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Chinese dragon

The Chinese dragon (spelled Long, Loong or Lung in transliteration), is a mythical Chinese creature that also appears in other East Asian cultures, and is also sometimes called the Oriental (or Eastern) dragon. Depicted as a long, snake-like creature with four claws, in contrast to the Western dragon which stands on two legs and which is usually portrayed as evil, it has long been a potent symbol of auspicious power in Chinese folklore and art.

The dragon is also the embodiment of the concept of yang (male) and associated with the weather as the bringer of rain and water in general. Its female counterpart is the Chinese phoenix.

Many Chinese people often use the term "Descendants of the Dragon" (龍的傳人) as a sign of ethnic identity. The term was first coined by Taiwanese musician Yi De-jian (zh:侯德建) in the late 1970s, and subsequently popularized by the song of the same name.[citation needed]

The dragon is sometimes used in the West as a national emblem of China. However, this usage within both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan is rare. Firstly, the dragon was historically the symbol of the Emperor of China, and was on the national flag of the late Qing Dynasty. These monarchist connotations run counter to modern Chinese ideologies. Secondly, the dragon has aggressive, warlike connotations that the Chinese government wishes to avoid. It is for these reasons that the giant panda is far more often used within China as a national emblem than the dragon. In Hong Kong, however, the dragon is part of the design of Brand Hong Kong, a symbol used to promote Hong Kong as an international brand name[1].

The dragon commands much respect in the Chinese culture. It is a taboo to disfigure a depiction of a dragon; for example, an advertisement campaign commissioned by Nike, which featured the American basketball player LeBron James slaying a dragon (as well as beating up an old Kung Fu master), was immediately censored by the Chinese government after public outcry over disrespect.[2]

A number of Chinese proverbs and idioms also feature references to the dragon, for example: "Hoping one's son will become a dragon" (望子成龍, i.e. be as successful and powerful as a dragon).


The origin of the Chinese dragon is not certain, but many scholars agree that it originated from totems of different tribes in China. Some have suggested that it comes from a stylized depiction of existing animals, such as snakes, fish, or crocodiles. For example, the Banpo site of the Yangshao culture in Shaanxi featured an elongated, snake-like fish motif. Archaeologists believe the "long fish" to have evolved into images of the Chinese dragon. The association with fish is reflected in the legend of a carp that saw the top of a mountain and decided he was going to reach it. He swam upstream, climbing rapids and waterfalls letting nothing get in the way of his determination. When he reached the top there was the mythical "Dragon Gate" and when he jumped over he became a dragon. Several waterfalls and cataracts in China are believed to be the location of the Dragon Gate. This legend is used as an allegory for the drive and effort needed to overcome obstacles and achieve success.

An alternative view, advocated by He Xin, is that the early dragon depicted a species of crocodile. Specifically, Crocodylus porosus, an ancient, giant crocodile. The crocodile is known to be able to accurately sense changes in air pressure, and be able to sense coming rain. This may have been the origin of the dragon's mythical attributes in controlling the weather, especially the rain. In addition, there is evidence of crocodile worship in ancient Babylonian, Indian, and Mayan civilizations. The association with the crocodile is also supported by the view in ancient times that large crocodiles are a variety of dragon. For example, in the Story of Zhou Chu, about the life of a Jin Dynasty warrior, he is said to have killed a "dragon" that infested the waters of his home village, which appears to have been a crocodile.

Others have proposed that its shape is the merger of totems of various tribes as the result of the merger of tribes. The coiled snake or dragon form played an important role in early Chinese culture. Legendary figures like Nüwa (女媧), Fuxi (伏羲) are depicted as having snake bodies. Some scholars report that the first legendary Emperor of China Huang Di (黃帝,Yellow Emperor) used a snake for his coat of arms. Every time he conquered another tribe, he incorporated his defeated enemy's emblem into his own. That explains why the dragon appears to have features of various animals.

There is no apparent connection to the western dragon.

The dragon as mythical creature

From its origins as totems or the stylized depiction of natural creatures, the Chinese dragon evolved to become a mythical animal. By the Han Dynasty, 206 BC - AD 220, the scholar Wang Fu recorded the anatomy of the Chinese dragon in extensive detail. The dragon's appearance is described as having the trunk of a snake; the scales of a carp ; the tail of a whale; the antlers of a stag; the face of a camel; the talons of eagles; the ears of a bull; the feet of a tiger and the eyes of a (dragon)lobster.

Chinese dragons are physically concise. Of the 117 scales, 81 are of the yang essence (positive) while 36 are of the yin essence (negative). This malevolent influence accounts for their destructive and aggressive side. Just as water destroys, so can the dragons in the form of floods, tidal waves and storms. Some of the worst floods were believed to have been the result of a mortal upsetting a dragon.

Many pictures of oriental dragons show a flaming pearl under their chin. The pearl is associated with wealth, good luck, and prosperity.

Chinese dragons are occasionally depicted with bat-like wings growing out of the front limbs, but most do not have wings, though oddly enough, they are still capable of taking flight.

This description accords with the artistic depictions of the dragon down to the present day. The dragon has also acquired an almost unlimited range of supernatural powers. It is said to be able to disguise itself as a silkworm, or become as large as our entire universe. It can fly among the clouds or hide in water (according to the Guanzi). It can form clouds, can turn into water or fire, can become invisible or glow in the dark (according to the Shuowen Jiezi).

The dragon as ruler of weather and water

Chinese dragons are strongly associated with water in popular belief. They are believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, or seas. They can show themselves as water spouts (tornado or twister over water). In this capacity as the rulers of water and weather, the dragon is more anthropomorphic in form, often depicted as a humanoid, dressed in a king's costume, but with a dragon head wearing a king's headdress.

There are four major Dragon Kings, representing each of the four seas: the East Sea (corresponding to the East China Sea), the South Sea (corresponding to the South China Sea), the West Sea (sometimes seen as the Indian Ocean and beyond), and the North Sea (sometimes seen as Lake Baikal).

Because of this association, they are seen as "in charge" of water-related weather phenomenon. In premodern times, many Chinese villages (especially those close to rivers and seas) had temples dedicated to their local "dragon king". In times of drought or flooding, it was customary for the local gentry and government officials to lead the community in offering sacrifices and conducting other religious rites to appease the dragon, either to ask for rain or a cessation thereof.

The King of Wu-Yue in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period was often known as the "Dragon King" or the "Sea Dragon King" because of his extensive hydro-engineering schemes which "tamed" the seas.

At the end of his reign, the first legendary Emperor Huang Di was said to have been immortalized into a dragon that resembled his emblem, and ascended to Heaven. Since the Chinese consider Huang Di as their ancestor, they sometimes refer to themselves as "the descendants of the dragon". This legend also contributed towards the use of the Chinese dragon as a symbol of imperial power.

The dragon, especially yellow or golden dragons with five claws on each foot, was a symbol for the emperor in many Chinese dynasties. The imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. During the late Qing Dynasty, the dragon was even adopted as the national flag. It was a capital offense for commoners to wear clothes with a dragon symbol. The dragon is featured in the carvings on the steps of imperial palaces and tombs, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing.

In some Chinese legends, an Emperor might be born with a birthmark in the shape of a dragon. For example, one legend tells the tale of a peasant born with a dragon birthmark who eventually overthrows the existing dynasty and founds a new one; another legend might tell of the prince in hiding from his enemies who is identified by his dragon birthmark.

In contrast, the Empress of China was often identified with the Fenghuang.

Modern belief in the Chinese dragon

In modern times, belief in the dragon appears to be sporadic at best. There appear to be very few who would see the dragon as a literally real creature. The worship of the Dragon Kings as rulers of water and weather continues in many areas, and is deeply ingrained in Chinese cultural traditions such as Chinese New Year celebrations.

Neolithic depictions

Dragons or dragon-like depictions have been found extensively in neolithic-period archaeological sites throughout China. The earliest depiction of dragons was found at Xinglongwa culture sites. Yangshao culture sites in Xi'an have produced clay pots with dragon motifs. The Liangzhu culture also produced dragon-like patterns. The Hongshan culture sites in present-day Inner Mongolia produced jade dragon amulets in the form of pig dragons.

One such early form was the pig dragon. It is a coiled, elongated creature with a head resembling a boar[3]. The character for "dragon" in the earliest Chinese writing has a similar coiled form, as do later jade dragon amulets from the Shang period.

Classical depictions

There are "Nine Classical Types" of dragons as depicted in Chinese art and literature, nine being an auspicious number in Chinese culture.

Chinese scholars categorized the dragons according to their cosmic tasks. These are:
Tianlong (天龍, tiān lóng: literally "heaven dragon"), The Celestial Dragon - the ruler of the dragons.
Shenlong (神龍, shén lóng: literally "spirit dragon"), The Spiritual Dragon - controls the weather and had to be appeased, or weather conditions would turn disastrous.
Fucanglong (伏藏龍), The Dragon of Hidden Treasures - the guardian of precious metals and jewels buried in the earth.
Dilong (地龍), The Earth Dragon - controls rivers. It spends springtime in heaven and autumn in the sea.
Yinglong (應龍), The Winged Dragon - believed to be a powerful servant of Huang Di, the yellow emperor, later immortalized as a dragon.
Jiaolong (虯龍), The Horned Dragon - considered to be the mightiest.
Panlong (蟠龍), The Coiling Dragon - dwells in the lakes of the Orient.
Huanglong (黃龍), Yellow Dragon - a hornless dragon known for its scholarly knowledge.
The Dragon King (龍王) - each rules over one of the four seas, those of the east, south, west, and north.

Besides these, there are Nine Dragon Children, which feature prominently in architectural and monumental decorations:
The first son is called bixi (贔屭 pinyin: bìxì), which looks like a giant tortoise and is good at carrying weight. It is often found as the carved stone base of monumental tablets.
The second son is called chiwen (螭吻 pinyin chǐwěn), which looks like a beast and likes to see very far. It is always found on the roof.
The third son is called pulao (蒲牢 pinyin pǔláo), which looks like a small dragon, and likes to roar. Thus it is always found on bells.
The fourth son is called bi'an (狴犴 pinyin bì'àn), which looks like a tiger, and is powerful. It is often found on prison doors to frighten the prisoners.
The fifth son is called taotie (饕餮 pinyin tāotiè), which loves to eat and is found on food-related wares.
The sixth son is called baxia (蚣蝮 pinyin gōngfù or bāxià), which likes to be in water, and is found on bridges.
The seventh son is called yazi (睚眥 pinyin yázī), which likes to kill, and is found on swords and knives.
The eighth son is called suanni (狻猊 pinyin suānní), which looks like a lion and likes smoke as well as having an affinity for fireworks. It is usually found on incense burners.
The youngest is called jiaotu (椒圖 pinyin jiāotú), which looks like a conch or clam and does not like to be disturbed. It is used on the front door or the doorstep.

There are two other (inferior) dragon species, the jiao and the li, both hornless. The jiao is sometimes said to be female dragons. The word is also used to refer to crocodiles and other large reptiles. The li is said to be a yellow version of the jiao. Whereas the dragon is mostly seen as auscpicious or holy, the jiao and the li are often depicted as evil or malicious.

The Chinese dragons have five toes on each foot, Indonesian or Korean dragons have four, and the Japanese dragons have three. To explain this phenomenon, Chinese legend states that all Imperial dragons originated in China, and the further away from China, a dragon went the fewer toes it had. Dragons only exist in China, Korea, Indonesia, and Japan because if they traveled further they would have no toes to continue. The Japanese legend has a story similar to the Chinese one, namely that dragons originated in Japan, and the further they traveled the more toes they grew and as a result, if they went too far they would have too many toes to continue to walk properly.

Official interpretation back in the dynasty period: Five claws dragons are reserved for the emperors (five is the holy number in Five elements (Chinese philosophy), four claws dragon is reserved for kings, princes and certain high rank officials, three claws dragon are used by the general public(which is widely seen on China and other Chinese goods back in Ming dynasty). Since Korea and other nations only held the title of king (with respect to the emperor in china), they are only allowed to use four claw dragon. Inproper use of claw number is considered as a sign of rebellion, and will be punished heavily such as executions of whole clan.

Another interpretation: according to several sources, including historical official documents, ordinary Chinese dragons had four toes - but the Imperial Dragon had five. It was a capital offense for anyone - other than the emperor, his blood relatives, and the very few officials who were granted such an extraordinary privilege by the emperor - to use the five-clawed dragon motif.

Korean sources seem to oppose this theory, as the Imperial dragon in Gyeongbok Palace has seven claws, implying its superiority over the inferior Chinese Dragon; of course, this dragon image is hidden in the rafters of the palace and is not entirely in view, even to those who know it is there, suggesting that while the ancient Koreans viewed it as superior, they also knew that it would be offensive to the Imperial Chinese Court.

The Han style dragon is also 3 clawed, which explains how the 3 clawed dragon went to Japan in the Tang or pre-Tang period.

Cultural references

Number nine

The number nine is considered lucky in China and Chinese dragons are frequently connected with it. For example, a Chinese dragon is normally described in terms of nine attributes and usually has 117 scales - 81 (9x9) male and 36 (9x4) female.

This is also why there are nine forms of the dragon and the dragon has nine children (see Classical depictions above). The "Nine Dragon Wall" is a screen wall with images of nine different dragons, and is found in imperial palaces and gardens. As nine was considered the number of the emperor, only the most senior officials were allowed to wear nine dragons on their robes - and then only with the robe completely covered with surcoats. Lower-ranking officials had eight or five dragons on their robes, again covered with surcoats; even the emperor himself wore his dragon robe with one of its nine dragons hidden from view.

There are a number of places in China called "Nine Dragons", the most famous being Kowloon (in Cantonese) in Hong Kong. The part of the Mekong in Vietnam is known as Cửu Long, with the same meaning.

Chinese zodiac

The dragon is one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac which is used to designate years in the Chinese calendar. It is thought that each animal is associated with certain personality traits. Dragon years are usually the most popular to have babies. There are more babies born in Dragon years than in any other animal years of the Zodiac.

Famous people born in the year of the dragon include:
Ringo Starr, Dr. Seuss, John Lennon, Helen Keller, Salvador Dali, Susan B. Anthony, Joan of Arc, Orlando Bloom, Sigmund Freud, John Lennon, Florence Nightingale, Keanu Reeves, Ronaldo, and Mae West.


The Azure Dragon - Qing Long - 青龍 is considered to be the primary of the four celestial guardians, the other three being the Zhu Que - 朱雀 (red bird), Bai Hu - 白虎 (white tiger), Xuan Wu - 玄武 (black tortoise-like creature). In this context, the Azure Dragon is associated with the East and the element of Wood.
See also: Five elements (Chinese philosophy).

At special festivals, especially the Duan Wu festival, dragon boat races are an important part of festivities. Typically, these are boats rowed by a team of up to 12 rowers, and with a carved dragon as the head of the boat. Dragon boat racing is also an important part of celebrations outside of China, such as at Chinese New Years.

On auspicious occasions, including Chinese New Year and the opening of shops and residences, festivities often include dancing with dragon puppets. These are "life sized" cloth-and-wood puppets manipulated by a team of people, supporting the dragon with poles. They perform choreographed moves to the accompaniment of drums and music.

Dragons and Tigers

Tigers have always been an eternal rival to the dragon, thus various artworks depict a dragon and tiger fighting an epic battle. Although the Imperial dragon is infinitely more weaker than the tiger in myth, a well used Chinese idiom to describe equal rivals (often in sports nowadays) is "Dragon versus Tiger". In Chinese martial arts, "Tiger style" is used to describe styles of fighting based more on understanding movement, while "Dragon style" is based on brute strength and memorization of techniques.

Chinese dragons in fiction

As a part of traditional folklore, dragons appear in a variety of mythological fiction.
In Journey to the West, the son of the Dragon King of the West was condemned to serve as a horse for the travellers because of his indiscretions at a party in the heavenly court.
In Fengshen Yanyi and other stories, Nezha, the boy hero, defeats the Dragon Kings and tames the seas.

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