Unlike the fire-breathing, treasure-guarding winged monsters of ancient European imagination, Chinese dragons, or long, are creatures that represent power and prosperity.
Consequently, dynasty after dynasty, the dragon was a symbol of the emperors.
In recent decades, archaeologists have unearthed a myriad of porcelain shards in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, which is known as "China's ceramic capital".
Reassembling the fragments with long patterns not only revealed state-of-the-art craftsmanship but also put together a puzzle that reveals different facets of imperial China.
These are being revealed to the public at the exhibition, Exalted Beings: Imperial Porcelain with Dragon Decorations from the Yuan (1271-1368), Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties, at Beijing's Poly Art Museum that runs until Sept 12.
It displays over 60 items, including works restored from pieces unearthed in Jingdezhen and intact artifacts that were for royal use and are now in the collections of Poly and several other institutions.
"These pieces' long motifs reflect the Chinese emperors' aesthetics and the dynamic changes of their times," says Wang Guangyao, a porcelain researcher at the Palace Museum in Beijing, who is also curator of the exhibition.
The exhibition initially planned to display 150 artifacts, but the COVID-19 pandemic reduced the number. However, all items in the original catalogue are being digitally showcased on Poly's website.
Viewing the plates, bowls, vases, jars and other daily-use items emblazoned with long invites viewers to imagine them in the emperors' dining rooms, bedrooms and studies.
But many of the works on show never made it into the emperors' hands.
Imperfect pieces were deliberately broken rather than sent to the Forbidden City, the imperial palace from 1420 to 1911, which is known as the Palace Museum today.
Jingdezhen rose as a porcelain hub in the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127), and an official workshop was established there during the Yuan Dynasty.
Its heyday came in 1369, a year after Zhu Yuanzhang established the Ming empire. A kiln exclusively serving the royal family was built in Jingdezhen.
"Anyone who copied the shapes and patterns of ceramics from the imperial kiln would certainly be executed," Wang says.
"If the color was not bright enough or the dragon was not perfectly drawn, the porcelain would be broken. Not even the slightest blemish was acceptable. But (the broken pieces) just prove how exceptional the surviving imperial porcelain items in Beijing are."
It's a precious opportunity to view these artifacts, since many national treasures aren't put on public display.
An unfinished cup and a broken shard belong to what is commonly considered one of the most valuable antique varieties.
A "chicken cup", so called because it bears chicken patterns, created during the reign of Chenghua (1465-87) is celebrated for its exquisite craftsmanship and demanding technique combining overglaze colors and underglaze blue.
In 2014, Chinese art collector Liu Yiqian bought a similar cup for about $45 million, setting a record for Chinese art sold at an auction.
Even the Palace Museum has only one chicken cup. Several were taken to Taipei in 1949.
According to Wang, the prototype of today's long dates back over 5,000 years to the late period of Yangshao culture.
As early as the Western Zhou Dynasty (c.11th century-771 BC), Chinese rulers began to give themselves titles as embodiments of "Dragons from Heaven".
"Different peoples began to revere and worship long over the centuries, as Chinese civilization spread from the Central Plains," Wang explains.
For example, when the Khitan people ruled northern China by establishing the Liao Dynasty (916-1125), they continued to use the dragon as the symbol of the throne. The same goes for the Mongols, who ruled China during the Yuan Dynasty, and the Manchu rulers of the Qing Dynasty.
"It demonstrates their recognition of traditional Chinese culture, as represented by long," Wang explains.
"That mixture shows the inclusiveness of Chinese civilization."
In 1299, the Yuan emperor even released an edict strictly regulating the use of dragon decorations for different ranks.
The dragon with five claws was considered the highest-level, and its use was restricted to the emperor. The Ming and Qing inherited the rule.
Wang explains that a complicated ritualistic system was developed for imperial porcelain that also included color codes. For example, during the Qing Dynasty, even the royal family couldn't arbitrarily use a bowl decorated with long.
"If a bowl was both yellow inside and outside, only the emperor, the empress and the empress dowager could use it," Wang says.
"But if a yellow bowl was white inside, its ranking was lower, and the highest-ranking concubines could use it. And the status of green and purple bowls was even lower."
As the exhibition reveals, the artistic styles of the dragon motifs on the porcelain also continued evolving throughout three dynasties and thus offer key references to study the bigger picture of social changes.
After all, artisans in Jingdezhen couldn't decide what to make. That was the sole purview of the emperor.
For instance, Wang points out, early Ming dragons look strong and solemn to portray a sense of tension, echoing the diligent emperors' ambitions to consolidate the dynasty's rule.
However, when the Ming Dynasty entered its middle period in the later part of the 15th century, after the empire had experienced several major setbacks-an emperor even became a prisoner of war-the dragons also became "gentle and subtly beautiful", Wang says.
"The dragons' eyes protrude as if they were wearing glasses," he says.
When the dynasty entered its final century, Ming emperors' ostentatious aesthetic preferences produced porcelain with exotic colors and lines, and perfunctory portrayals of dragons.
"The business-based urban economy boomed at that time," Wang says.
"Even imperial porcelain items were then contracted to privately owned workshops in Jingdezhen under government supervision."
But every era has its exceptions. A blue-and-white press-hand cup (a heavy vessel small enough to fit in the palm of a hand) with a flared rim and deep rounded sides is a signature item believed to have belonged to emperor Yongle-the first emperor to live in the Forbidden City-as is indicated by the marks on their bases.
"But many scholars remained skeptical about when it was produced because its thick body, which was shaped into an elegant form, was different from other artifacts from the reign," Jingdezhen Ceramic Archaeology Research Institute researcher Jiang Xiaomin says.
Only five of such items are known to have survived, four of which are housed in the Palace Museum.
Experts had long disputed whether the reign mark was reliable, but shards of a press-hand cup unearthed in Jingdezhen in 2018 from an archaeological stratum of the period of Yongle's reign has finally answered the riddle.
This exhibition marks the first time for this precious piece to be exhibited publicly.
If you go
9 am-5 pm, last entrance at 4:30 pm. Closed on Sundays, through Sept 12. Online reservation needed. Poly Art Museum, 9/F, New Poly Plaza, Chaoyangmen Bei Dajie, Dongcheng district, Beijing. （8610）65008117.