Dragon in China
If in Western countries, dragons often represent cruel, ruthless and destructive beings, in the Asian continent on the other hand, and more particularly in China, this legendary creature is surrounded by a very positive aura.
Thus, dragons are an essential part of Chinese culture. They are present everywhere: in legends, festivals, astrology, art and literature. They are considered to be good omens and bearers of good luck. This is a far cry from the evil, dangerous and fire-breathing dragons of most Western legends.
7 Facts about Chinese dragons
- There is no evidence of their existence, although several fakes appeared in the news or on social media. For example this "dragon" found by a man in his backyard, or this Chinese man holding a small dragon.
- The dragon is one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac.
- The emperors of ancient China have been identified as the sons of dragons. And, at that time, ordinary people were not allowed to carry objects depicting dragons with them.
- Chinese dragons are symbols of power and nobility, but Chinese beliefs also attribute to them the virtues of luck and fortune.
- Most depictions of Chinese dragons depict a creature with a long body that undulates like a snake, and with legs with sharp claws like those of hawks.
- Chinese dragons live at the bottom of seas, rivers, and lakes.
- Dragon is called "lóng" in Chinese and is written as follows: 龙 (simplified Chinese) or 龍 (traditional Chinese).
Chinese dragon vs. European dragon: the differences
The dragon is a folklore and mythological creature in China. It is present especially in the founding myths and stories of Chinese civilization. Yu the Great is said to have even gotten help from one of these creatures. The Chinese dragon, or Long, is very different from its western cousin. The famous Game of Thrones series illustrates this difference by showing us dragons typical of European legends.
Dragons are considered evil beings in the legends of the European Middle Ages, and feared by all. In China, on the contrary, and by extension in Asia, dragons are considered benevolent beings, even though some Buddhist thinkers had introduced the idea that certain dragons could have been responsible for destruction as a result of affronts committed by humans.
All dragons are considered powerful and majestic, but Chinese dragons have one fundamental difference from their European counterpart: their form, which is generally slender and can be found in many artistic representations of this creature.
Moreover, within popular Chinese beliefs, the dragon is a kind of deity of aquatic phenomena: waterfalls, rivers, seas, etc..
It is the dragons that determine droughts or floods. Sometimes they even have a reputation for being able to control the climate, especially rain, and they can possess many other supernatural powers depending on the source of stories and legends!
You can find some beautiful depictions of these mythological creatures on some of our Chinese Dragon decorations!
Until not so long ago, most Chinese villages, especially those located near a water source, were required to have a temple dedicated to the local dragon. This allowed the population to offer sacrifices or offerings, sometimes alive, to the dragon, in order to appease it and obtain its help or forgiveness.
The dragon is one of the four sacred animals that can be found in China along with the Phoenix (Fenghuang), the Unicorn (Qilin) and the Turtle. In addition, the dragon symbolizes power and talent, which is why some people who are brilliant or intelligent are often referred to as dragons.
It is thanks to its extremely rewarding and positive connotation that the dragon very quickly became the symbol of the powerful Chinese emperors, and by extension, the symbol of Chinese culture and tradition.
Note the following:
- Within the triads, dragon tattoos represent something very serious: only strong and powerful people can afford to wear them, otherwise the mythical reptile could totally consume and kill the unworthy wearer.
- The Kowloon district in Hong Kong, China means Nine Dragons.
What does the Chinese dragon look like?
The appearance of the eastern dragon is completely different from that of the western culture. The Chinese dragon has a slender, snake-like shape. But it also has four legs.
It combines the features of several different animals: deer horns, demon eyes, camel head, long snake neck, carp scales, mollusk belly, cow ears, tiger paws and eagle claws.
In addition, a pearl can be seen in some depictions below the dragon's chin. It symbolizes prosperity, luck and well-being.
Chinese dragons do not normally have wings, so their ability to fly derives from a mystical power.
The origin of the Chinese dragon
A number of legends concerning the origin of the dragon have emerged throughout Chinese history. The totem pole cult theory is the most popular among them.
The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi, a legendary tribal leader) launched a series of wars against nine tribes in the Yellow River Valley, and incorporated the totems of the other tribes into his own dragon totem pole after defeating them.
This explains why the dragon has attributes belonging to nine other creatures: eyes like a shrimp, antlers like a deer, a big mouth like a bull, a nose like a dog, whiskers like a catfish, a lion's mane, a long tail like a snake, scales like a fish, claws like a hawk.
A second hypothesis that some historians point out implies that the Chinese dragon, as we know it today, could have been inspired by the marine crocodile, which is, in this world, the largest of the reptiles living on earth. Moreover, in ancient times, they were perceived as a variety of dragons.
The myth of the Dragon
According to Chinese tradition, there would be four great dragon kings, each corresponding to one of the seas surrounding the Middle Kingdom:
- the North China Sea (Lake Baikal) for Ao Shun,
- the West China Sea (Indian Ocean) for Ao Run,
- the South China Sea for Ao Qin,
- and the West China Sea for Ao Guang.
Dragons in the myth of the creation of China
This Chinese myth claims that after the creation of mankind, dragons lived alongside men, offering them protection and guidance. China's first imperial dynasty had dragon blood in its veins, which led the Chinese people to refer to themselves as "the Descendants of the Dragon".
Dragons were present at the creation of the Earth, and the goddess Nüwa, who was herself part of the dragon, created the Earth. Nüwa also fashioned four pillars to support the heavens, placing a dragon on top of one of them to support the weight of the heavens. Nüwa also created mankind, giving the Chinese people a direct link to the dragons at the time of their creation. Not all dragons were benevolent.
After the waters of the Great Flood receded, Nüwa created legions of dragons that walked among the people to help restore order in ancient China.
The dragons became the guardians of men, teaching them essential survival skills, such as farming and fishing, while also introducing music and art into the emerging culture of China. From the heavens, celestial dragons watched over the balance of the world, protecting the Chinese people from natural calamities.
Legend has it that the five emperors were among the first peoples Nüwa created, and that the Yellow Emperor became the father of the Han Dynasty, China's first imperial lineage.👑
The ancient Chinese considered their emperors to be direct descendants of the celestial dragons present at the dawn of creation. As such, emperors were supposed to embody the wisdom and benevolence of their dragon ancestors.
What does the Chinese dragon symbolize?
The dragon, symbol of the emperor
There are several legends that link the emperors Yan Di and Huangdi to the Chinese dragon. For example, Emperor Huangdi is said to have been immortalized in the form of this legendary reptile. Later, he became the symbol of future emperors, as well as the emblem on the Qing Dynasty flag. Moreover, the emperors' wives were associated with the Fenghuang, i.e. the Chinese Phoenix.
In order to differentiate the emperor from his subjects, the latter was the only one who could wear and adorn himself with motifs in the form of a five-clawed dragon, which represents China in its entirety. The four-clawed dragon represents Korea, and the three-clawed dragon represents Japan. By the way, don't miss our article about the Japanese Dragon!
Dragons are found in many aspects of Chinese culture, from legends of Chinese ancestry to modern mascots, festival events to astrology and idioms.
A "relentless and pioneering" spirit
Dragon has gone from an imaginary prodigy to a mascot from antiquity to the present day. He represents the relentless and pioneering spirit of the Chinese people to keep pace with the times. Not only does the dragon reign in China, but it is also very popular among Chinese living abroad; it has become the symbol of China and Chinese culture.
The 9 Types of Chinese Dragons
The Wall of Nine Dragons is a wall of spirits which depicts nine different dragons, and is found in Chinese imperial palaces and gardens. The number nine is special in China, as it is considered to be the celestial number, and Chinese dragons are frequently linked to it. The Chinese dragon is generally described in terms of nine attributes and usually has 117 scales (9x13). This is also the reason why there are nine types of dragons:
- Tianlong (天龍): The sky dragon, which guards the celestial palaces and pulls divine chariots; it is also another name for the constellation Dragon.
- Shenlong (神龍): the dragon god, god of thunder, who controls time. He has a human head, a dragon body, and a barrel-shaped stomach.
- Fuzanglong (伏藏龍): the dragon of hidden treasures, guardian of precious metals and jewels of the underworld. It is also associated with volcanoes.
- Dilong (地龍) the dragon of the earth, master of the rivers and seas. This is also how we call an earthworm in Chinese!
- Yinglong (應龍) the faithful dragon, responding to his master's orders, is a winged dragon, also associated with rains and floods. It was used by the Yellow Emperor to kill Chi You.
- Jiaolong (蛟龍) the crocodile dragon, a scaly but hornless creature. It is the king of all aquatic animals.
- Panlong (蟠龍) the twisted dragon, creature of the lake.
- Huanglong (黃龍) the yellow dragon, without horns, symbolizes the emperor.
- Feilong (飛龍) the flying dragon, winged, straddles clouds and mist. It is also a name for the pterosaurus.
The Dragon in Chinese Astrology
The Dragon is one of the twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac.
Each year in a 12-year cycle of the Chinese calendar is represented in Chinese mythology by one of the 12 animals. Thus, people born in 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012 or 2024 belong to the Dragon zodiac sign. The Chinese believe that the zodiac sign of the Dragon is the best of all. According to Chinese beliefs, children of the Dragon zodiac sign will be very important in the future.
The Dragon in the Art of China
In his book "All About Chinese Dragons," Roy Bates notes that the first decorative representations of dragons in China date back to the Neolithic period.
Prior to the first millennium, Chinese artists presented their own interpretations of what a dragon looked like, and although all of their creations had a reptilian appearance, they also displayed a diverse and idiosyncratic range of physical characteristics from other animals.
At the beginning of the first millennium, the appearance of the dragon became somewhat normalized in Chinese art, retaining its reptilian form, but with horns replacing the traditional representations of antlers and whiskers growing out of the sides of its mouth.
In architecture: the imperial buildings and the Forbidden City
The Chinese dragon symbolizes the sovereignty of the emperors, and everything related to it was exclusively reserved for the emperors of Chinese feudal society. The ancient emperors called their sons "dragon seeds", their robes were "dragon robes" and their chairs were "dragon chairs".
When you enter the Forbidden City, you can see elements of Chinese dragons almost everywhere: the nine sons of the dragon on the golden roof, on the stone floor, the decoration of the imperial chair, wooden carvings on pillars and handrails, and so on.
On the costumes: embroidery on the imperial robes
When you visit a Chinese museum containing ancient relics, you can see many imperial garments embroidered with Chinese dragons.
You may find them boring, because they all look alike. But if you pay attention to the color, number of toes and gestures of each dragon, you will find that they are different. The dragon pattern on an emperor's robe has four legs with five toes on each, and the dragon pattern on the vassal's robe has only four toes on each leg, highlighting the supremacy of the ancient emperors.
In the opera
Many Chinese opera performances have the word "dragon" in the title. In addition, you may see dragons embroidered on dresses in an opera show, especially when there are roles representing an imperial family.
The dragon in Chinese popular culture
The Chinese dragon is associated with festivals and celebrations:
Dragon Dance: The dragon dance is performed at many celebrations, including Chinese New Year. Usually the dragon is constructed from bamboo hoops covered with glittering cloth and is held by dancers. It can be up to 70 meters long.
If you want to know more about that topic, then check out our article about the Dragon dance in China.
Dragon Boat Race: Dragon boats are decorated like a Chinese dragon. This activity usually attracts many people to enjoy the custom during the traditional dragon boat festival.
The best way to explore China's culture is to visit the country. This allows you to learn more about dragons, and everything else of course! If you have the opportunity, bring a local expert with you for guidance and information.
Of course, all of you don't have the opportunity to go to China. That's why we're here: to bring China to you!!! 😄