A Rare Song Dynasty Dragon Dish
Rosemary Scott, International Academic Director, Asian Art
This exceptional dish is arguably one of the finest examples of Southern Song dynasty polychrome lacquer carving. The lacquer artist has fully utilised all the colours to create a vibrant design in which the black writhing dragon appears against a turbulent background of multicoloured waves. The powerful arch of the creature's back is highlighted by the red lacquer revealed on either side of the spine and belly, while the angular head is brought to visual prominence in the same manner.
This technique is very rare amongst Song dynasty lacquers, and those decorated with chi dragons even more so, Three boxes of this type have been published, but the colours on these are somewhat more muted. The tops of all three boxes are decorated with two chi dragons - one ascending and one descending. One of these boxes is in the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco (illustrated in Chinese Art in Overseas Collections - Lacquerware, Taipei, 1987, p. 28). The San Francisco box also has chi dragons perambulating around the sides of the box. The dragons on the top of the lid are shown amongst scrolling clouds, and one of the dragons holds a three-headed lingzhi fungus in its mouth. Another box is in the Hayashibara Art Museum in Okayama (illustrated in The Colours and Forms of Song and Yuan China, Tokyo, 2004, no. 85, where it is dated to the Southern Song dynasty). This example is of a slightly different style to the others in the group and is executed in black and red lacquer with the design appearing in black against a red ground. Both dragons on the lid of this box carry lingzhi fungi in their mouths. The sides of this box are decorated with a band of clouds.
A third box is in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This box from the Florence and Herbert Irving Collection, is illustrated by James C.Y. Watt and Barbara Brennan Ford in East Asian Lacquer, New York, 1991, pp. 62-3, no. 16. Again, both dragons carry lingzhi in their mouths and appear amongst scrolling clouds on a dark red ground. Clouds also adorn the sides of both the box and the cover. One further example of Song carved lacquer decorated with chi dragons is known. This is a cup stand in the collection of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which does not appear to have been published but which can be seen on the museum's website - acquisition number C1997.0008. The chi dragons on this cup stand are of particular interest in that, like those on the current dish, they are shown with clouds, but against a background of waves. In the case of the cup stand the waves are shown as linear overlapping arcs, as opposed to the higher relief turbulent waves on the dish.
The slender chi dragon with blunt head and bifurcated tail was a popular motif during the Han dynasty, and once again gained popularity as a motif on the decorative arts in China during the 12th and 13th centuries. In the Lushi Chunqiu (The Spring and Autumn Annals of Master Lu), compiled around 239 BC, Confucius is reported to have compared himself to a chi dragon. He notes that a long dragon eats and swims in clear water; a chi dragon eats in clear water, but swims in muddy water; and a fish eats and swims in muddy water. Confucius admits that he has not risen to the level of a long dragon, but has not descended to the level of a fish, so regards himself as being on a level with a chi dragon. The association of this type of dragon with water occurs quite frequently in ancient texts and thus the fact that the chi dragon on the current dish appears amongst waves is wholly appropriate. Such dragons are also often described as black in ancient literature, which is also reflected in their colouration on Song lacquer wares. Although the lacquer is applied in layers of different colours, the top layer, which gives the dragon his main colour, is usually black.
One of the fine Song ceramic wares on which chi dragons often appear is Ding ware, and here too the dragons are often shown in association with water. A Ding ware bowl with incised decoration in the collection of the National Palace Museum, Taipei (illustrated in China at the Inception of the Second Millennium - Art and Culture of the Sung Dynasty, Taipei, 2000, p. 163, no. III-17) even shows a chi dragon swimming in a lotus pond. A moulded Ding ware dish in the same collection (illustrated ibid., p. 237, no. IV-55) depicts two chi dragons in the centre with waves or clouds, and four more perambulating around the interior sides of the dish. The postures of these dragons is very similar to that of the chi dragons on the current dish and the boxes discussed above.
Chi dragons were also popular motifs on jade. In the Han dynasty they were often carved as three-dimensional decorations, especially on archaistic bi discs, such as the examples in the exhibition Chinese Jade Throughout the Ages, London, 1975, nos. 97 and 98, or providing the handle for small vessels. In the Song dynasty they also occasionally appear carved three-dimensionally on archaistic vessels, but are more frequently seen in low relief surface decoration, as on two white jade plaques in the collection of the Palace Museum, Beijing (illustrated in The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum, Jadeware (II), Hong Kong, 1995, nos. 64 and 69.
While their etymology may suggest otherwise, chi dragons have long been regarded as auspicious creatures. They were believed to have the power to combat evil and prevent disasters. Like the chi dragon on the current dish, they often carry a spray of lingzhi fungus either in their mouths or in their claws which links them with a wish for long life. These features, combined with their association with water, commended them as ideal motifs for the decorative arts, and, as can be seen on the current dish, when carved by a skilled craftsman they could attain a vitality which as impressive today as it was in the Song dynasty.