A fabulous beast whose body was like a great bird, yet topped by the head of a man, the Azure Dragon was believed to govern the east, to command the season of spring, to avert catastrophe, repress evil and bring good fortune. Artists in imperial palaces carved, wove, painted and gilded it in highly wrought ways. Folk artists of the minority ethnic groups, by contrast, broke through the fixed clichés of such court work and imagined the magical creature more earthily, more closely linked with their own world. Dragons, for them, were not remote symbols but a living and thrilling reality.
The Dong people for many generations have sewn portraits of the Azure Dragon into their embroidery, as in this exceptionally fine piece where he plays with pearls on a vivid red field. The patterns are vivid, natural and symmetrical. Azure Dragon, with his sinuous body, is enlivened with images of phoenix and fish. The side and top panels of the work show plants thriving on all sides, while clouds fly through the sky. The lower panel, worked more freely and with a light deftness of touch, seems filled with a spiritual sense of peace and harmony. The patterns of the whole piece, when we gaze from top to bottom, move us from complexity to simplicity, from the intensely structured to the naturally vivid, from a rather conventional deploying of well-known and well-loved Dong symbols towards imaginative infinity. Two fish embroidered painstakingly in the top panel, meanwhile, remind us of a mysterious relationship. The Dong, who won much of their livelihood from rivers, worshipped the fish who wove through the waters. Worship of fish was linked with worship of dragons. The Dong believed that one could become the other, that a fish could grow into a dragon, and a dragon into a fish. The whole piece is a remarkable testament to the individuality of the embroiderer and her artistic and technical ability.