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This June, LET’S LEARN ABOUT…Dragons!

 

June is when the Dragon Boat Festival, called Duanwu jie 端午节 in Mandarin, is celebrated. This festival is also known as the Dumpling Festival, as rice dumplings are traditionally eaten during this period. It falls on the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month, which is on 14 June this year. Besides China, other countries, including Singapore, Malaysia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam, celebrate this festival.

Dragons are mythical creatures commonly featured in stories all over the world. They are usually depicted using parts of several real animals, such as the body of a snake, scales of a carp, and claws of an eagle. In Chinese culture, dragons are viewed as bearers of good luck and fortune. They also bring rainfall and have the ability to control rivers.

A famous Chinese legend tells of how four dragons tried to help people in China by sending water to the earth. You can listen to an audio clip of this tale below.

 

LISTEN

 

Listen to the legend of the four dragons, and how they fought for humankind.


Click here for audio clip.

  • Drop down for transcript

    The Legend of the Four Dragons

    A long, long time ago, before the rivers and all lakes on earth were created, there was only the Eastern Sea, which was home to four dragons: the Long Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Black Dragon, and the Pearl Dragon.

    The dragons played in the sea and soared in the sky every day, looking down on the earth beneath them. One day, as they were twirling amongst the clouds, the dragons saw the people on earth kneeling, crying, and pleading for rain to arrive. They looked closer and realised that the land was cracked dry from drought. Crops were dying, and people were starving. The dragons were alarmed and knew that if rain did not arrive, people would suffer even more.

    They planned to visit the Jade Emperor, who was the ruler of the skies and earth, to ask for rain. They flew up to the heavens to make their humble request, and the Jade Emperor, while listening to the fairies sing, half-heartedly agreed to send rain the next day.

    “Thank you, your Majesty!”

    Pleased with the answer, the dragons went back to playing in the seas. But the next day, the rain did not arrive. Even after ten days, there was no sign of rain. The dragons then realised that the Jade Emperor had not kept his promise. Just then, Long Dragon had an idea to bring rain to the people. “It might make the Jade Emperor angry…”, Long Dragon cautioned.

    “We’ll do whatever it takes to save the people and stop their suffering!” the other dragons cried.

    Carrying out the plan, the four dragons opened their jaws wide and scooped up as much water as possible from the Eastern Sea, and then sprayed it onto the earth from a great height, causing the water to fall like rain.

    “It’s raining! We can grow the crops again! We are saved!”

    The people of earth danced in the rain and celebrated its arrival. However, news of the rain came to the Jade Emperor, who was furious with the dragons for taking matters into their own hands. Using his powers, he trapped the four dragons under four mountains. The kind dragons never regretted their decision to bring rain for the people, and broke free from the mountains as rivers, crossing the lands from the west to the east, merging into the sea. They became China’s four great rivers – Heilongjiang (Black Dragon), Huanghe (Yellow Dragon), Changjiang (Long Dragon), and Zhujiang (Pearl Dragon).

 

 

 

OBJECTS IN ACM COLLECTION

 

Let’s take a look at some of our objects that feature these fantastic creatures.

Tile with dragons 

 

Tile with dragons

Northern Vietnam

11th century (Ly dynasty)

Earthenware

2014-00577

 

Spy with your little eye two dragons flying amidst the clouds on this large tile! Dragons in motion are typically seen in art of the Ly dynasty in Vietnam. Dragons are important symbols in Southeast Asia.

During the Ly dynasty (1009–1225), temples and palaces frequented by the king often had dragons on them. A fun fact – the ancient royal capital of Vietnam (and current capital), Hanoi, was formerly known as Thang Long (literally “rising dragon”). In Hanoi, similar looking dragon motifs have been found on buildings.

Look for this large tile in our Ancestors and Rituals Gallery on Level 2.

 

 

Set of 22 inksticks

 

Set of 22 inksticks

China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911)
2009-02962


Do you recognise the creature on this box? It’s a Chinese dragon. In China, dragons represent power, strength, and good luck. In the past, inksticks were ground with water on an inkstone to make ink for calligraphy and writing.

Five-clawed dragons, like the one on this box, are a symbol of the emperor. For a long time in China, only the emperor and his immediate family could wear this symbol, and they were also the only ones who could wear the colour yellow. Anyone else caught wearing it would be in big trouble!

You can find this box of inksticks in our Scholars Gallery on Level 2.

 

 

Zoomorphic kettle

 

Zoomorphic kettle

Brunei, 19th century

Brass

XXXX-02920

 

This brass kettle was made in Brunei but has decorations inspired from Chinese art, such as the dragons. Can you spot other animals? Look at the lid of the kettle, the handle, and the spout. In brassware made in Brunei, animals, including dragons, lizards, frogs, fish, and birds, are often featured, as some of them are believed to bring good luck, or bring more children to the family.

Kettles were and are still used today as water containers in weddings to serve water for drinking and for the washing hands and feet. In the past, Brunei was well-known for producing brassware. How do you think people from Brunei came to know of auspicious animals in Chinese culture?

You can find this kettle in our Islamic Art Gallery on Level 2.

 

 

Pair of mounted blue jars  

 

Pair of mounted blue jars

Porcelain: China, around 1736–45

Gilded bronze mounts: France, around 1745—49

2014-00709


Do these dragons look a little different from the ones above? That’s because these dragons were made in Europe – specifically, France. Do you know of any animals that look different depending on which country they live in, or who drew them? Sometimes when making art, local people use their own preferred ways of drawing or sculpting animal and mythical creature designs.

These jars are decorated with a deep blue glaze, a type of porcelain decoration used in China during the reign of Qianlong emperor, more than 200 years ago. That's why we know they were made in China during that time. After they were made, they were exported to France, where someone added the gold parts, called "mounts", with the dragons at the top.  Find them in our Maritime Trade Gallery on Level 1.

 

 

COLOUR

 

Click here to download our colouring sheet, inspired by the Legend of the Four Dragons. Tag us @ACM_SG and #LearningatACM to get it featured.

 

 Dragons colouring sheet image

 

 

EXPLORE

 

Head to NHB’s one-stop heritage portal Roots.sg to read more about the objects featured:

 

Large tile with dragons

Set of 22 inksticks

Zoomorphic kettle

A pair of mounted blue jars

  

Find out more about the Dragon Boat Festival on the same portal here too.

 

Want more of these resources?  Come back to learn new things every month.

Missed a monthly post? Not to worry, we keep past topics here for you.

What else would you like to learn about? Tell us here.


There’s more!

Check out other videos and download e-resources inspired by the objects in ACM’s collection.