Chasing the Flaming Pearl: Discovering the Dragon in Chinese Textiles

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March 03, 2011 - July 17, 2011
The Textile Gallery (22)


Exhibition Overview

In Asia, the dragon is revered as a divine mythical creature, a potent symbol of strength, good fortune and transformation—often portrayed chasing after a luminous pearl. There are traces of the importance of the “sacred pearl” of wisdom, or yang energy, in early Taoism, but it is best preserved in Buddhism as the jewel in the lotus, a jewel that grants all wishes.

The mystical flaming pearl, rendered as a small red or white sphere ringed by a fiery blaze, is often viewed as a metaphor for wisdom, enlightenment and spiritual essence. Dragons are depicted in seeming pursuit, reaching out to clutch at the elusive object; swirling through mists and shadows, mouth open and eyes bulging in anticipation of achieving the prize afforded by clutching the pearl, often identified as ball lightning, the sun, the moon or rolling thunder.

Highlights from the textile collection include costumes from the Manchu court, such as the jifu, or a semiformal robe, possibly worn by an emperor during the reign of Qianlong (1735-1798) or Daoguang (1820-1850), intricately woven using a tapestry weave known as kesi; rendering a spectacular combination of the Chinese cosmic order of sky, water and earth, as well as nine five-clawed dragons and the 12 ancient symbols.

In contrast to the formality of prescribed official attire are charming silk embroideries, such as a good luck charm that would have been in the bedroom to ensure fertility and, more important, to ensure the continuity of the family line. This 20th-century band (pictured) depicts 100 children at play including a delightful vignette of boys performing a dragon dance chasing after the flaming pearl.—SARA OKA, COLLECTION MANAGER OF TEXTILES