China in perspective

Myth and Meaning

Silk flag with five-clawed imperial dragon on a yellow background with a red sun in the top left

The Chinese symbolic language goes far beyond the boundaries of the physical world. Since ancient times, mythical creatures have been a part of spiritual life, superstition, folklore and religion.

Porcelain vessel decorated with water plants and animals in front of a blue background

Through allegorical stories and ritual practices, fantastical animals such as the gluttonous taotie, the truth-detecting Xiezhi and the unicorn-like Luduan and Qilin became chief elements of Chinese culture, artistic creation and architectural conception.

a sketch drawing chronicling animal motifs in painted patterns and ceramic tiles adorning the buildings of the Forbidden City in Beijing
a painting on a silk screen panel depicting a man riding a qilin

Of the twelve imperial insignia – used on decorations, garments and objects in the emperor’s palace – the dragon (Loong, Long or Lung) is the most prominent.

With traces leading back to the 6th millennium BC, the dragon evolved from a stylized representation of a creature of nature into a mythical figure boasting nine anatomical resemblances with animals – from claws similar to those of an eagle to scales mimicking the skin of a carp and a snake-like neck.

 a wooden pillar in a temple around which a carving of a dragon curls from top to bottom

Originally, the dragon is thought to have been a benevolent rain deity. Rain dances were performed in honour of its power to bring fertility and abundance. But as a symbol of the emperor, the dragon represented almighty power and potential danger as well.

a tile wall in mainly blue colours with sculpture relief on top of it of two battling dragons

Another mighty, mythical presence in Chinese culture is the stylized lion or ‘foo dog’.

Bronze statue of a foo dog with a cub as a lid

Porcelain figurines or bronze foo dogs are often found in house interiors, but stone sculptures of the ‘guardian lions’ or ‘shishi’ are often integrated into architecture as well.

a stone lion in Chinese sculpture style stands in a field surrounded by grass and trees
a close-up image of the decoration of a terrace railing showing stylised dogs in Chinese style.

Foo dogs were thought to protect properties from physical and spiritual harm. Originally a trait of Chinese palaces - where they were commonly positioned at gates, stairs or portals - they soon spread to other countries and became a globally recognized icon of Asian culture.

a child stands next to a large sculpture of a guardian lion, leaning on the lion.