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Nine Dragons.

Why do you think almost every culture represents animals, fish, birds, and insects in its art ? They may be used as symbols, gods, guardian figures, or simply decoration. Why are we drawn to them? There is a fascination in the ways these other living creatures, in their great variety, are both like human beings and different from us. What can they do better than we can? What aspects of their appearance might interest an artist?


A fantastic, imagined creature like the dragon can combine the features and powers of many animals. An ancient Chinese scholar defined the features of a dragon as the head of a camel, the eyes of a demon, the ears of a cow, the branched antlers of a stag, the neck of a snake, and the belly of a clam. The soles of its feet are a tiger's, its claws are those of an eagle, and the scales sheathing its long body are those of a carp. Can you find all these features in the dragons seen here?

Animals may symbolize different things in different cultures. In European legends, a dragon is a fire-breathing monster to be slain, but in Chinese mythology, the dragon is a powerful, almost godlike creature long associated with the imperial throne and philosophical beliefs in the powers of nature. The dragons on this scroll appear amid clouds, mists, crags, whirlpools, and fireball manifestations of the True Way of Nature, in which life is the interaction of two forces. The solid rock and cliff reflect the yang, while the fluid, changing waves and clouds represent the yin. You may have seen the yin/yang symbol that stands for this balance of opposing forces.

Each dragon embodies a different state of consciousness, character, or mood. The nine dragons on the scroll may also be seen as one being experiencing nine transformations in shape, emotion, age, and knowledge. Look closely at the dragons illustrated. Which do you think expresses boldness, desperation, triumph? Find the one who has grasped the pearl of wisdom. What is the mood of this dragon? Look for the section in which a younger dragon learns from an older one with thin white hair and a gray beard.

The Artist Chen Rong

Chinese texts refer to dragon paintings as early as the third century, but this thirteenth-century scroll is the oldest and finest surviving today. Chinese paintings were created both by professional artists and amateur scholar-artists, who painted as a form of self-expression. The artist of the scroll Nine Dragons, Chen Rong, was a scholar, and a member of the bureaucracy that administered civic affairs in China. Frustrated by political setbacks, he expressed himself through his painting, poetry, and calligraphy, known in China as the "Three Perfections." In the poem inscribed at the end of the scroll, he recounts how he painted the dragons while in an altered state of consciousness.

Format and Technique

Nine Dragons is a handscroll, one of several traditional forms for Chinese paintings. A viewer would hold the scroll, unrolling one section at a time, following the images from right to left and paying close attention to the varied and expressive brushstrokes. Sometimes the viewer would write a comment or tribute to the painting at the end of the scroll using beautiful calligraphy.

Scholar-painters, like Chen Rong, most often worked with the tools used for calligraphy paper, a stick of solid ink, a stone on which to rub the stick with water to make ink, and brushes. Varied tones of ink were manipulated to create a wide range of effects. Chen Rong has used his brush not only to paint, but to splash ink. Sometimes he used a piece of cloth or paper to wipe ink onto the surface, creating the shades of the clouds, mists, and waves. He used a stroke called the ax cut to create a hard, jagged look for the rocks. Look for all these different effects. Chen Rong has given his dragons animated, humorous expressions, almost like cartoon characters. Can you imagine what each one might be saying?

References and Resources

Clunas, Craig. Art in China. Oxford University Press, 1997.

Sullivan, Michael. The Arts of China. University of California Press, Berkeley, 1967 and subsequent reprints.

Treager, Mary. Chinese Art. Thames and Hudson, 1980 and after.

Wu Tung, Tales from the Land of Dragons: 1000 Years of Chinese Painting. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1997. Catalogue of exhibition drawn from the permanent collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Website for "Tales from the Land of Dragons" on the web at under "Past Exhibitions" or at Includes opportunity to "unroll" entire Nine Dragons scroll remember to go right to left!


High School

Great and monumental animal hall of fame

The Nine Dragons handscroll is powerful in its imagery, size and portrayal of the Daoist philosophy that explores the relationship between people and the natural world.

Discuss with your students the verbal messages that animal images can portray, such as power, speed, stealth, or vigilance, and how those traits are exemplified in isolation and with relationship to a given culture.

Create oversized cut-out cardboard paintings, braced with wood, of great and monumental animals and an installation that celebrates both their form and meaning.

Media: acrylic paint, cardboard, wood. Interdisciplinary considerations: religions of the world and mythology.

Middle School

Invented animals

Dragons are fantastic and fictitious creatures. Have your students create their own fantastic and fictitious creature using anatomical parts from real animals--birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish. Media: collage, paint, oil pastel or papier-mache.

Interdisciplinary considerations: connect with science on animate anatomy.

Elementary School

Class animals handscroll

The animals and poems on the Nine Dragons handscroll tell many stories. Read stories about dragons drawn from Chinese literature. After discussing the dragon stories, have your students describe in detail as many animals as they can recall or imagine. Discuss and have students experiment with the special materials and tools used in Chinese scroll making. With sumi ink, have your students create an ink painting of their own real or imagined animal on 12 x 18" paper held horizontally, or on a designated segment of long scroll paper.

Then have students write a short "poem story" about the animal they depicted and copy it onto their animal drawing paper.

Once the animals and poem stories have been combined, glue the papers together, horizontally if necessary, and attach thick dowel sticks to the ends of the newly made animals handscroll. Media: 12 x 18" sheet white paper or scroll of craft paper, sumi ink-cake or thinned liquid black tempera paint, soft brushes, sponges and rags. Interdisciplinary considerations: language arts; history.

Barbara T Martin is Associate Director for Interpretation in the Department of Education and Public Programs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Dorothy Amore Pilla is Director of Art Education for Tufts University and the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Massachusetts.
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Title Annotation:creating of drawings of dragons
Author:Pilla, Dorothy Amore
Publication:School Arts
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Oct 1, 2000
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Next Article:Animal Worlds: Powerful Protector.

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