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Tsing Hua Journal of Chinese Studies
ISSN 0577-9170; DOI 10.6503/THJCS


Huizong and the Imperial Dragon: Exploring the Material Culture of Imperial Sovereignty

Vol. 41 No. 1   03/2011    


Huizong and the Imperial Dragon: Exploring the Material Culture of Imperial Sovereignty


Patricia Ebrey  









Key words

Emperor Huizong, imperial dragon material culture, imperial institution, seals   


        This article examines the case of the Song emperor Huizong (r. 1100–1125) in order to explore the dragon as an imperial image in China. Huizong put images of dragons on the bells and cauldrons he had cast, paper he had printed, and stones he had inscribed. His paintings catalogue singled out those paintings of dragons and fish as a distinct category, something no earlier classification of paintings had done. His antiquities catalogue included numerous discussions of dragon imagery on ancient objects. 
        Huizong’s two “double dragon” seals are given close attention, as seals are a material object with close ties to emperorship from early times. Huizong’s double-dragon seals were in no sense conventional for his time and place. First, they do not depict words or characters, but are pictures. Yet the pictures seem to resemble characters at first glance—they are made out of connected, curved lines. In addition, there is the question of why there are two dragons rather than one, despite the fact that the emperor was a singular individual, the “one man” of classical tradition. Two possible sources for Huizong’s innovation in the design of his double dragon seals are considered in this article: his collection of antiquity rubbings and his interest in Daoist talismans.
        These seals encourage us to think about the material culture of imperial sovereignty in a new way. What made the emperor an emperor was a set of practices and conventions that did not change each time a new ruler acceded to the throne. To work, they had to be timeless. Most of the dragon imagery connected to the throne represents the office of the emperor. Yet emperors were at the same time individual men, with personal habits, preferences, talents, and quirks. By Song times, personal seals were a common means of expressing individual identity among literati. Huizong found a way to take the dragon—the symbol of his office—and have it also function as a symbol of himself. This suggests that even with an institution as dominating as the imperial one, there was still room formore private, creative uses of material and visual culture. For Huizong, the image of the dragon played a part both in making the throne seem remote, linked to the authority of antiquity, and in making it approachable, linked to popular culture.



Author: Patricia Ebrey
Genre: Article
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