The first dragon appeared in China some forty-seven centuries ago, during the reign of Huang Ti (also known as Hsuan Huan), the third of five great rulers. As his reign of 111 years ended, a dragon appeared and took him to heaven upon his back. Since then, dragons have been spotted in every dynasty by hundreds of witnesses. The mythical creature was not always easy to describe and some scholars noted it had the head of a camel, the horns of a deer, the ears of a cow, the neck of a snake, the body of a fish, the scales of a carp, the claws of an eagle, the eyes of a devil and the paws of a tiger. To cast one’s eyes upon a dragon in those early years of the Chinese empire was considered auspicious, particularly in terms of affairs of state. This was a period of time in which even history was counted in terms of the appearance of a particular dragon.
The legend spread quickly, and by the end of the nineteenth century, 7 out of every 10 Chinese believed that real dragons lived in China. For them, the dragon was not the horrible monster most westerners believed it to be, but a friendly creature highly revered by all the people. He was believed to posses marvelous powers and occasionally permitted himself to be seen by mortal eyes. Nearly every phase of Chinese life bears evidence of the influence of this unique mythical creature, be it art, literature, folklore, zoology, history or religion. There is a remarkable and almost endless variety of designs that can be found throughout the country painted upon silks and porcelain, woven into brocades, cast in bronze, and carved into marble. This is one aspect of Chinese culture that every westerner is well aware of even today.
Parmigiani had a number of dragon-themed timepieces at the SIHH, including this incredible jade sculpture © Worldtempus/Catherine De Vincenti
The imperial dragon
Chinese literature abounds with references to this marvelous creature and so does folklore with countless entertaining stories of its wonderful feats accompanied by the same number of proverbs and sayings. Today, only few know that there are at least eight species of dragons in China, and that the Chih Lung and the Li Lung are the only ones to possess wings. The most common and represented of them all is the Schen Lung, or Spirit Dragon, the Dragon that has held China in its spell since the days of Yao and Shun. Depicted in various lengths and sizes, its color can be white, red, yellow, blue, black or yellow. The latter was the imperial color during the Manchu dynasty and so the golden dragon was designated as the imperial dragon. When the national color of the succeeding Ming dynasty changed to red, the red dragon became the official creature of the empire as officially decreed by the emperor.
These imperial dragons could be recognized by a small detail in the number of their claws. There were dragons with three (found mainly in Japanese art) and four “toes,” but only those with five claws were identified as imperial dragons. This is a detail that maybe, just maybe, some watch brands producing commemorative pieces may have overlooked. Or, since China is no longer a country ruled by an emperor, the depictions may have the purpose of being politically correct.
Among the recent watches representing dragons from watchmaking houses only those by Cartier, Piaget, Ulysse Nardin, Jaquet Droz and Arnold & Son opted for a five-claw representation, as did the extraordinary three-dimensional dragon of the Parmigiani Fleurier clock presented at this year’s SIHH. Christophe Claret and Grieb & Benzinger/Benzinger Boutique preferred the image of the dragon with four claws for their own pieces. These choices in no way diminish the fascination of this creature. Contrary to dragons of the west, the Chinese dragon is a beneficent creature and a friend to man. It is so highly revered that one of the most sacred titles bestowed upon the Chinese emperors of the past was “The True Dragon.” The number of pieces presented by several brands is only proof that the mythical creature is alive and well and positive influencing another successful year for watchmaking in China. So, Happy Chinese New Year!
Benzinger Boutique released an entire collection of unique dragon-themed watches this month © Benzinger Boutique
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