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    How to Draw a Dragon

    A short art history of the Chinese zodiac’s most fantastical creature.

    As the only imaginary creature among its 12 animals, the loong, or Chinese dragon, adds a much-needed dash of the fantastical to the Chinese zodiac.

    Much of the loong’s mystery lies in its unknown origins. Loong-esque motifs have been unearthed at sites dating back 8,000 years, though experts generally agree that the earliest examples of a fully formed loong discovered to date are the 6,000-year-old mosaics unearthed at the Xishuipo site in what is now the central province of Henan.

    In their earliest form, loong were generally depicted with a long snake-like body, but some had feet and dorsal fins, as well as other regional variations. This has led scholars to speculate about the origins of the loong, with some pointing to the Yangtze alligator or snakes, while others argue that the image may have been derived from natural phenomena that ancient Chinese were unable to explain, such as rainbows, lightning, or tornadoes.

    It would take thousands of years for their image to solidify into what we see today. Indeed, the complexity of the loong lies in its imaginative mix of body parts accrued slowly over millennia. By the Shang (ca. 1600–1046 B.C.) and Zhou dynasties (1046–256 B.C.), the details had become more concrete, including a large mouth, upturned snout, prominent eyes and ears, and alligator-shaped body. A number of jade loong unearthed from a Shang-period tomb at Yinxu in Henan have similar eyes, rhomboid patterns along their bodies, and a raised spine, all of which were common in loong depictions from the Shang period and suggestive that representations of the beast had stabilized.

    During the Zhou, artists would take that image and imbue it with rhythmic elegance. It is also during this time that the loong’s mystical powers begin to come into greater focus.

    People in ancient China believed that loong could not only fly, but also shuttle through realms, guiding and leading human souls into the worlds of ghosts and gods. The Hunan Museum has in its collection a silk painting of a man riding a loong that was unearthed from a tomb dating to the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.). The man wears a scholarly robe and tall hat, carries a sword at his waist, and has an umbrella above his head. Tassels on the umbrella and beneath his chin fly backward, showing a sense of speed and forward movement as the loong beneath him rushes ahead. Bent into a boat shape, with its head bowed forward, the beast seemingly leads the hero to another realm.

    Another silk painting, dating to the Han dynasty (202 B.C.–220 A.D.), features two giant loong passing through a piece of jade, their winding bodies spanning the human and subterranean worlds. Their twisting figures and wide-open mouths suggest the extraordinary power loong had attained over the preceding thousand years, as they represented the transformation and continuation of life for the tomb’s occupant.

    The next major shift in the loong’s image would come with the introduction of Buddhism from India into China. In Buddhist mythology, the loong-like Naga controls the waters and the rains, and the faith is the source of now common Chinese deities like the Dragon King.

    By the Tang dynasty (618–907), which promoted Buddhism, the shape of the loong was less abstract, with each body part gradually becoming more fixed until it reached the form we’re familiar with today — the so-called “three joints” and “nine resemblances.” The three joints refer to the bends in the body of the loong, which roughly divide it into three sections: head, waist, and tail. The nine resemblances refer to the anatomical characteristics of various animals that comprise the loong: the horns of a deer, head of a horse, eyes of a rabbit, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, soles of a tiger, and ears of a cow.

    With its form finally settled, the ensuing Song dynasty (960–1279) saw the emergence of artists who specialized in painting loong, none more famous than Chen Rong. Known for his unorthodox approach to art, Chen would get drunk, then dip his cap in ink and freely smear it onto the painting surface, somehow managing to capture the distinct charm of the loong in the process.

    Chen’s loong paintings can be found in museums and art galleries in China and overseas, but his masterpiece, the “Nine Dragons” scroll painting, is held by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. The painting features nine distinct loong separated by clouds, currents, waterfalls, and whirlpools. Each occupies its own space, looking proud and depicted in unrestrained brushstrokes — a reminder of the creature’s eternal diversity. Not for nothing is it considered by many to be the finest expression of the loong in Chinese art.

    Translator: David Ball; editor: Wu Haiyun.

    (Header image: Details of Chen Rong’s “Nine Dragons.” From Museum of Fine Arts in Boston)