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Year of the Dragon: Early China to LEGO

The dragon has captivated the Asian continent for thousands of years. This exhibition explores the representation of the dragon over the span of a millennium and three Asian countries. It demonstrates how the form and function of dragon imagery have drastically evolved over time.


Representations of the dragon in China appear as early as the Neolithic period (ca. 7000–1700 BCE). Dragons were believed to possess a number of powers, including the ability to change size, breathe clouds, control the waters, and create rain. As the role of the dragon evolved, it was adopted as a symbol of the Chinese emperor during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.). As the imperial association with the emperor grew stronger, it reached a new height during the Ming Dynasty (1368–1644), when the five-clawed dragon became an image that was reserved for the emperor.  A symbol of strength and power, the emperor was at one time referred to as “The Dragon.” Similarly in Korea, where the dragon was an auspicious and powerful creature symbolizing good fortune, the kings of the Joseon Dynasty (1392–1910) chose the dragon as their emblem. 


The evolution of the form and function of the dragon image is represented through the art in this exhibition. Prior to the fall of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), fine materials such as jade and ivory were used to create dragon imagery. It is apparent in the workmanship that many of these objects were created for the emperor or high-ranking nobility. However, after the Qing Dynasty, both the form and function of the image of the dragon drastically changed and became accessible to everyone.


Today, the image of the dragon is found all across the world. The dragon has been represented in every medium imaginable and is used in everyday objects. In this exhibition, we see the image of the dragon on a Japanese enamel cigarette case. A dragon intertwines itself on the base of a silver champagne holder from the Mandarin Hotel. A child’s LEGO toy is built in the form of a mythical dragon. The dragon is found on a household trivet from China and even on postage stamps.


A creature once venerated for its ability to bring rain to fertilize the lands is now seen throughout the world as a decorative motif for everyday objects. Although the dragon is no longer revered as a bringer of rain or associated with imperial authority, the image of the dragon still evokes the same sense of power and mysticism that established it as a multi-cultural wonder thousands of years ago.

Published by The Heritage Museum of Asian Art; Printed and bound by ADG

Curated by Jeffrey Moy

Written and edited by Miranda Ferries

Compilation by Dee Lyu

Photography by Jasmine Carter

Design by Ruiying Xiong, Taylor Anderson, and Ulises Chancoso

Heritage Museum of Asian Art

3500 S Morgan St, Chicago, IL 60609

(312) 842-8884


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Heritage Museum of Asian Art is a non-profit organization with IRS 501 (c) (3) tax exempt status. 

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