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Dancing the Dragon

Updated: Mar 7

A master of the Chinese technique of splashed ink, the Song Dynasty Chinese painter Chen Rong intended his Nine Dragons (1244) to reveal the water like nature of the Dao, the way of the Universe. Becoming, it seems, a dragon himself, Chen Rong painted by spitting water, dipping his cap in ink, and smearing it across a 50-foot scroll to form swirling rain clouds.

He sketched his dragons with the "nine resemblances" established by the canons of Chinese calligraphy: a pair of stag horns, a camel head, a serpent neck, the belly of a clam, the scales of a carp, tiger feet, the ears of a cow and outstretched eagle claws that reach for an elusive moon-pearl.



Chen Rong’s poem recounts how he was able to paint the dragons while he was in an intoxicated state of mind, reflecting certain mind-altering experiences and insights long associated with Daoist transcendental practices (Qi Gong).


The painting depicts the ever-lasting movement of the world, the apparent chaos of the universe. The dragons appear in this chaotic world as magnificent beasts that represent, in the Chinese mind strength, goodness and benevolence. In Chinese mythology the dragon embodies all the potent forces of nature and this dramatic painting expresses the majesty of these forces in ink. Unlike other scaly insects or other “real-world” animals, the dragon is a supernatural beast that has been imagined, a symbol strongly associated with imperial power and supernatural transformation.


Despite being eight centuries old, the delicate yet dynamic style still appeals to the modern eye as an accomplished work of mythological creation. The nine dragons swirl in and out of amorphous clouds, waves, and waterfalls along its 11-metre (12 yards!) length. Their sinuous curves and coils entwine land, sea, and sky. The face of each individual dragon dramatically expresses its distinct personality and attributes.


The dragon is often thought of as a manifestation of qi, or cosmic force. It is often associated with the ability to bring forth the thunder spirits and the rain, which of course nourishes life. Thunder is the name given to the inexplicable yet vigorous Qi that inspires flowers to bloom and young plants to burst forth from frozen soil. Thunder drives out the old, and rouses the resurgence of fertility from the dirt, from the underworld and from the subconscious.


In the painting one of the dragons clutches a pearl, the symbol of the north star, the original qi from which the universe emerged. The interplay of the dragons in the painting only appears chaotic. In fact the dragons, as forces of nature, bring harmony to the world. The movement between them is the movement between yin and yang, the creative tension that is inherent in opposition that animates all things. The dragon shows us that the most creative and innovative ideas are generated not from easy alliances but rather through the challenges of collaboration in complexity and diversity.




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