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Year of the Dragon: Paint the Dragon, Dot the Eyes

In traditional Chinese culture, the dragon is a sacred creature. It is generally believed that the dragon is one of the divine creatures in the heavenly realm, responsible for controlling the rain, lakes and seas, and other waters. Therefore, in Chinese folklore, there are stories about the Dragon King of the Four Seas, as well as historical legends about dragons who dwell in major rivers and lakes. The dragon was also considered the most powerful Chinese zodiac sign in ancient times because of its sacred nature and its control over water, the most important of human necessities. Since ancient times, the image of the dragon has been closely associated with the emperors and the royal family throughout China’s 5,000 years of history. The emperor and the royal family had

In traditional Chinese culture, the dragon is a sacred creature. It is generally believed that the dragon is one of the divine creatures in the heavenly realm, responsible for controlling the rain, lakes and seas, and other waters. Therefore, in Chinese folklore, there are stories about the Dragon King of the Four Seas, as well as historical legends about dragons who dwell in major rivers and lakes. The dragon was also considered the most powerful Chinese zodiac sign in ancient times because of its sacred nature and its control over water, the most important of human necessities. Since ancient times, the image of the dragon has been closely associated with the emperors and the royal family throughout China’s 5,000 years of history. The emperor and the royal family had the patterns and lines of the dragon embroidered on their formal attire, also known as their “dragon robes”; the chairs on which the emperors sat were called “dragon chairs”; and the bodies of the emperors were honored with the title of “dragon body.” These designators all illustrate the high status of the dragon in Chinese culture.

he pattern on the dragon robe worn by the ancient Chinese emperor, double dragon playing with beads, taken in Nanjing, Jiangsu, China. (Photo: © Dreamstime.com)

2024 is the Year of the Dragon in the lunar calendar. In the chaotic modern world, disaster is always waiting around the corner. Will the Year of the Dragon bring us good fortune or misfortune? Will it be a time to pray for peace and righteousness as the ancient Chinese did in the Year of the Dragon?

Image of Dragon King

An old Chinese idiom says, “paint the dragon, dot the eyes.” This idiom is often used by people today to describe the vividness of a piece of art or the stroke of genius in a literary work or conversation. The allusion to this idiom comes from the story of Zhang Sengyao, a general in the right flank army of Emperor Wu of Liang (464-549 AD) in the Southern Dynasty. It is said that his painting of a dragon in a temple was so lifelike that when he finally dotted the eyes of the dragon, the dragon flew out of the painting and ascended to heaven. Since then, the saying “paint the dragon, dot the eyes” has been passed down for generations.

The Nine-Dragon Wall (Jiulongbi) at Beihai park, Beijing. (Photo: © Zoom-zoom, Dreamstime.com)

Apart from paintings, the Chinese people also “dot the eyes” as a ritual in other folk activities, which have been passed down to the present day. For example, in Chinese communities in many countries, there is a custom of rowing a dragon boat during the Dragon Boat Festival. People not only paint the hull of the boat with scales that look like the body of a dragon but also carve the bow in the shape of a dragon’s head. Before launching the boat into the water, the two eyes of the dragon’s head are often painted with a final stroke, which is known as “dotting the eyes.” Of course, this “eye-dotting” is also carried out under the solemn ceremony of beating gongs and drums and firing firecrackers. It is the same as the “Consecration” ceremony in Buddhism, which is often performed to pray for the dragon boat to be blessed by the gods after setting sail and for it to be paddled smoothly and safely.

Over a thousand years later, it is impossible to say whether Zhang’s dragons are realistic, but it is undeniable that eyes are the “windows to the soul.” When the eyes are painted on a work of art, it is as if the work of art can see things in the outside world and truly “come alive.” Even in other traditions, this idea found within the Buddhist term “consecration” and the Christian term “mass” actually has a greater meaning, which many people, even most religious people, do not understand.

Lying at the center of Beijing, the Forbidden City, called Gu Gong, in Chinese, was the imperial palace during the Ming and Qing dynasties. Now known as the Palace Museum, it is to the north of Tiananmen Square.(Photo:© Xi Zhang/Dreamstime.com)

The actual so-called “consecration” is not just painting the eyes on an artwork, which is a formality. The real meaning of “consecration” is to give the artwork (usually a statue of a god or a Buddha) the function of blessing and protecting the people. It is the real gods and Buddhas represented by the statue that can bless the people, not the statue itself. Like the ceremonial rituals that precede the launching of a dragon boat, the process of “consecrating” a statue of Buddha or a Christian statue requires people to have the right faith, the right intention, and the right form of devotion to make God and Buddha willing to give blessings to the people through such a statue.

However, in the culture of contemporary commercialism, the general public as well as religious people often misunderstand the meaning of true “consecration,” viewing the activity superficially. For example, some individuals, looking for profit, may put the eyes of the god and Buddha on the statue or simply recite enchantments and sing songs, even calling it a “consecration” by reflecting the sunlight with a mirror onto the statue a few times. After the “consecration” is considered complete, they will charge believers for the service.

In this Year of the Dragon, in addition to reviewing the origin of “paint the dragon, dot the eyes,” the next time you see any “consecration” or similar activities, you may wish to think and examine whether this “consecration” ceremony is a pious and righteous act to bring the blessings of the gods and Buddhas or if it is merely a money-making endeavor.


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