January 21, 2012

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