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Chinese Dragons: Their Origin, Symbolism And Everything Else You Need To Know About The Mythical Creatures

Powerful, endlessly energetic and possessing magical powers – the zodiacal dragon is considered the most powerful symbol in Chinese culture. The divine beasts are harbingers of good luck, prominent in all Chinese legends, festivals, astrology, art, names and whatnot. While in the West, dragons are depicted as malevolent, fire-breathing beasts meant to be slain, the Chinese Dragon is a mythological hero, a diety that brings forth harmony. Unlike their association with fire in the West, the Chinese zodiac Dragon is more often associated with water – living at the bottom of seas, rivers or lakes. Wondering why dragons are such deeply rooted symbols in the Chinese culture? Let’s familiarise you with the origins, symbolism and significance of Chinese Dragons in detail.

Origins: How the dragon came into being

For those unversed, dragons are a part of the Chinese zodiac cycle which comprises 12 animals including mouse, dog, tiger, horse, goat, ox, pig, monkey, rooster, snake and rabbit. Chinese mythology establishes a symbiotic relationship between dragons and the human race, revealing how the creature actively aided humans when disaster struck. One such legend that solidifies this relationship is the tale of:

The Jade Emperor and the Four Dragons

dragon
Image credit: kenshinstock/ Freepik

The myth states four dragons witnessed extreme drought that was wreaking havoc on the people of mainland China. The creatures, on behalf of mankind, approached the deity Jade Emperor to send rain. While the emperor initially agreed, he later faltered on his promise because of being preoccupied with other commitments. Hell broke loose, resulting in many casualties and the land turning dry and cracked.

The dragons couldn’t see people’s plight and decided to bring rain on their own and relieve people. Naturally, it angered the Jade Emperor who then ordered the Mountain God to lock away these dragons forever. Four rivers, each representing one dragon, sprang out from the mountain prison, to protect the Chinese people. Today, these rivers are famously known as the Yellow River, the Yangtze River, the Pearl River, and the Amur River.

The tale of Pan Gu and Nu Gua and more

There exist several other creation myths for the Chinese people in which the dragon plays a pivotal role. According to one folklore, a dragon aided Pan Gu (the creator of all beings), in the initial stages of creating a world. Meanwhile, another variation of the creation theme revolves around the goddess Nu Gua. The myth states that Nu Gua, who had the torso of a woman and the tail of a dragon, shaped the first humans out of mud and was hailed as the most divine creature.

Another story talks about the dragon’s close connection to China’s tribal roots. When the ‘Yellow Emperor’ Huang Di defeated a fellow tribe, he assimilated that tribe’s animal totem into his coat of arms, which was a snake. When the snake’s body amalgamated with the limbs and traits of other (Chinese zodiac) animals, it formed a dragon. Therefore the dragon symbolises a unified China.

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Chinese dragons symbolism and significance

Imperial power and authority

Did you know that the ancient Chinese emperors were believed to be the descendants and reincarnation of the mighty dragons? The imperial throne is called the ‘Dragon seat’ while the emperor’s ceremonial robes are the ‘Dragon robes’. In imperial times, it was illegal for common people to use anything related to dragons.

Change and transformation

Over time, the dragon has come to represent innovation, independence and enterprise. Chinese folk often like to describe themselves as the ‘Descendants of the Dragon’, highlighting their free-spirited nature. The dragon’s ability to manoeuvre between heaven and earth and change its size reflects the Chinese way of life – dynamic and transformative.

Good fortune

There’s another interesting tale as to why dragons are closely linked to bringing good fortune, harvest, and prosperity. In Chinese legend, Shennong the ‘Divine Farmer’ was the offspring of a dragon and a beautiful princess. Some also believe he was the father of Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor). Shennong was responsible for imparting knowledge about how to develop agriculture and use herbal drugs, helping many flourish and become prosperous. He eventually became the hero of ancient China.

Dragon Feng Shui

Want to attract luck and abundance? Put dragon figurines in your home. In Feng Shui, the dragon lifts the energies in your home, offering protection and bringing good fortune. It is believed that dragon figurines should be placed behind you in your office space to support you. Don’t place it in front of you as you’ll then be in opposition with the dragon, which isn’t good. Additionally, placing a dragon totem near a water source will imbue you with good luck and fortune.

Dragon: Highlight of important Chinese festivals

dragon boat race
Image credit:
Massachusetts Office Of Travel & Tourism/ Flickr

In China, dragons are a very popular motif and occur at every important celebration in Chinese culture. Apart from the famous Lunar New Year celebrations, dragons are central to the popular Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. Taking place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, the festival commemorates Qu Yuan, an exiled poet who fought against the state of Qin during the Warring States Period. With dragon boat races filling the streets and rice dumplings (filled with dates) satiating everyone’s taste buds, the festival is a treat to witness.

Interesting facts about the Chinese zodiac dragons

  • Dragon is the only mythical creature in the Chinese zodiac cycle, which makes it unique.

  • It’s a combination of several animals. While many of you have a reptilian-like image of the dragon, when you explore China, you’ll find out that its depictions are more like that of a turtle or a fish.

  • Chinese dragons control the weather. Representing both good and evil, sometimes people blame these scaley scouts when natural disasters fall.

  • Dragons are born in China every 12 years. Chinese families often plan their pregnancies in a way that their kids are born in the Year of the Dragon. Many leaders and influencers are born under the influence of the dragon. While the last year of the dragon was in 2012, the upcoming is in 2024.

  • Being celestial creatures, dragons are responsible for transporting human beings to heaven after death.

  • Historical leaders like Bruce Lee, Martin Luther King, Deng Xiaoping and more were all born in the Year of the Dragon.

  • Dragons are the Lords of Water. With their power to control every watery phenomenon, dragons summon rain during drought to save mankind.

Types of Chinese Dragons

types of dragons
image credit: Freepik

In Chinese culture, there are many iterations of dragons including blue, green, red, black, white, yellow, and golden dragons. Different colours of dragons represent different things.

  • Red dragons: Good fortune and luck

  • Black dragons: Evil or revenge

  • White dragons: Virtue and purity

  • Blue and Green dragons: Spring, regeneration and growth

  • Yellow dragons: Wisdom, power and prosperity

  • Golden dragons: Strength, harvest, wealth and power

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This article first appeared in Lifestyle Asia Hong Kong

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

  • Why is a dragon important in Chinese culture?

Dragon is the most powerful symbol in Chinese culture, representing power, food fortune and luck.

  • What is the most powerful dragon in Chinese culture?

The Dragon King is the most powerful dragon, believed to reign over the seas surrounding China.