Delve into the symbolism of dragons in Chinese culture with the National Postal Museum and the National Museum of Asian Art. Educators share a dragon origin story and highlight dragons in Asian art objects and on postage stamps.
Stamp Stories: Dragons
Maureen: Hi, I’m Maureen from the National Postal Museum.
Jenn: Hi, and I’m Jenn from the National Museum of Asian Art.
Maureen: Welcome to Stamp Stories, where we explore topics that appear on postage stamps. New stamps come out every year on wide variety of topics. Today we’re going to learn about a make-believe creature from China.
Jenn: Do you want to guess what the creature is? Let’s look at clues in some art objects and see if you can solve the riddle.
So what creature has the body of a snake, that’s covered with the scales of a fish, has the head of a horse with eyes of a rabbit, horns of an ox, talons of an eagle, and teeth like a tiger?
Did you guess “dragon?” That’s correct!
Let’s read a book and hear the story of how dragons ended up being a mixture of all those different animals.
Maureen: The Legend of the Chinese Dragon, written by Marie Sellier, illustrated by Catherine Louis and Wang Fei. Thank you to North South books for permission to use this book.
Once upon a time, long, long ago, the men, women, and children of China hunted, fished, and lived in tribes under the protection of benevolent spirits.
These spirits resembled the animals with which they had always lived. Those near the ocean had chosen the spirit of the fish, which glistens in the water.
Those in the mountains had adopted the bird, which is good at chasing clouds away.
Those in the low plains preferred the horse, which gallops as fast as the wind.
Those in the high plains put themselves under the protection of the serpent, which glides silently from one place to another.
Those in the fertile rice fields swore by the ox, friend of man and tireless worker.
In this way, the men, women, and children of China lived, each tribe under the protection of the fish, or the bird, or the horse, or the serpent, or the ox.
Sadly, the tribes were envious of one another, and often waged war among themselves in the names of their spirits.
They fought so much that one day the children of China decided that they had had enough of fighting and declared war on war.
They decided to create an animal that would protect all the people: an animal that was agile like the fish, free like the bird, fast like the horse, cunning like the serpent, and strong like the ox.
So, they took the body of the serpent and glued it to the scales of the fish. They took the head of the horse and attached the horns of the ox. Then they attached the head to the body, and added the wings of the bird.
They called this fabulous animal – which could fly in the air, swim in the ocean, and walk on land – DRAGON.
When the men and women of all the tribes of China saw the dragon that their children had created, they found it so beautiful that for the first time they made peace with one another, and they vowed never to wage war again.
They didn’t always succeed and there were wars over the years. But the dragon still remains a symbol of peace, and plays an important role at Chinese celebrations.
Jenn: Like we learned in the book, dragons are important symbols in Chinese culture. The story ended by saying they were symbols of peace. But they also represent wisdom and power and are believed to bring good luck.
In stories from China, dragons can fly in the sky - even without wings! Dragons can also swim in the ocean.
Chinese dragons don’t breathe out fire, they breathe out clouds. Dragons also make rain.
During the time of emperors and empresses in China, the dragon became the symbol of the royal family and the entire country of China. Count the number of claws on one paw of this dragon. Did you count five? Only members of the royal family could wear images of dragons with five claws. Let’s zoom out and see more.
This is a chaofu, an important court robe worn by members of the royal family, like the gentleman you see here. It is over 100 years old. The dark blue color and the five-clawed dragon give us clues about the wearer of this court robe. This chaofu was worn by a high-ranking prince for important occasions, like religious or civic ceremonies.
Today, the dragon remains a symbol for celebrations, especially during Lunar New Year. Here, you see the dragon dance, a popular performance to ring in the Lunar New Year.
Lunar New Year is celebrated in many countries across Asia to mark the first new moon in the Lunar New Year calendar. One of the most famous of the world’s Lunar New Year’s festivals is the Spring Festival in China, where celebrations begin on New Year’s Eve of the Lunar New Year and last for fifteen days. Because it’s celebrated when the new moon occurs, the exact dates change every year, but Lunar New Year festivities always start sometime in late January or early February.
Maureen: Thanks, Jenn! I loved hearing about the different parts of the origin story for dragons! Dragons are such a powerful symbol in Chinese culture, and they’ve captured the imagination of people all over the world! The United States Postal Service has featured dragons on stamps a few times. Here you can see a Lunar New Year stamp series. 12 different animals are shown on these stamps, and they each get their own year in the 12 year cycle.
Here you can see the dragon stamp from that Lunar New Year series. Do you spot any of the features we learned about? I can see claws, scales, and a body that looks like a snake!
The last year of the dragon was in 2012, and the postal service celebrated it by putting out a set of dragon stamps. At the top of the set it says “Celebrating Lunar New Year” and along both sides you can see outlines of the twelve different animals in the lunar year cycle. Those outlines might look a little familiar – they are the same shapes we just saw on the stamp set from 2005! But the picture of the dragon on this stamp looks very different.
In the top corner of the stamp you can see the dragon shape from the other stamp. But this stamp just has the dragon’s head on it. Here you can really see some other dragon features, like the sharp teeth of a tiger, and a head like a lion. This is part of a dragon puppet used to celebrate Lunar New Year, like in the video Jenn showed us.
Of course, China has also issued dragon stamps many times. Here are a few examples. These are from 1988, 2000, and 2012, which were all the year of the Dragon. The ones in the middle show dragons on Chinese art, in six different forms. The National Museum of Asian Art has many objects just like these, which give us an idea of how important the dragon is in Chinese culture.
And they’ve been important for such a long time, too – for thousands of years! Let’s go back in history about 135 years, to 1887, when the first official postage stamps were issued in China. Do you see what they have on them? Dragons!
Dragons are so important in China, and dragons are also found in stories from all over the world. Here is a set of stamps from the US postal service that feature different kinds of mythical dragons. Can you find the one that looks like a Chinese dragon? Here’s a hint – it’s the only one without wings!
Jenn: That was a lot of fun exploring the topic of dragons! If you’d like to learn more about dragons in the arts of Asia, check out the National Museum of Asian Art’s website for more fun content and resources.
Maureen: Thank you so much, Jenn, and thank you to our audience for joining us today. You can learn more about dragons on stamps and about all different kinds of other topics by visiting the National Postal Museum’s website. We encourage you to just keep exploring!