Group Project: Asian dragons as Arts

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I consider this project to be an extension of my own graduation project: to rebrand an Asian (Vietnamese to be specific) restaurant called Little Vietnam. The reason why is because when I perform researches on various topics to acquire additional knowledge in order to be able to approach the rebranding in various direction, I came across the possibility of appropriating traditional arts that are distinct to their respective cultures, as graphic elements that would constitute a unique brand identity, helping the restaurant to gain an advantage when compete with more established brands.

From that point, as I continue with my research, I realised the importance of dragon in Asian cultures and the way such creature was used as a big topic for traditional Asian arts. Thus, this project sets out to scrutinise the utilisation and perception of dragon in Asian cultures arts.

So what is a dragon?

Dragon is a creature born of myth and legends, depicted in various ways across different cultures. In Western cultures, dragons are usually the antagonists: they kill humans, wrecking havoc on kingdoms, stealing treasures and kidnapping princesses, they are the subjects for heroes to terminate. In Eastern cultures however, they are often regarded as deities, capable of granting miracles, helping humans and are highly intellectual. Their appearances are usually associated with creatures of serpentine, reptilian or avian traits, meaning that they either look like a lizard or a snake and can fly.

Since dragons are essentially myths, it is impossible to determine the exact or even relative date of its invention as a concept, but since the word dragon, which derived from Draco (Latin) and Drakon (Greek – a massive flying snake), was added to the English vocabulary, we know for a fact that Dragon has long been existing in people’ minds.

The focus of this project is to learn the different ways dragons are depicted in different Asian cultures, thus it is important to learn the significance of this creature, what it means to the people of that region. Aforementioned, dragons are subject of worship in many Asian cultures and are often used to determine the highest hierarchy in many different classification systems. For example:

  • Kingship was strongly associated dragon: the king was regarded as the dragon, or the dragon’s son. His/her clothes were embroidered with dragon patterns, the throne was decorated with dragon sculptures and all of his tools (stamps, room, crown, etc. were decorated in similar fashion).
  • Gold was considered to be the dragon’s colour because of its value and rarity.
  • In China’s justice system, the tool of execution, guillotine, often has three different blades: the dog’s blade for executing commoners and non-government personnel, the tiger’s blade for killing people in power like government officials and nobles and finally, the dragon’s blade, reserve only for the decapitation of people in the royal bloodline.
  • Dragon is also used to represent strength, Japanese soldiers and other combatants often tattooed themselves with dragon drawings.

Chinese dragon

China is arguably the most influential culture in the Asian region due to the vastness of its land, the richness of its soil and the sheer number of its people, which translate to superior military might, thus having amount of influences on other Asian cultures. Therefore, the Chinese dragon can be seen as a prototype that other cultures used to develop their own dragons by adding other unique traits from their own cultures (Ernest et al. 2013).

Dragon in Chinese culture represents strength, luck and royalty. In fact, several medieval Chinese empires use dragon as the symbol of their realms (Frank 1997). The image of Chinese dragon is essentially the combinations of various quirks from a collection of animals that are native to the land. For instance, the thin and long body of a snake, coiled in circles, the head and tentacles that resemble that of a catfish, scales of a Chinese carp, hands of the turtle and fangs of a carnivorous beast (Frank 1997).

Japanese dragon

They way Japanese people  view dragon is very different compare to the rest of Asia. Indeed, while there are dragon deity in Japanese folklore, most of them are depicted as not so much villainous and malignant but troublemakers. And as such, their depictions contain alot of “human-like” traits such as mischievous eyes and grimaces. Japanese dragons are usually humans who encountered mysterious forces and thus became the animal, they often served as the representation of hardships that must be overcame, unexplained forces of nature as well as the exaggeration of human emotions that must be suppressed. Hence, in the paintings, the Japanese dragons are never the main focus, utilised as a narrative graphic elements to more clearly convey the authorial intents, mounted or partially covered by the main subjects of the painting such as humans or covered by a light shade of shadow (as presented in the presentation).

Korean dragon

Korean dragons for the most part are very similarly depicted to the Chinese dragons due to the aforementioned influences of China. However, the image of Korean dragon is actually based off of the eel, thus strongly associated with the element of water and has long tentacles protruding from the nose area as “beard” (Roy 2007). Korean dragon in paintings do not usually fly but swim due to the said association. Therefore, the scales of the dragon are often the focus of the illustration, being made up of exactly 81 scales due to the significance of number 9 (an essence of Yang) in the Korean culture (9×9=81). Moreover, Korean dragons always hold the Yeouiju (여의주) orb in its mouth, a divine item that can be rewarded to humans for their good deeds, granting various miracles (Roy 2007).

Vietnamese dragon  

Vietnamese dragon’s appearance is somewhat peculiar compares to the standard Asian dragon set by the Chinese. While its body still stretches long like the other ones, its torso is usually drawn to be extremely thick due to the fact that ancient Vietnamese perceived the concept of “dragon” as something that resembles an earthworm, an animal whose existence is beneficial for agricultural activities. While the scales are still drawn similarly to that of a carp, its head is abnormally big, depicted in very simplistic manner with exaggerated features and like big, round, pupil-less eyes.

Furthermore, all of the Vietnamese dragon drawings demonstrate the animal in a flying motion thanks to the animal’s link to the myth of ‘ascension’ in Vietnamese culture. According to this myth, at the end of every year, any carp fishes who managed to overcome the fierce battle of swimming upstream and reach the sea will be bestowed with the divine gift of becoming dragons, ascending to heaven and live with the gods: an educational way of saying never give up and give it your best shot. Therefore, many of the dragon drawings in Vietnamese folklore are about a carp transforming into the dragon, half-fish, half-dragon.

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From these research, two illustrations will be made. These two original dragon drawings will try and combine all the characteristics of the many version of dragon drawings and produce something original yet still authentic and harbours cultural values.

 

References

■Ingersoll, E et al. 2013. The Illustrated Book of Dragons and Dragon Lore. Chiang Mai: Cognoscenti Book

■Kramer, S 1961. Sumerian Mythology: A Study of Spiritual and Literary Achievement in the Third Millennium B.C.: Revised Edition. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania A Greek-English Lexicon

■Mallory, J 2006. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. pp. 436–437

■Dikötter, F 1997. The Construction of Racial Identities in China and Japan. C Hurst & Co Publishers Ltd. pp. 76–77

■Aston, W1896. Nihongi: Chronicles of Japan from the Earliest Times to A.D. p.697

■Gould, C 1896. Mythical Monsters. W. H. Allen & Co.

■Bates, R 2007, All About Chinese Dragons, China History Press

 

 

 

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