Ballarat Gold Museum at Sovereign Hill, is now showing until April 15, 2018, an exhibition Re-Awakening the Dragon, with a focus on the social, cultural and religious ceremonies the Chinese community in Australia.
They have been celebrated from the time of Queen Victoria’s sixty-year diamond commemoration in 1897 at Ballarat until the Chinese Temple was closed in 1962.
When that happened many of the artefacts disappeared into private collections, although the Ballarat Historical Society saved the majority, including two of the oldest and most elaborate and colourful dragon and lion costumes in Australia.
Ballarat is only one of four known sites where a Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) dragon made from exquisite silk textiles, survives in whole or part.
Items on show include a number of highly decorative processional silk costumes, including jackets, pants, headdress and skirts.
The dragon and the lion both have a revered place in Chinese symbolism and indeed, in many other cultures of the world.
Both were awe inspiring, the lion strong, brave and fearless a symbol of authority while the dragon has auspicious powers, and brings good luck to people worthy of it.
Historically, the dragon became associated with the Emperor of China and used a symbol to represent imperial power for centuries, when the Chinese intellectualised everything at court.
Many auspicious motifs decorated textiles, including the wheel of the dharma, conch shell, victory banner, parasol, lotus flower, treasure vase, fish pair and the endless knot, all of which derived from the tenets of Buddhism.
The religion was widely adopted in China when an emperor of the Han dynasty had a dream about AD65 in which he saw a divine being gold in colour, flying about in front of the palace.
Chinese textiles and objects came to Australia as part of the great China Trade which at the time of its dynasties was focused on Kwantung (Canton). The huge mouth of the Pearl River which was broad, deep and easily navigable by shipping had Hong Kong on its northern extremity and Macau, which had been ceded to the Portuguese in the late sixteenth century, on its south.
The Hongs, or factories in Canton were huge warehouses with residences attached and were allocated to each national representation, with the English and the Dutch enjoying premier positions.
The Chinese authorities strictly controlled the whole area and foreigners were not allowed beyond the confines of the hongs as they were considered devils, not to be trusted, only exploited.
It was the Chinese who discovered the secrets of the silk cocoon as long as 4,500 years ago, slowly domesticating and developing the process of silk production. It became a textile that for centuries was so valuable and precious you were able to pay your state taxes in China with this important commodity.
Silks dye superbly. They sing and vibrate with colour and the only disadvantage is that prolonged exposure to light causes silk to lose its luminosity or if near the sea, salt can also cause it to rot.
While on display, specific mounts, cases and stands have been created to protect precious objects and the silk textiles from further damage
Depending on one’s rank in procession, some costumes on show are far more elaborate than others.
– Warring States banner: The Warring States period (circa 475-221 BC) was marked by intense battles between the seven powerful states of China. It ended with the state of Qin seizing the remaining six states and establishing the first unified Chinese empire.
The centre of this banner features the Chinese character Zhao, one of the seven states. The banner appeared on the 1901 arch for the Duke and Duchess of York, together with six other banners.
– Carved Temple Panel, 1868: The Chinese text on the panel reveals that it was presented to a local temple in 1868 by benefactor Mr. Huang Jiangxia. The motto in large letters reads: ‘Endless Holy Grace’.
– Dragon Head, circa 1897: Loong is made from layers of papier-mâché, kingfisher feathers, mirrors and pompoms. His face has been painted over, though the original layer is partially visible. Portions of the dragon’s body have survived including fragments of his scales and tail. His final appearance was at the Ballarat Begonia Festival in the 1960s.
- Flaming pearls, circa 1897: The flaming pearl and teaser are essential to a dragon procession. The pearl is frequently featured in Chinese art and represents wisdom and knowledge. A dragon is led in the dance by a man carrying a flaming pearl. He is usually accompanied by another person carrying a teaser or ‘dragon ball’.
– A collection of highly decorative processional silk costumes, including jackets, pants, headdress and skirts. Depending on one’s rank in the procession, some costumes were more elaborate than others.
Caring for the museum’s Chinese processional and temple collections is a responsibility and behind the scenes, objects are kept in a climate controlled area, with smaller pieces housed in special acid-free boxes to keep them free from dust, pests and general damage.
Conservation has been carried out to protect the objects, but further work is needed due to the fragile nature of the pieces. Intensive conservation is a highly skilled and expensive process.
The Gold Museum has launched the Awaken the Dragon Appeal to raise much-needed funds to carry out further conservation work.
In the China of the dynasties only the Emperor and his sons could wear a robe with a five-clawed dragon, with princes and nobles wearing one with four claws, and so on down the hierarchy of officialdom.
Images of the twelve sacred symbols of sovereignty were often included; the sun, moon, stars, dragon, pheasant, mountains, sacrificial cups, waterweed, grains of millet, flames, sacrificial axe, and fu symbol, an emblem exclusively associated with the power of the reigning Emperor.
This lasted until the revolution in 1911, when the customs of the Imperial court ceased and the dragon robe and all those objects associated with it became instantly, symbols of the past.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2017