In contrast to European dragons that are considered evil, Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck.
In Chinese culture today, it is mostly used for decorative purposes. 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 banned by the Chinese government after public outcry over disrespect.
In Chinese daily language, excellent and outstanding people are compared to the dragon while incapable people with no achievements are compared with other, disesteemed creatures, such as the worm. A number of Chinese proverbs and idioms feature references to the dragon, for example: "Hoping one's son will become a dragon" (望子成龍, i.e. be as a dragon).
Historically, the dragon was the symbol of the Emperor of China. In the Zhou Dynasty, the 5-clawed dragon was assigned to the Son of Heaven, the 4-clawed dragon to the Zhuhou (seigneur), and the 3-clawed dragon to the Daifu. In the Qing Dynasty, the 5-clawed dragon was assigned to represent the Emperor while the 4-clawed and 3-clawed dragons were assigned to the commoners. The dragon in the Qing Dynasty appeared on national flags.
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 as the symbol of nation is not common. Instead, it is generally used as the symbol of culture. In Hong Kong, the dragon is part of the design of Brand Hong Kong, a symbol used to promote Hong Kong as an international brand name.
In European-influenced cultures, the dragon has aggressive, warlike connotations and it is conjectured that the Chinese government wishes to avoid using it as a symbol, but most Chinese disagree with this decision. Westerners only sometimes confuse the disposition of the benevolent Chinese dragon with the aggressive Western dragon.
Many Chinese people often use the term "Descendants of the Dragon" (simplified Chinese: 龙的传人; traditional Chinese: 龍的傳人; pinyin: lóng de chuán rén) as a sign of ethnic identity, as part of a trend started in the 1970s when different Asian nationalities were looking for animal symbols for representations. The wolf was used among the Mongols, the monkey among Tibetans.
While depictions of the dragon in art and literature is largely consistent throughout the cultures in which it is found, there are some regional differences. The remainder of this article deals with aspects common across cultures, as well as features peculiar to cultural China.
The origin of Chinese dragon is not certain, but some scholars believe 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. The theory of snakes or fish as the origin of the Chinese dragon is not widely accepted.
An alternative view, advocated by He Xin, is that the early dragon depicted a species of crocodile, specifically, Crocodylus porosus, the saltwater crocodile, which is the largest living reptile, and once ranged into China during ancient times. 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. 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) and Fuxi (伏羲) are depicted as having snake bodies. Some scholars have noted that a myth arose that the first legendary Emperor of China Huang Di (黃帝,Yellow Emperor) used a snake for his coat of arms. According to the myth, every time he conquered another tribe, he incorporated his defeated enemy's emblem into his own, thus explains why the dragon appears to have features of various animals.
Jade badges of rank in coiled form have been dated to the Hongshan culture.
From its origins as totems or the stylized depiction of natural creatures, the Chinese dragon evolved to become a mythical animal. The Han Dynasty scholar Wang Fu recorded Chinese myths that long dragons had nine anatomical resemblances.
The people paint the dragon's shape with a horse's head and a snake's tail. Further, there are expressions as 'three joints' and 'nine resemblances' (of the dragon), to wit: from head to shoulder, from shoulder to breast, from breast to tail. These are the joints; as to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam (shen, 蜃), his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow. Upon his head he has a thing like a broad eminence (a big lump), called [chimu] (尺木). If a dragon has no [chimu], he cannot ascend to the sky.
Further sources give variant lists of the nine animal resemblances. Sinologist Henri Doré lists these characteristics of an authentic dragon: "The horns of a deer. The head of a camel. A demon's eyes. The neck of a snake. A tortoise's viscera. A hawk's claws. The palms of a tiger. A cow's ears. And it hears through its horns, its ears being deprived of all power of hearing." He notes that, "Others state it has a rabbit's eyes, a frog's belly, a carp's scales." The anatomy of other legendary creatures, including the chimera and manticore, is similarly amalgamated from fierce animals.
Chinese dragons were considered to be physically concise. Of the 117 scales, 81 are of the yang essence (positive) while 36 are of the yin essence (negative). Initially, the dragon was benevolent but the Buddhists introduced the concept of malevolent influence among some dragons. Just as water destroys, they said, so can some dragons destroy via floods, tidal waves and storms. They suggested that 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, as their ability to fly (and control rain/water, etc.) are mystical and not seen as a result of their physical attributes.
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, can change color as an ability to blend in with their surroundings, as an effective form of camouflage or glow in the dark (according to the Shuowen Jiezi).
In Singapore and many other countries, folktales speak of the dragon having all the attributes of the other 11 creatures of the zodiac, this includes the whiskers of the rat, the face and horns of an ox, claws and teeth of a tiger, belly of a rabbit, body of a snake, legs of a horse, the beard of a goat, wit(or brain) of a monkey, crest of a rooster, ears of a dog, the snout of a pig.
In some circles, it is considered bad luck to depict a dragon facing downwards, as it is seen as disrespectful to place a dragon in such manner that it cannot ascend to the sky. Also, depictions of dragons in tattoos are prevailent as they are symbols of strength and power, especially criminal organisations where dragons hold a meaning all on their own. As such, it is believed that one must be fierce and strong enough, hence earning the right to wear the dragon on his skin, lest his luck be consumed by the dragon.
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 sea.
According to Chinese legend, both Chinese primogenitors, the earliest Emperors Yan Di and Huang Di were closely related to 'Long' (Chinese Dragon). 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. The other legendary Emperor, Huang Di's brother, Yan Di was born by his mother's telepathy with a mythic dragon. Since the Chinese consider Huang Di and Yan Di as their ancestors, 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. 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.
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. Dragon kites are also used in these celebrations.
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. The character for "dragon" in the earliest Chinese writing has a similar coiled form, as do later jade dragon amulets from the Shang period.
Chinese literature and myths refer to many dragons besides the famous long. The linguist Michael Carr analyzed over 100 ancient dragon names attested in Chinese classic texts. Many such Chinese names derive from the suffix -long:
- Tianlong (Chinese: 天龍; pinyin: tiānlóng; Wade–Giles: t'ien-lung; literally "heavenly dragon"), celestial dragon that guards heavenly palaces and pulls divine chariots; also a name for Draco (constellation)
- Shenlong (Chinese: 神龍; pinyin: shénlóng; Wade–Giles: shen-lung; literally "god dragon"), thunder god that controls the weather, appearance of a human head, dragon's body, and drum-like stomach
- Fucanglong (Chinese: 伏藏龍; pinyin: fúcánglóng; Wade–Giles: fu-ts'ang-lung; literally "hidden treasure dragon"), underworld guardian of precious metals and jewels, associated with volcanoes
- Dilong (Chinese: 地龍; pinyin: dìlóng; Wade–Giles: ti-lung; literally "earth dragon"), controller of rivers and seas; also a name for earthworm
- Yinglong (Chinese: 應龍; pinyin: yìnglóng; Wade–Giles: ying-lung; literally "responding dragon"), winged dragon associated with rains and floods, used by Huangdi to kill Chi You
- Jiaolong (Chinese: 蛟龍; pinyin: jiāolóng; Wade–Giles: chiao-lung; literally "crocodile dragon"), hornless or scaled dragon, leader of all aquatic animals
- Panlong (Chinese: 蟠龍; pinyin: pánlóng; Wade–Giles: p'an-lung; literally "coiled dragon"), lake dragon that has not ascended to heaven
- Huanglong (Chinese: 黃龍; pinyin: huánglóng; Wade–Giles: huang-lung; literally "yellow dragon"), hornless dragon symbolizing the emperor
- Feilong (Chinese: 飛龍; pinyin: fēilóng; Wade–Giles: fei-lung; literally "flying dragon"), winged dragon that rides on clouds and mist; also a name for pterosaur (compare Feilong kick and Fei Long character)
- Qinglong (Chinese: 青龍; pinyin: qīnglóng; Wade–Giles: ch'ing-lung; literally "Azure Dragon"), the animal associated with the East in the Chinese Four Symbols, mythological creatures in the Chinese constellations
- Qiulong (Chinese: 虯龍; pinyin: qíulóng; Wade–Giles: ch'iu-lung; literally "curling dragon"), contradictorily defined as both "horned dragon" and "hornless dragon"
- Chilong (Chinese: 螭龍; pinyin: chīlóng; Wade–Giles: ch'ih-lung; literally "demon dragon"), a hornless dragon or mountain demon
- Fewer Chinese dragon names derive from the prefix long-:
- Longwang (Chinese: 龍王; pinyin: lóngwáng; Wade–Giles: lung-wang; literally "Dragon Kings") divine rulers of the Four Seas
- Longma (Chinese: 龍馬; pinyin: lóngmǎ; Wade–Giles: lung-ma; literally "dragon horse"), emerged from the Luo River and revealed Bagua (concept) to Fu Xi
- Some additional Chinese dragons are not named with long 龍, for instance,
- Hong (Chinese: 虹; pinyin: hóng; Wade–Giles: hung; literally "rainbow"), a two-headed dragon or rainbow serpent
- Shen (Chinese: 蜃; pinyin: shèn; Wade–Giles: shen; literally "giant clam"), a shapeshifting dragon or sea monster believed to create mirages
- Bashe (Chinese: 巴蛇; pinyin: bāshé; Wade–Giles: pa-she; literally "ba snake") was a giant python-like dragon that ate elephants
- Teng (simplified Chinese: 螣; traditional Chinese: 螣; pinyin: téng; Wade–Giles: t'eng) or Tengshe (simplified Chinese: 腾蛇; traditional Chinese: 騰蛇; pinyin: téngshé; Wade–Giles: t'eng-she; lit. "soaring snake") is a flying dragon without legs
- The Azure Dragon [Qinglong 青龍] spirits, most compassionate kings.
- The Vermillion Dragon [Zhulong 朱龍] spirits, kings that bestow blessings on lakes.
- The Yellow Dragon [Huanglong 黃龍] spirits, kings that favorably hear all petitions.
- The White Dragon [Bailong 白龍] spirits, virtuous and pure kings.
- The Black Dragon [Xuanlong 玄龍] spirits, kings dwelling in the depths of the mystic waters.
Several Ming Dynasty texts list what were claimed as the Nine Offspring of the Dragon (龍生九子), and subsequently these feature prominently in popular Chinese stories and writings. The scholar Xie Zhaozhe (謝肇淛, 1567-1624) in his work Wu Za Zu (五雜俎, ca. 1592) gives the following listing, as rendered by M.W. de Visser:
A well-known work of the end of the sixteenth century, the Wuzazu 五雜俎, informs us about the nine different young of the dragon, whose shapes are used as ornaments according to their nature. The [pulao 蒲牢], dragons which like to cry, are represented on the tops of bells, serving as handles. The [qiuniu 囚牛], which like music, are used to adorn musical instruments. The [chiwen 螭吻/鴟吻], which like swallowing, are placed on both ends of the ridgepoles of roofs (to swallow all evil influences). The [chaofeng 嘲風], lion-like beasts which like precipices, are placed on the four corners of roofs. The [yazi 睚眦/睚眥], which like to kill, serve as ornaments of sword-grips. The [bixi 贔屭], which have the shape of the [chilong 螭龍], and are fond of literature, are represented on the sides of grave-monuments. The [bi'an 狴犴], which like litigation, are placed over prison gates (in order to keep guard). The [suanni 狻猊], which like to sit down, are represented upon the bases of Buddhist idols (under the Buddhas' or Bodhisattvas' feet). The [baxia 霸下], finally, big tortoises which like to carry heavy objects, are placed under grave-monuments. Further, the same author enumerates nine other kinds of dragons — there are so many, says he, because the dragon's nature is very lewd, so that he copulates with all animals —, which are represented as ornaments of different objects or buildings according to their liking prisons, water, the rank smell of newly caught fish or newly killed meat, wind and rain, ornaments, smoke, shutting the mouth (used for adorning key-holes), standing on steep places (placed on roofs), and fire.The Sheng'an waiji (升庵外集) collection by the poet Yang Shen (楊慎, 1488-1559) gives different 5th and 9th names for the dragon's nine children: the taotie (饕餮), which loves to eat and is found on food-related wares, and the jiaotu (椒圖), which looks like a conch or clam, does not like to be disturbed, and is used on the front door or the doorstep. Yang's list is bixi, chiwen or cháofēng, pulao, bi'an, taotie, qiuniu, yazi, suanni, and jiaotu.
Oldest known attestation of the "children of the dragon" list is found in the Shuyuan Zaji (椒园杂记, Miscellaneous records from the bean garden) by Lu Rong (1436-1494); however, he noted that the list enumerates mere synonyms of various antiques, not children of a dragon.
The first Ming Emperor copied the Yuan ruling and decreed that the dragon would be his emblem and that it would have five toes (or claws) The four-clawed dragon was typically for imperial nobility and certain high ranking officials. The three clawed dragon was used by lower ranks and the general public (widely seen on various Chinese goods in Ming Dynasty). The Long, however, was only for select royalty closely associated with the Imperial family, usually in various symbolic colors, while it was a capital offense for anyone - other than the emperor himself - to ever use the completely gold-colored, five-clawed Long dragon motif. Improper use of claw number and/or colors was considered treason, punishable by execution of the offender's entire clan. Since most East Asian nations at one point or another were considered Chinese tributaries, they were only allowed four-clawed dragons.
The five toes rule was first enforced in AD 1336 (Yuan the second year). "(For commoners) It is forbidden to wear any cloth with patterns of Qilin, Male Fenghuang (Chinese phoenix), White rabbit, Lingzhi, Five-Toe Two-Horn Long, Eight Longs, Nine Longs, 'Ten thousand years', Fortune-longevity character and Golden Yellow etc." ("禁服麒麟、鸾凤、白兔、灵芝、双角五爪龙、八龙、九龙、万寿、福寿字、赭黄等服")
The number nine is special in China as it is the largest possible single digit, 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) Yang and 36 (9x4) Yin. This is also why there are nine forms of the dragon and the dragon has nine offspring (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. The wall has 9 large dragons, as well as small dragons that cover the edge. In all there are 635 dragons on it. 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.
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.
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 (Vermilion 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.
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 Year.
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.
In many Buddhist countries, the concept of the nāga has been merged with local traditions of great and wise serpents or dragons, as depicted in this stairway image of a mufti-headed nāga emerging from the mouth of a Makara in the style of a Chinese dragon at Phra Maha Chedi Chai Mongkol on the premises of Wat Pha Namthip Thep Prasit Vararam in Thailand's Roi Et Province Nong Phok District.
Tigers have always been an eternal rival to the dragon, thus various artworks depict a dragon and tiger fighting an epic battle. A well used Chinese idiom to describe equal rivals (often in sports nowadays) is "Dragon versus Tiger". In Chinese martial arts, "Dragon style" is used to describe styles of fighting based more on understanding movement, while "Tiger style" is based on brute strength and memorization of techniques.
Ironically India has long been represented by a tiger. Tiger has much symbolic importance throughout Indosphere, and along with Garuda, it has been the most used animal in Indic heraldry. While Royal Bengal Tiger is the national animal of India and Bangladesh, and Malayan Tiger of Malaysia. It was also symbol of many royal houses of South and SE Asia region and in modern times even revolutionary activities are represented by tigers like Indische Legion or LTTE. Tiger's close cat relatives, the Asiatic lion is also widely used in region as in flag of Sri Lanka, national emblem of India and many other nations around like Cambodia, Singapore, etc., and is also national animal of Singapore. The snow panther is the national mammal of Pakistan and the snow lion was the national animal of Tibet.
As a part of traditional folklore, dragons appear in a variety of mythological fiction. In the classical story 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. The Monkey King's cudgel Rú Yì Bàng was stolen from the Eastern (Donghai) Dragon King áo guǎng. In Fengshen Yanyi and other stories, Nezha, the boy hero, defeats the Dragon Kings and tames the seas. Chinese dragons also appear in innumerable Japanese anime movies and TV shows, manga, and in Western political cartoons as a personification of the People's Republic of China. The Chinese respect for dragons is emphasized in Naomi Novik's Temeraire novels, where they were the first people to tame dragons and are treated as equals, intellectuals or even royalty, rather than beasts solely bred for war in the West.