Chen Rong's The Nine Dragons

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Chen Rong's The Nine Dragons

Mysteries within mysteries, this is the gateway to understanding.

-LaoZi (Harbaugh)

Reading the Dao de Jing can be a daunting task for one who is unaccustomed to such simple riddles, as the Chinese language is so well designed to supply. The Dao de Jing itself is a collection of sayings, pearls of wisdom, which are intended to promote contemplation, an expanding of ones observational prowess, and eventually a total realization of the Dao. The Dao is the energy or being of the universe.

To fully realize the Dao, is to become one with the universe, gaining immortality and absolute wisdom. Because the Dao cannot be described as it truly is, many artists have sought to allude to the Dao's true existence in painting and sculpture. One of the artists who has most successfully created a visual representation of the Dao is Chen Rong, the twelfth century literati artist. He is best known for his masterwork, The Nine Dragons. (Sullivan)

Chinese Scholar artists like Chen Rong disapproved of the painting media of their professional contemporaries, opting to use black ink on paper, as opposed to the otherwise popular color on silk. The simplicity, of plain black over the simple backdrop of widely available paper, appealed to the Confucian and Daoist Scholars. As such, Chen Rong painted his Nine Dragons on a large paper scroll with black ink. (Little)

Another common practice amongst Daoist scholars was the use of alcohol and other mood-altering substances, and often painting and composing poetry while intoxicated. Chen Rong was true to this practice, creating The Nine Dragons while drunk. This could very well account for the spontaneity of the work, which was first roughly outlined by Chen Rong painting with his hat; having dipped it in ink, with the fine detail

work was then applied with a traditional calligraphy brush. (MFA)

While these things alone may not set the Nine Dragons apart for any other Chinese literati painting, the work is truly unique and innovative. Most amazing in the work, is the illusion of motion. The waves swirl and crash, while the clouds softly shift through the sky, and the dragons fly playfully and spiritedly. No previous literati work has been able to match this fluid depiction of active movement of the dragons.

Moreover, it is these dragons that hold the most significance in terms of the Daoist principles within the work. The dragon is a personification of the Dao, the realization of which is the goal of the Daoist practitioner.

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