Dragons in China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors

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This weekend marks the Chinese holiday of the Dragon Boat Festival, an ancient celebration where boats are decorated in the form of dragons and raced in towns and cities across the country. To commemorate the festivities, we are exploring some of the dragon-themed objects on display in our landmark exhibition, China’s First Emperor and the Terracotta Warriors.

Dragon-shaped xi pendant 

Many of the personal ornaments worn by people were similar to those traditionally used by the nomadic people of the Steppe, a region in modern Mongolia. Made from gold and carnelian, these precious objects may be the result of cultural exchange or trade.

(c) Ziyu Qiu

Animal-shaped gold bridle ornament inlaid with turquoise

This piece may represent a mythical animal such as a monster face or a dragon, but it is open to interpretation. It was made to decorate horse harnesses and chariots. Gold and bronze were used by people of high social status.

(c) Ziyu Qiu

Yan steamer with dragon design and Hu wine vessel with dragon-like design

These bronze vessels are highly decorated with dragon designs. In ancient China, bronze was highly prized and was used by the wealthiest members of society. Vessels made of bronze originally had a gleaming golden appearance. Ritual vessels were traditionally kept in the family shrine to be used by each generation.

Bronze ding cauldron decorated with panchi-dragon design

This ritual vessel is the largest found on the First Emperor’s burial site. It weighs 212 kilograms and was buried on top of a pit containing terracotta strongmen and acrobats. It is thought that strongmen lifted heavy bronze vessels as part of acrobat performances in the Emperor’s court.

(c) Ziyu Qiu

Zheng war bell decorated with dragon design

This bronze bell was found near a command chariot in one of the terracotta warrior pits. Bells like this were used to command troops on the battlefield. They were placed on a stand inside the chariot and were used to order the troops to retreat.

(c) Ziyu Qiu

Bi jade disc with dragon design

This jade disc is the largest ever discovered in China. Its circular shape represents heaven and it is decorated with dragon designs. Coffins of high-ranking individuals were embellished with jade discs such as this one, allowing the spirit of the deceased to travel in and out.

Bronze wine heater

People used this type of container to prepare and serve wine. This wine heater has a wine cup at the top, a stove in the middle and an ashtray at the bottom. The object is decorated with images of the four spiritual creatures: the black turtle, the red bird, the green dragon and the white tiger.

(c) Ziyu Qiu

Lead coins with Greek script

These lead coins bear Parthian-style Greek inscriptions on one side and are decorated with a Han-style dragon on the reverse. They offer a glimpse of the cultural exchange between China, Greece and Central Asia via the Silk Road during the Han Dynasty.

(c) Ziyu Qiu