Bring the Dragon to Life

by Ben Schutz 10. September 2012 21:51

The Chinese idiom 画龙点睛 (hua4 long2 dian3 jing1) literally means bring the painted dragon to life by painting in the pupil of its eyes. It comes from a legend about a famous painter, Zhang Sengyao, who served in the court of Emperor Liang Wu.

Legend has it that whenever his sons were away on official duties, the emperor would feel down in the dumps and would ask Zhang to visit him and paint portraits of his sons to cheer him up. The pictures were so vivid that the emperor felt that he was actually seeing his boys in the flesh.

One day Zhang was painting four dragons on the wall of the Anle Temple in Jinling (now the capital of Jiangsu Province). A large crowd gathered to watch him at work. When he finished the work, the crowd showered him with praise. Yet a number of the onlookers were perplexed by the fact that the dragons had eyes, but no pupils. When queried about this, Zhang replied

If I added pupils to the dragons, they might fly off into the wide blue yonder

Many of the onlookers thought the artist was pulling their leg. To convince the crowd, Zhang went ahead and added pupils to the eyes of two of the dragons on the wall. Suddenly, like a bolt from the blue, a thunderstorm rolled in and the two dragons leapt out of the wall and soared off into the dark cloudy sky. The crowd was gobsmacked to find only two dragons left on the wall - the ones without pupils in their eyes.

Today, Chinese speakers use the idiom 画龙点睛 (hua4 long2 dian3 jing1) to refer to adding the final crucial touch to a work of art that brings it to life or putting in the word or two that clinches the argument. I have not been able to think of an English idiom that has the equivalent meaning. If you know one, please let me know.

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Blog | China | Hong Kong | Taiwan | English | Idioms | Learning | Mandarin

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