Saturday, September 25, 2010

In Which I am Drawn to Antiquity and the Dragon Horse in Chinese Mythology

The corporation that employs me relocated its headquarters from Birmingham, AL to the McKinney, TX location where I've worked for the last 14 years. The interior of our two connected campus buildings is an open, neo-industrial style where you can see all the duct work, etc. It's a maze of cubicles interspersed with large expanses of empty space for "future acquisitions."

When they sold the building in Birmingham, they shipped all the furnishings and decor from the executive offices to Texas. Those offices were considered lavishly appointed back in the day. Semis delivered antique and antique reproduction furniture and accessories in varying styles: Chippendale, Queen Anne, Federal, Sheraton, etc., mixed with Oriental tapestries and sculptures. It's a mish-mash of styles, periods, and cultures.

They spread this stuff around the common areas of the buildings. Imagine the oddity of walking past a modern, open terrazzo stairwell beneath a massive geometric skylight, and finding one or more quasi-intimate seating areas from eclectic times past. It's surreal, to say the least.

I changed jobs a few weeks back and am now in the newer building. The IT department takes up approximately half of the second floor, and the affiliate for which I now work takes up perhaps an eighth of it, with a huge empty space separating us. As I explored my new surroundings, I happened across this on a pedestal in the otherwise empty area (click on pix to enlarge):

I was mesmerized by the beauty and artistry.

Longma (long = dragon, ma = horse) was a fabled winged horse with dragon scales in Chinese mythology. In addition to naming a creature, longma can be used to describe an eminent person. Its symbol or character is also part of a four-character idiom for "vigorous spirit in old age."

Many classic Chinese texts refer to the dragon horse. A 2nd century BC book, the Rites of Zhou, illustrates the way in which beliefs about horses and dragons are interconnected by differentiating names for horses of different heights, measured in the chi "Chinese foot." In antiquity, horses up to 8 feet tall were called long (dragon), those up to 7 feet were called lai (tall horse), and those up to 6 feet were called ma (horse).

The Shūjīng (Classic of History) describes the longma like this:
A dragon horse is the vital spirit of Heaven and Earth. As a being, its shape consists of a horse's body, yet it has dragon scales. Therefore it is called 'dragon horse'. Its height is eight ch'ih (feet) five ts'un (width of a person's thumb at the knuckle). A true dragon horse has wings at its sides and walks upon the water without sinking. If a holy man is on the throne, it comes out of the midst of the Ming river, carrying a map on its back.

Modern-day Tang Dynasty scholar, William Schafer observed that the dragon-horse myth is widespread:
The legend of water-born horses was known in various parts of Turkestan. In Kucha, for instance, when that city was visited by Hsüan-tsang in the seventh century, there was a lake of dragons in front of one of its temples. "The dragons, changing their form, couple with mares. The offspring is a wild species of horse (dragon-horse) difficult to tame and of a fierce nature. The breed of these dragon-horses became docile." This story must have had its origin farther west in Iranian lands, where winged horses were familiar in art and myth. Even the long-legged small-bellied horses of the "Tajik," that is, of the Arabs, were said to have been born of the conjunction of dragons with mares on the shores of the "Western Sea."

I'm no connoisseur of Oriental art, but I am inexplicably drawn to this. I think it's a combination of the colors, the varied textures of the clay, and the whole idea of the dragon horse.

But appearances are deceiving and how weird is this: it's not a full, free-standing sculpture. It's mounted on an acrylic stand.

The artist's signature?

I took a large hand-painted Oriental platter I found atop a file cabinet of unused items and placed it on the pedestal. Longma now lives in my cubicle.


Sarah said...

That's so neat! I wish my work had interesting curios like that - the best we've got is the Breyers that lives on my desk. ;)

Unknown said...

It deserves a place where it will be admired. Hope the new job is rewarding in other ways as well!

BrownEyed Cowgirl said...

That is so pretty. Very surprising it is not a full sculpture.

Crystal said...

Wow the detail is amazing, good find for your office! I too was suprised it wasnt a full sculpture.

Jeni said...

Enjoy the new piece of art ! ... and the new job =)

morningbrayfarm said...

Very interesting - thanks for sharing! Good for you... putting it in your cubicle. And I'll bet not a single other person there knows nearly as much about it as you do. :)

Laughing Orca Ranch said...

Well good for you. I bet it brings you joy and good pirits every day you see it there.

I must admit that I felt a huge let down when you flipped it around and showed the unfinished back side, as if it was two-faced, and imposter....beautiful on the outside, but fake and ugly on the inside. I wonder why it is that way? Is it because it's a reproduction? Weird.

Fascinating information and history on the Longma, though. And it does help explain where Arabians get their spirit and fire, eh?


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