Why Is Chinese Art Full of Dragons, Phoenixes and Tigers?

A new exhibition showcases stunning mythical artworks of the Zhou Dynasty’s “lost” kingdoms

painted drum
A painted drum carved with phoenixes and tigers (circa 300 B.C.E.) Asian Art Museum

China’s history is famously rife with mythical imagery—such as dragons, phoenixes and tigers—and historians have long sought the origins of such motifs. Now, a new exhibition is filling in some of that fractured history, bringing visitors face to face with 3,000 years of Chinese artisanship.

Phoenix Kingdoms: The Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age,” on view this spring at San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum, brings together over 150 artifacts from China’s Bronze Age. The pieces come from cultures that lived three millennia ago along the Yangzi River—a “cradle of Chinese civilization,” per a statement from the museum.

“We are witnessing a golden age of Chinese archaeology,” said museum CEO Jay Xu, a historian of early China, at the exhibition’s opening ceremony, per Deng Zhangyu and Lia Zhu of the state-run outlet China Daily. “‘Phoenix Kingdoms’ bridges the gap between myth and history, allowing visitors to come face-to-face with the past through these stunning artifacts.”

A Lei wine vessel carved with a dragon (circa 1000 B.C.E.) Suizhou Municipal Museum

This “golden age” has illuminated the artistic and spiritual landscape of a critical period in the country’s history: the multistate Zhou dynasty, which lasted from around 1050 to 221 B.C.E. The Zhou dynasty ended when the emperor Qin Shi Huang conquered its kingdoms, uniting China under his rule. Thus began the short but influential Qin Dynasty, which initiated the construction of the first Great Wall and the terracotta warriors.

“There were always obvious gaps in the record that never made sense,” says Xu in the statement. “We knew which states the Qin conquered—their historians were delighted to write that down—but what we were missing was the artistic evidence connecting the beliefs of older kingdoms with images that proliferated in later dynasties. Ever wonder why Chinese art brims with phoenixes, tigers and snake-like dragons? Where do the styles we think of today as distinctly Chinese come from?”

The exhibition’s artifacts belong to two Zhou Dynasty kingdoms that were “lost” to the Qin: southern China’s Zeng and Chu cultures, which flourished from about 1040 to 400 B.C.E. and 1030 to 223 B.C.E., respectively. As the museum writes, these groups were “significant power players” before the rise of the Qin dynasty, “which ruthlessly suppressed the history and culture of subjugated states, burying scholars and burning books in an infamous spasm of violence and destruction.”

A lacquered wood stand with designs of phoenixes, deer, snakes and mythical beasts (circa 300 B.C.E.) Hubei Provincial Museum

The exhibition—the first of its kind in the United States—features artworks from five Chinese museums specializing in Bronze Age archaeology, reports Artnet’s Tim Brinkhof. Found in ancient tombs belonging to Zeng and Chu aristocrats, the collected artifacts include jade objects, bronze ritual vessels, musical instruments, weapons, ceremonial lacquerware and funerary items made of bronze and wood. Many of these pieces incorporate spiritually significant creatures: snake-like dragons, regarded as powerful keepers of water; tigers, symbols of might and bravery; and Chinese phoenixes, mythical birds that represent harmony.

crane-like creature
A crane-like creature with deer antlers (circa 433 B.C.E.) Hubei Provincial Museum

The exhibition’s oldest piece—a 4,200-year-old jade carving of two raptors on a mask—demonstrates several themes that would proliferate in the Yangzi valley for more than a millennium, such as “back-to-back spirit guides, powerful flying creatures and ritual face coverings,” per the statement. Another artifact—a 2,300-year-old painted drum—depicts phoenixes atop the backs of tigers. According to the museum, artworks like these went on to influence China’s “later, and better-known, Qin and Han dynasties.”

“Many of the extravagant artworks in ‘Phoenix Kingdoms’ are considered national treasures due to their rarity and their beauty,” says curator Fan J. Zhang in the statement. “They are truly ‘missing links’ between myth and recorded history.”

Phoenix Kingdoms: The Last Splendor of China’s Bronze Age” is on view at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco through July 22.

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