Mythical Animal

  • China, Western Han period
  • 2nd century B.C.
  • H-7 W-7.2

The winged “dragon” on clay models discovered at a foundry dating to the Eastern Zhou period in Houma, Shanxi province, or the “dragon” inscribed on bronze ware of the same period found in a tomb in Gushi, Henan province, is a four-legged beast with horizontal curled horns and features that closely resemble the beasts depicted in Xirong tombs. That is a style of “dragon” representation not seen earlier and is associated with the bixie or tianlu, auspicious mythical animals that appeared in the Han period. Inscriptions reading bixie or tianlu appear on a pair of stone carvings positioned on either side of the spirit road leading to a late Han tomb; their designs have been found on jade and bronze burial accessories dating to the Former Han. Since the time of Emperor Wu, the Han had had direct contact with Central Asia; thus, influences from trade embarked upon in the western regions of China are likely.

This figure is a bronze lion form inlaid with gold and silver. The creature stands firmly on its feet, the head tilted upward as if about to roar. A golden curled horn crowns its head, and starting from the chest, a golden cloud streams toward the rear, ending in a qilin tail-like shape. The golden cloud curved around the shoulder joint suggests modified wings. Small wings protrude at the elbows, and the tail is flat and broad like that of a deer. The figure shares the striated pattern adorning the tips of the ears and the line of a beard with Western Asian lions, but the shape of the horn points to the Persian griffin as the forefather of this auspicious beast. The posture and the silver inlays on the front limbs, flanks, and hind legs suggest a beast contracted like a spring, ready to pounce and to use its sharp claws and fangs to attack any evil spirit. Despite its diminutive size, there is no doubt that a beast modeled with such precision would have more than sufficient power to protect a tomb.