is important to make sure that your research sources are reliable and your knowledge sites and or reference documents are credible and believable. That the websites, books and or magazines are respected as knowledge ‘centres of excellence' and that the authors are internationally accredited in terms of their knowledge of the field and the dissemination thereof. This is of particular importance when it comes to indigenous knowledge.
Dragon in Hon's ceramic installation with projected animation

The Dragon as defined by JC Cooper in his book titled, an Illustrated Encyclopedia of Traditional Symbols. Next year is the Year of the Dragon, in terms of the Chinese Zodiac, the following symbolism is therefore from Chinese perspective. Generally the dragon in the Orient, is a beneficent, celestial power while, in the Occident, it becomes chthonic, destructive and evil. 

In the Far East it symbolizes supernatural power; wisdom; strength; hidden knowledge; power of the life-giving waters; it is the emblem of the Emperor of the Son of Heaven and, following him, the wise and noble man.

In Chinese alchemy the dragon is mercury, the blood and the semen.

Five clawed Chinese dragon as
captured on a rare blue and white 'dragon' moonflask as
cited in a Sothebys catalogue, 7 Nov 2007. 
Chinese comprehensive (Taoist, Buddhist):  The dragon and serpent are not separated in Chinese symbolism. The dragon represents the highest spiritual power; the supernatural; infinity; the spirit of change; the Divine power of change and transformation; the rhythms of Nature; the law of becoming; supernatural wisdom; strength. It is ‘the Celestial Stag’ the sun; light and life; the Heavens; sovereignty; the masculine yang power. The dragon of the clouds is also thunder and the fertilizing rain, the waters of the deep and spring. The Azure Dragon, lung, the highest, lives in the sky and is the vital spirit.; celestial power; infinite supernatural power and , on earth, the delegated imperial power, the Emperor. The lung, or Imperial Dragon, has five claws and its head is to the South and its tail to the North. It also represents the East and fertilizing rain.

The common dragon, mang, has four claws and is temporal power. The three clawed dragon was an early Chinese form, later to become the Japanese Dragon. Li, the hornless dragon, lives in the sea and controls the deeps; he also symbolizes the scholar. Chiao lives in the mountains or on land and represents the statesman.

nine resemblances of the dragon according to Wang Fu as
captured on a rare blue and white 'dragon' moonflask as
cited in a Sothebys catalogue, 7 Nov 2007.  
The ‘nine resemblances’ of the dragon are (refer to image above) , according to Wang Fu; “his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam, his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow.

The two ‘contending dragons’, facing each other are the yin-yang forces of dualism, all opposites and complements, celestial and terrestrial powers; they usually have either the sun or night shining pearl, the moon between them; backing each other they symbolize the yin-yang and eternity; chasing each others tails they depict the two-way creative action of the yin-yang powers.
dragon ball or flaming pearl as
captured on a rare blue and white 'dragon' moonflask as
cited in a Sothebys catalogue, 7 Nov 2007.  
 The dragon is often portrayed with the ‘dragon ball’ or ‘flaming pearl’ (illustrated above) and this has been variously suggested as ‘rolling thunder’ or the ‘rain-bringer’ with the dragon swallowing the pearl as the wane of the moon and belching it forth as the waxing moon, but in Taoism and Buddhism it is  the pearl which grants all desires, the pearl of perfection, that is to say wisdom, enlightenment and the spiritual essence of the universe. The dragon with the phoenix is the union of Heaven and earth, Emperor and Empress, the divine potentially containing all opposites, also the interaction of the macrocosm and the microcosm, the two aspects of the androgyny, the rhythms of involution and evolution, birth and death. These are also symbolized by the double spiral. The dragon can depict lustfulness if portrayed with the tiger as anger and hostility.

Monday, July 11, 2011

'Kyngs Beestes' at Hampton Court Palace, absolutely fabulous.

Kyngs Beestes at Hampton Court Palace.

Last week I watched a TV program on the restoration of the Hampton Court Palace, especially the King’s Apartments, west of London. The restoration cost $25 million and took six years to complete (severely damaged during a fire in 1986). The focus of the restoration marks the 500th anniversary of King Henry VIII’s accession to the throne. 

What excited me most was the restoration of the gardens, and in particular The Chapel Court Tudor Garden based on Research into 16th century privy gardens of the King at Hampton Court and Whitehall Palace. Paintings of the Tudor King at Court (now on display) not only provides insight into his early years of his reign, but also inspired the recreation of garden sculptures that fascinate in every sense of the word.
Kyngs Beeste, Yale

16th century privy gardens of the King at Hampton Court
They are the ‘kyngs beestes’, raised high on painted posts, these brightly coloured, wood carved replicas, recall an earlier Tudor pleasure ground. The garden was designed and developed by the renowned landscape architect Todd Longstaffe-Gowan.  Authentically recreated, it provides insight into the Tudor court garden style of the day, consisting of heraldic beasts, flowerbeds, herbs and splendid examples of the art of topiary.
Garden styles of the day.

Topiary mentioned above.

Reference material

The beasts were inspired by creatures captured in a painting of the King and his family in 1545. Close observation of the landscape seen through arched doorways, captured on either side of the painted royals, reveal the gardens and its fabulous creatures. 
Kyngs Beeste, Leopard.
The magnificent beasts are each perched on a brightly coloured post in amongst the flowerbeds. They include the lion of England, a bull, dragon, falcon, leopard, greyhound and a yale. The ‘Kyngs Beestes’ were masterly carved in English oak, and then brightly painted to emulate Tudor heraldic colours of the day.
 Two Tudor lion statues believed to be original ‘kyng’s beestes’ have found their rightful place at Hampton Court after many years of research after being discovered in the eighties. They traveled with the owner to France and with renewed interest and recent research, the authenticity of the pair of statues was confirmed, and their position in the court reestablished. 

Kyngs Beeste, Falcon.
Kyngs Beeste, Dragon. 
  The newly restored gardens also provide historical insight into the variety of containers, tubs and vases to showcase the fine collection of tender and exotic plants of Queen Mary II. Based on 17th century prototypes these containers were specially recreated to provide visitors insight into her fabulous collection; unrivaled in England during the Tudor era.