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Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meanings and Aesthetics

Animal Motifs in Asian Art: An Illustrated Guide to Their Meanings and Aesthetics

by Katherine M. Ball

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Authoritative reference deals primarily with animal symbolism in Japanese art, with occasional mention of the decorative art of China, India, and Persia. Arranged in the format of a dictionary, the explanatory text is rich with sidelights from literature and legend, while 673 black-and-white illustrations depict dragons, tigers, bats, and other creatures with symbolic


Authoritative reference deals primarily with animal symbolism in Japanese art, with occasional mention of the decorative art of China, India, and Persia. Arranged in the format of a dictionary, the explanatory text is rich with sidelights from literature and legend, while 673 black-and-white illustrations depict dragons, tigers, bats, and other creatures with symbolic significance.

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Animal Motifs in Asian Art

An Illustrated Guide to Their Meanings and Aesthetics

By Katherine M. Ball

Dover Publications, Inc.

Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-486-14730-7



Great monarch of the air,
Exhale thy magic breath!
Shape whirling clouds
With moisture charged.
With rain refresh the earth.

The animal in art occupies as important a place in the Orient as the portrayal of the human species or the representation of the beautiful in the realm of natural scenery. For, since the dawn of human intelligence, its kingdom has played a serious part in the varied systems of philosophy and religion which have ministered to the welfare and contentment of mankind.

In the arts of savagery may be found examples of Totemism, which appears to have been practised as early as Tree Worship, one having been associated with the polity of these primitive peoples and the other with their devotional life.

Animals were chosen—as the distinguishing device of a family clan or tribe—whose characteristics in some way expressed the qualities deemed worthy of emulation, or which bore some relation to the particular country in which these races dwelt.

The animal selected for this high office was protected and reverently regarded, becoming not only a dominant factor in all the affairs of life, but also an ever-present icon, which—due to its being wrought in enduring stone—has often been preserved, thereby furnishing an invaluable means for unravelling mysteries of the past.

Such totems were the symbols not only of particular groups of people, but also of their chiefs and rulers, a fact which is of value to the student of archæology in tracing the common origin of nations. An example having a bearing upon this subject may be found in the history of the ancient Mayan civilization, as revealed by explorations in Central America of a comparatively recent date. There, a study of the traditions of the different nations, in conjunction with the interpretation of the arts of antiquity found during the excavations, has not only furnished convincing proof of a civilization as remote as 11,500 B.C., but has shown that the serpent was, even at that early time, as much a nation's emblem as is the eagle of our own Republic; and, that it was also the particular blazon of their king, just as the dragon was China's national emblem as well as the insignia of the Emperor.

The selection of the serpent of Mayach was due to the resemblance of the form of the country to a local reptile, the head of which was identical with the peninsula of Yucatan and the tail with the southern continent; and that it was no ordinary serpent, but one apparently akin to the oriental dragon, is evident from the tradition which credits it with having not only both fins and wings, but a "green back—from its verdant forests that cover the domain; a yellow body—from its internal fires that cause its surface to wriggle like a serpent; a blue crown—from the azure canopy of the overhanging heavens; wings—from the smoke of its volcanoes, and fins—from its lofty mountain peaks."

It is further interesting to note that while the serpent was the totem of the nation, it was also the insignia of its ruler; for the word can, by which his title was designated, was also the Mayan word for serpent, just as to this day khan is the title of the kings of Tartary, Burma and other Asiatic countries where Serpent Worship—another of the great primitive religions—prevailed for many centuries.

The thought of the transition from can to khan and then to king may well entice the archaeological speculator, while the connection of ancient China with the Mayan civilization offers opportunities for serious investigation. There are many evidences pointing to such a conclusion, the Chinese themselves having a tradition that a settlement had been made in their country by a tribe coming from the west.

Another indication of China's connection with a still more remote civilization lies in the absence of any relics of a primitive art, since its oldest specimens are a highly evolved and mature product, implying that they were imported from some other country.

Then, again, a clue in this direction is offered by the Chinese legend relating to Hsi Wang Mu, the Royal Mother of the West.

Why the West and whence? Could the West have been the lost continent of Atlantis where, we are told, in the dim past flourished a great civilization now buried under the waters of the Atlantic Ocean?

From Plato we learn that this empire included three great islands. The North America and South America of to-day, and Mu. "Mu" the very name of the Royal Mother of the West. And did not this empire lie to the west of China? This Island of Mu was thought to have included Central America and Yucatan; the latter, now definitely known as the locality of ancient Mayach, is at present the source of much information regarding the history of a great past.

That not only China, but Hindustan, Egypt and Babylonia were colonies of this ancient civilization is an assumption derived from recent investigations in our own country. One evidence pointing to such a premise is the discovery in both Egypt and Mayach of the same hieroglyph, which in both countries had the same meaning—"Land of the West."

Then again, from the ancient sculptures and paintings which adorn the walls and palaces at Chichen Itza and Uxmal, the following is taken: "King Can, a serpent, founder of these cities, had three sons: Cay, a fish; Aac, a turtle; and Coh, a leopard; and two daughters: Moo, a macow; and Niete, a flower." But what is of special interest is that Moo became Queen of Chichen, and after her death was worshipped as the goddess of fire in a magnificent temple built upon a great pyramid. In the same region there was another Queen Moo, who may some day be proved to be the original fairy of China. Has this presiding genius, migrating to a new country and there endowed with fresh attributes, become the Hsi Wang Mu of the Kw'ên Lun Mountains where grows the "Peach of Immortality" on the great cosmic tree, a tree which also may be a relic of another primitive religion—Tree Worship?

Another line of evidence to be followed lies in the mural drawings, paintings and stone engravings to be found in ancient tombs of China, representing legendary personages having bodies terminating as serpents or dragons. A notable example is given in one of the illustrations, in the stone rubbing taken from the sepulchral tablets of the shrines of the Wu family in which Fu-hsi, the mythical founder of the Chinese Empire (2960 B.C.), and his consort, Nü Kua, are represented with serpentine bodies intertwined.

Such representations show Central Asiatic influence pointing to the Nagas of India, who were originally serpent worshippers, but later, becoming converted to Buddhism, carried to the new faith the semi-divine beings, half human, half serpent, which are portrayed in many of the arts of antiquity.

The Nagas, who were a Scythian tribe which overran India in the seventh century B.C., had a tradition that their mother country was Patalo—signifying a region under the earth. This has been interpreted to mean a locality antipodal to their own, thereby placing it in Central America, a theory which would make these people colonists of May ach.

Following this line of thought, we approach the dragon. Studying its manifold representations, we find no evidence of its having been evolved in China through the natural processes of growth, for it is structurally the same in the examples coming down from the dim past as it is in those of modern artists. Hence, it is logical to assume that it came to China as an adoption from some still more remote civilization, laden with all the symbology of the mother country. That it is a mythical beast, the creation of human imagination, there is no doubt, although ancient Chinese and Japanese books account for it zoologically. In fact, the given illustration—which includes the three varieties of dragons—is taken from a book entitled Drawings from Nature which describes the dragon as a real creature and King of the Scaly Tribes.

Surveying the deductions of different writers upon this interesting subject we must conclude that the powerful factors in its fabrication were not only first Serpent Worship and later Sun Worship, but also those great sciences of hoary antiquity, astronomy and astrology. From both the study of the heavens and the human desire to know "the what and the wherefore of this earthly existence," astrology—which has played so important a part in the life of the empire—had its inception. Seeking for causes and representing them symbolically led to the invention of a world of devices which, through the centuries, have been employed not only to teach philosophical lore but to beautify the art products of the nation.

An interesting example of such symbology is to be found in the given illustration of an early uranoscope, the Ssu Fang, "Four Directions," which are represented by the Ch'ing Lung, "Blue Dragon of the East"; the Kuei Shên, "Black Tortoise entwined with the Serpent," also known as the "Sombre Warrior of the North"; the Chu Ch'ieh, "Vermilion Bird of the South"; and the Pai Hu, "White Tiger of the West." But true to oriental customs—which ever reverse the occidental order—the south appears at the top of the map and the east at its left.

Then, again, ancient books contain accounts of the Ssu Ling, "Four Fabulous Animals," which control the destinies of the empire. These include the Ling, "Dragon"—chief of all scaly animals—which presides over authority; the Fêng-huang, "Phoenix"—chief of feathery animals—which presides over virtue; the Ch'i-lin, "Unicorn"—chief of all hairy animals—which presides over literature; the Kuei, "Tortoise"—chief of all the shelly animals—which presides over divination. These animals with man—who is said to be nude—constitute the five tribes of the quinary system of the ancient Chinese.

The dragon as previously stated is a mythical monster—a composite embodiment of the most terrible, imposing and powerful characteristics of a number of creatures—commonly described as having the head of a camel with horns of a deer, ears of an ox, eyes of a hare overshadowed by heavy bush eyebrows; a formidable beard with long streaming bristles; lengthy tusks; the body of a serpent covered with the scales of a fish, and topped with a bristling row of dorsal spines extending to and surrounding the mouth; a serpentine tail, terminating in a series of sharply pointed fins; four legs, with feet that combine the paw of the tiger and the talons of the hawk; and flamelike appendages emanating from the shoulders and hips. The scales of its body are limited to nine times nine, which is the most lucky of numbers, while those of its neck are placed in a reversed position from that of those of its body. Its claws vary in number according to its rank, the ordinary dragon having four, while the one related to the Imperial household possesses five. In its head exists the po-shan, "foot rule," without which it is unable to make a flight.

In its throat it holds the chu, which is its chief possession and glory. From its body issue whirling flamboyant nebulæ filling the surrounding space.

Its breath is charged with fire and water, but generally it is converted into spiral clouds of beautiful pattern said to be the manifestation of active cosmic forces. Its wisdom and power supersede that of all other creatures, for it is able to assume unlimited transformations, ranging from so small a creature as a silkworm to a size large enough to cover the earth.

It ascends into the heavens at the spring equinox and descends into the river at the autumn equinox; hence it is known in Japanese art as Nobori Ryu, "Ascending Dragon," and Kudari Ryu, "Descending Dragon," examples of which are shown in the given illustrations. When seen soaring to the summit of the peerless Fuji no yama as in the print by Hokusai, it foretells the coming of great prosperity. But it appears only to the great, and then on rare occasions, when its great body is interwoven with the clouds of its own creation, for it is said that "no mortal may look upon its entire body and live."

Concerning its genesis, there are many traditions, one being expressed in what the Chinese term Li yü tiao lung mên, "The transformation of fishes into dragons." This is claimed to have had its origin in the belief that all sturgeons which are able to pass the rapids of Lung Wên on their ascent of the Yellow River—whither they go for spawning purposes—are transformed into dragons. This figure of speech is particularly applied to students who successfully pass the examinations for literary honours, when they are said to Ko Lung Mên, "Leap the Dragon Gate." In the accompanying illustration entitled "The Birth of the Dragon," the gate referred to is shown inscribed with two characters of and mên, that is Yü gate, "The Gate of Yü," so called because it was constructed by the Emperor Yü—the founder of the Hsia dynasty (2205–1766 B.C.), who was styled "The Conqueror of the Flood." Tradition relates that he spent nine years building a system of canals and cutting a pass through the Wu mountains, thereby liberating the waters of a flood that had devastated the country for several years. At the entrance to these canals he built a gate obstructing the passage of the fishes which, in order to return to the rivers, they were obliged to jump. Those succeeding became dragons and were called li. In like manner, the students who passed the Imperial examinations—for which a thousand presented themselves and in which barely a fifth succeeded—were said to have "Jumped the Gate of Yü."

Japan has many legends relating to dragons, which deal with a Dragon King—variously known as Ryujin, Ryujin Sama and Ryuo Kyo—who lives at the bottom of the sea in a wonderful palace called Ryugu. His chief messenger—Ryuja or Hakuja—is shown as a small white serpent with a face of "an ancient of days" and carrying the Tide-ruling Jewels, while his minor attendants are represented as small oni, "demons," with short horns.

These legends generally refer to the Tide-compelling Jewels which are believed to contain the spiritual essence or operating principle of the universe. The dragon is ever in pursuit of one which is generally represented as a spiral-topped sphere from which emanates tongues of flame. To the Japanese it is known as the hoju no tama, "jewel of omnipotence," while the Chinese call it a chu.

This jewel, which is regarded as the attribute of divinity, may be acquired by both man and animals, but only through the practice of the most fervent austerity continued for centuries. It is said to progress from its original gaseous state through a watery existence into a crystallized jewel of great luminosity and beauty. Originally Taoist, it was adopted by the Buddhists, becoming the most exalted of their symbols.

A Japanese legend, known as Mugé Hoju no Tama, describes the theft of one of the Dragon King's much-prized jewels and its recovery by the female diver, Mugé, a fisher girl. She swam to the Dragon Palace at the bottom of the sea, found the treasure and, although she was pursued by the dragon hordes, succeeded in returning it to its rightful owner, Kamatari. Two of the accompanying illustrations represent her hazardous undertaking.

Another legend of this character which pertains to the Japanese Empress, Jingo Kogo (A.D. 200–269), describes the conquest of Korea. In this it is related that through the good offices of the god of Kashima and Kasuga, the Dragon King presented to the Empress the Kanji, "Pearl of Ebb," and the Manji, "Pearl of Flood." Then when the Korean warships were arrayed for battle, the Kanji was thrown into the sea, causing the waters to sink and the dry land to appear. This opportunity the Koreans seized to attack the Japanese fleet. They therefore left their ships, but before they had proceeded very far the Manji was thrown upon the dry ocean bed, and immediately the waters rose again, entirely engulfing them. In the accompanying illustration, an emissary of the Dragon King is shown presenting the Tide Jewels to Takenouchi no Sukune, the prime minister of the Empress Jingo.

Again, in the legend entitled "The Happy Hunter," there is a narrative of like character. This relates that Hiko-hohodemi lost a fishhook lent to him by his brother and later recovered it through the assistance of the Dragon King. The latter supplied for his homeward journey a crocodile steed, which proved to be none other than one of the daughters of Ryujin, whom Hohodemi subsequently married and who is said to be the ancestor of the Mikados.

In the given illustration Toyotama-hime is impersonated by Taishinno, also known as Tai Chên Wang Fujên, who is charming a White Dragon with the dulcet strains of her one-stringed lute.


Excerpted from Animal Motifs in Asian Art by Katherine M. Ball. Copyright © 2004 Dover Publications, Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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