Learning about relationships from the Year of the Dragon

betty ming liu Art, Relationships 25 Comments

I‘ve always viewed the dragon as one of the coolest symbols of Chinese culture.

Then, I learned the unpleasant reality of his relationship to his mate, the glorious, wildly feathered phoenix.

Of course, we have every reason to adore the dragon. As the first animal in the 12-creature Chinese zodiac, he represents the ideal time for new beginnings. But the old boy needs to learn some new moves in the love department!

My reflections on this topic were initially inspired by a $500 art work that I bought during a 2005 vacation in China. It’s a one-piece, 3½-feet-by-2-feet ceramic tile of a dragon and phoenix swirling in the heavens, made during the Qing Dynasty. At least, that’s what the guy said in the government-sanctioned antiques store. (More on that later.)

Last winter, I decided to create an oil painting based on the tile. With great enthusiasm, I lugged this heavy ceramic block to a weekly art class that I was taking at the time.

This project became my first triptych -- a three-panel painting. I began by sketching out a drawing in yellow paint. The more I looked at the tile, the more there was to admire. The ceramic work was pretty interesting.

Week after week, the other students watched my progress. Tackling three, 22-inch square canvases at once is quite an undertaking. After a while, I suddenly noticed that the dragon’s head was positioned above the phoenix’s. No way could I paint a subservient idealization of woman! And what the heck was that strange little fireball floating between them?

I re-did their heads to place them eye-level with each other. Equal partners. Why didn't I notice this issue earlier?! What else have I missed and taken for granted in my life?

Next up: figuring out the fireball, which usually appears in illustrations of these two creatures. To find answers, I approached a friend who is a Chinese culture expert.

“That’s a pearl,” he explained. “It’s something that they play with.”

Yeah, but what is it? It has fire-y scales similar to those on the dragon’s back and tail. Is it part of him? My pal squirmed as I badgered him for details.

Giving the explanation made him uncomfortable: the dragon and phoenix play catch with the pearl, tossing it like a ball between them. Then she swallows the pearl. With that, the game ends.

The pearl is a drop of semen.



When I shared this information in class, the reaction can only described as outrage. The other students were all women, middle-aged and older. They were mommies, grandmas and aunties.

“Oh, no! How unfair! And the dragon doesn’t do anything for her?!”

“Get that ball out of there!”

“That’s disgusting!”

But even without the "pearl," the empty space between them still bothered me.

With the painting nearly done, I was still dissatisfied. What was the point?

For more than a year, the painting sat in my house. Not done, yet not undone.

Then a few months ago, I took a radical step:

I cut out the dragon & phoenix. Now they sit together in a pile of pieces on my work table.

Okay, I finally get it…

All cultures have hidden, questionable messages. More often than not, there are obvious and subliminal practices that place men first. On this front, I must point out that some of the animals in the beloved Chinese zodiac are gender-specific. We have the Year of the Dragon, but no Year of the Phoenix. Why do we have  the Year of the Rooster instead of the Year of the Hen?

Working on this painting gives me a chance to think through the essence of Chinese-style romance. In the arts, stripping a concept down to its core components is called “deconstruction.” Contemplating the dragon and phoenix has also helped me to deconstruct my own past relationships. Regrettably, there were too many unquestioned, unexamined moments. Not pretty.

Still, the phoenix dies to rise again from her ashes.

And maybe someday, I will finish this painting by reassembling it as a pieced-together collage. As for my non-existent love life…hmmm.

Meantime, Happy New Year to you all! xoxoxoxo

P.S. — A few months ago, I contacted Sotheby’s for a free, professional opinion on the ceramic tile that started this whole journey. Bet you won’t be surprised that the auction house says that my so-called antique is a fake. Ha! If you ever want to submit items for review too,  here is the form.

P.P.S. — And if you want to more, larger close-up photos of my struggle with this painting, the album is a click away on Flickr.com.


Comments 25

  1. Dear Betty,
    Hope one day I will get to see the collage of the Dragon and the Phoenix…
    Your articles are simply inspirational.
    Happy Chinese New Year! (gung hay fat Choy/Gong xi fa cai!)
    Tina x

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    tina, that make two of us…someday, i hope to see the collage too. haha. thanks for reading and for your new year wishes. let’s rock the dragon on our own terms!

    and if some of you aren’t subscribed to my blog yet, here’s the link. just click on it, type in your email address to generate the subscription. being a subscriber means that you’ll get an email whenever i have a new post. would love to have our company on every moment of the journey: http://feedburner.google.com/fb/a/mailverify?uri=BettyMingLiu

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  4. Betty: First, your painting is exquisite. Next, I don’t think it matters one little bit that the ceramic is a “fake.” The only important questions are is it beautiful? Is it a work of art? Does it speak to you?Clearly the answers to these are yes. Nothing else matters. I have an enormous, baronial sideboard in my dining room, repleate with mahogany cherubs and massive carvings. It wows my guests who naturally assume it is a valuable antique. It isn’t worth a nickle. I constructed the whole thing myself out of architectural salvage from a wrecker’s yard, plaster ornaments and fantasy paint finishes. Is it a fake? Is it a work of art? Does it matter? It gives pleasure – as well as being a place to serve buffets from.
    Next – about the pearl, It seems to me the reaction of your art class ladies to the pearl concept was rather juvenial. That the semen leaves the male and enters the female is a simple, biological fact of nature. I gather the pearl represents this exchange. Attempting to place a sociological construction on this beyond the essential biology, based on the art work in question, seems silly. A question such as “what does the dragon do for her” is especially sillly. Did the student think the dragon was going to take out the trash and help with the dishes? A real-life partner may do those things but to insist on such domesticity in a mythological allegory would be to reduce it to the level of a children’s book. Next we would have the dragon putting on a necktie and going off with a briefcase to sell mutual funds while the pheonix, being very comtemporary, starts her own business – fire insurance perhaps.
    Of course, dragons are not necessarily entirely mythical. When I was a little boy, my grandmother said there was a small dragon named Sebastian who lived in a porcelain chamber pot in the attic. She informed me his job was to grant wishes to well-behaved children. I asked if he breathed fire and she said no, that was just a story based on the fact that he smoked a pipe like grandfather. I asked what constituted being “well behaved.” She said it was hard to say – Sebastian had his own standards and, being a dragon, they weren’t always what you would expect. I said that didn’t seem fair. She replied that “fair” was my own notion and the world did not always work on the basis of Toby Grace’s notions – a useful lesson to learn early. I never saw Sebastian but occasionally – unpredictably- now and then – a wish would come true, so who can say? I still have the chamber pot. Wishes still, occasionally, come true.

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    toby, i also believe in dragons, phoenixes — and fulfilled wishes. and your homemade sideboard is art, an original work! as for the ceramic tile, i have mixed feelings about it. thanks too, for the kind words about my painting.

    now onto the more delicate discussion about the pearl…this is a pg-rated blog. hopefully, we can stay that way in this post!

    so, onward: i don’t think my painting buddies were juvenile. we were all straight women with experience in care for husbands, ex-husbands, fathers, uncles, brothers, sons, nephews, etc.

    while it’s not fair to say that all men have a sense of entitlement, there are certain realities: females are used to care-giving and men are used to care-getting. pearl-ingesting is NOT an act of biology but a culture-based command. this isn’t acceptable because relationships should be about shared pleasure, responsibility and dreams. i’m just not seeing any of those three qualities in the chinese dragon and phoenix.

    1. What you say is quite true of course but seems like rather a lot to expect to find included in the particular ceramic piece under discussion. Can’t the image simply be a metaphore for the sex act itself and be valid for that alone?
      Another thought – and this is pure speculation on my part – could the Pheonix as a female symbol, in its process of self-immolation and rebirth, represent the suffering and, especially in past times, frequent death in child birth and the act of bringing forth new life? Just wondering…

  6. Thanks for the story, the insight, the painting. This sounds like it could be a ‘to be continued’ post!
    I really liked your photos of your in-progress painting. Very inspiring!

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  8. I feel awful that you couldn’t resolve your piece, it was beautiful!
    To me, the pearl signified life. The fact of life is the male makes the “pearl” and the female takes it. The pearl has the role of uniting the two and giving life to the world. It seemed to hold an important space in the composition of the work by it’s placement smack in the center. Your tripyct didn’t work in the center canvas because it was missing it’s grounding element of shape and color, the pearl.
    I don’t get thrown by all the male/female stuff out there because I know I can hold my own. But that’s just me.

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    dora and toby, you have such thoughtful ideas. this discussion makes me feel like i’m in an art class! yeah, women go through a lot, so being a phoenix seems fitting. but i would still like this creature couple myth better if it included something nice that the dragon does for his chick.

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    dora and toby, you have such thoughtful ideas. this discussion makes me feel like i’m in an art class! yeah, women go through a lot, so being a phoenix seems fitting. but i would still like this creature couple myth better if it included something nice that the dragon does for his chick. :)

  11. Betty,I am really impressed with your intellectual quality. However, I can’t help but felt you simply “think too much”. I feel tickled when I leaned that the fire ball is semen and they are “playing” with it. For me, I will see these kind of paintings as a simple of a sex act and that’s a beautiful and fun way for me to see this Chinese traditional art form and I am glad I leaned it.

    If you remember, I had a very fun husband and he is very good as treating me as his equal. My father on the other hand is the opposite and treated my mother as a slave. What I try to say is the way you see this painting may reflect the bad experience you had. But the differences if I am correct is that my mother is very gentle and kind hearted and she endures my father in a way that inspired me to want to be a better daughter and woman, while your mother was not.

    What I try to say is probably you should try not to see the male and female relationship in such a negative, rigid way for a start. Could it makes you not able to enjoy the love as it is? If the kind of thoughts are what emerge 1st, may be the male partners in your life are scared away??

    I hope you can understand what I try to say.


  12. By all means, please reassembling the cut out as a pieced-together collage. It is a great idea. You and the painting deserve it.

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    mandy, if i didn’t overthink things, what would I blog about?! haha. i’m glad you like the story of the pearl. it’s just that i feel a relationship is most marvelous when the couple is moved by love rather than custom or obligation. as for scaring guys away, well, that’s okay. right now, being independent is quite enjoyable. and i hope that the collage happens someday too. xo

  14. Thanks for sharing the story of the Phoenix and the Dragon. I liked reading Toby’s comments as well. It made me think of the strengths and weakness that humans have, both male and female. I also admired your commitment to paint and re-create the scene on the tile. Gives me some hope about changing some things in my own life, just in time for a Lunar New Year’s resolution.

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