January 24, 2012

Happy New Year of the Dragon!

        Yesterday was the first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, and this is now the Year of the Dragon.  I shall, of course, celebrate with block prints of dragons!  While you enjoy them, consider how the dragon is magnanimous, stately, vigorous, strong, self-assured, proud, noble, direct, dignified, eccentric, intellectual, fiery, passionate, decisive, pioneering, artistic, generous, and loyal, but also tactless, arrogant, imperious, tyrannical, demanding, intolerant, dogmatic, violent, impetuous, and brash.  No wonder you need to be circumspect when dealing with dragons.  And no wonder dragons never responded well to those medieval European knights charging in pell mell with their rude swords and accusations.
        All the dragon wood block prints I have here are actually Japanese.  You'll often hear that Japanese
dragons have three claws per foot, while Indonesian and Korean dragons have four, and Chinese dragons have five.  Alternately, common dragons have four and only Imperial dragons get to sport five.  In any case, count up the toes on these wood block prints, do the math, and make of it what you will.  I have two nineteenth century depictions and a modern one.  The second of these dragons, by Kuniyoshi, is interesting because the wood block print was clearly trying to reproduce the look of a brush painting.  You can see how the ends of the lines are carved to look as though they're fading off like brush strokes.  (Hajime, the artist who made this third dragon, is notable because according to one web site, he "began his artistic career as a sculpture."  If so, he's done a great job of overcoming his stiffness - I thought his work was beautiful even by normal human standards!)

        There's another excellent mythological creature associated with the Chinese New Year, and that's the Nian.  Nians live under the ocean or up in the mountains and used to come out at the New Year to attack people, especially yummy juicy children.  Luckily, despite its ferocity, it's afraid of loud noises and the color red, and now that people know to take these simple precautions, it hasn't been seen by humans for a long time.  There are several versions of the Nian's ultimate fate.  In one version it becomes the mount of a priest.  In another version it's slain by the villagers who banded together against it.  In another story it's defeated by a lion, and in yet another version it's the villagers in a lion costume who defeat the dreadful monster.  That's why you get lion dances at New Year's festivities.  (Some lion dancers once performed at P and T's school.  Part of the dance included the lion kicking a cabbage (or was it an orange?) up into the air and then catching it in its mouth.  To everyone's incredible delight, one of the cabbages (or oranges?) was kicked so high it flew straight into a big can light above
the stage and exploded it with sparks!  Now that's a dance routine anyone can
appreciate.)  So, what does the Nian look like?  That's an excellent question.  I sure wish I knew the answer.  Maybe sort of like a Chinese lion with touches of unicorn and ox?  I wasn't able to find any definitive traditional depictions.
        In a cool linguistic note, however, "nian" is also the Chinese word for "year."  So,  Xin Nian Hao - Good New Year (and good new Nian) - to all!

[Pictures: Dragon, Japanese color wood block print, Chinese school, 19th century, (image from Wikimedia Commons);
Dragon and Waves, color wood block print by Utagawa Kuniyoshi, c. 1827-31 (image from the Smithsonian Institution);
Dragon 8, color wood block print with gold and silver, by Namiki Hajime, 2007 (image from this web site);
Nian, from an e-book - see this advertisement for details.]

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