Sunday, October 5, 2008

Chinese dragon

The dragon or Oriental dragon is a mythical creature in East Asian culture with a origin. It is visualized as a long, scaled, snake-like creature with four legs and five claws on each. In contrast to the European dragon which stands on four legs and which is usually portrayed as evil, the Chinese dragon has long been a potent symbol of auspicious power in Chinese folklore and . The Chinese dragon is traditionally also the embodiment of the concept of and associated with the weather as the bringer of rain and water in an agriculturally water-driven nation. Its female counterpart is the Fenghuang .

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. Starting with the Yuan Dynasty, regular citizens were forbidden to associate themselves with the symbol. The dragon re-emerged during the Qing Dynasty and appeared on .

Secondly, in European-influenced cultures, the dragon has aggressive, warlike connotations that the 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.

Many Chinese people often use the term "" 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.

A number of Chinese proverbs and idioms also feature references to the dragon, for example: "Hoping one's son will become a dragon" .

Regional variations across East Asia

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.

For more information on peculiarities in the depiction of the dragon in other East Asian cultures, see:
* Japanese dragon
* Korean dragon
* Vietnamese dragon
* Druk

The Worship of the Chinese Dragon

The Origin of the Chinese Dragon

The origin of 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.

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. 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 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 and Fuxi are depicted as having snake bodies. Some scholars speculate that the first legendary Emperor of China Huang Di may have used a snake for his coat of arms. 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.

"Coiled dragon" forms have been attributed to the Hongshan culture. Why the Hongshan peoples "coiled" their dragon motifs while other cultures did not? Possibly the '''' fossil may offer a suggestion, because it was discovered within the same province, Liaoning. Perhaps Hongshan peoples found additional "sleeping dinosaur" fossils.

There is no direct connection between the Chinese dragon and the .

The Chinese Dragon as a mythical creature

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 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' , 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 , 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 , called . If a dragon has no , 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 are physically concise. Of the 117 scales, 81 are of the yang essence while 36 are of the yin essence . 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, as their ability to fly are mythical 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 . It can form clouds, can turn into water or fire, can become invisible or glow in the dark .

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 of a monkey, crest of a rooster, ears of a dog, the snout of a pig.

The Chinese 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 . 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 , the South Sea , the West Sea , and the North Sea .

Because of this association, they are seen as "in charge" of water-related weather phenomenon. In premodern times, many Chinese villages 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 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.

The Chinese Dragon as symbol of imperial authority

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 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 . 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 appears 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.

Depictions of the dragon

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. The character for "dragon" in the earliest has a similar coiled form, as do later jade dragon amulets from the period.

Classical depictions

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'' , celestial dragon that guards heavenly palaces and pulls divine chariots; also a name for Draco
*''Shenlong'' , thunder god that controls the weather, appearance of a human head, dragon's body, and drum-like stomach
*''Fucanglong'' , underworld guardian of precious metals and jewels, associated with volcanoes
*''Dilong'' , controller of rivers and seas; also a name for earthworm
*''Yinglong'' , winged dragon associated with rains and floods, used by Huangdi to kill Chi You
*''Jiaolong'' , hornless or scaled dragon, leader of all aquatic animals
*''Panlong'' , lake dragon that has not ascended to heaven
*'''' , hornless dragon symbolizing the emperor
*''Feilong'' , winged dragon that rides on clouds and mist; also a name for pterosaur
*''Qinglong'' , East one of the , mythological creatures in the Chinese constellations
*''Qiulong'' , contradictorily defined as both "horned dragon" and "hornless dragon"
Fewer Chinese dragon names derive from the ''long''-:
*''Longwang'' divine rulers of the Four Seas
*''Longma'' , emerged from the Luo River and revealed Bagua to Fu Xi

Some additional Chinese dragons are not named with ''long'' 龍, for instance,
* , a two-headed dragon or rainbow serpent
* , a shapeshifting dragon or sea monster believed to create mirages
*''Bashe'' was a giant python-like dragon that ate elephants

Chinese scholars have classified dragons in diverse systems. For instance, Emperor Huizong of Song canonized five colored dragons as "kings".
*The Azure Dragon spirits, most compassionate kings.
*The Vermillion Dragon spirits, kings that bestow blessings on lakes.
*The Yellow Dragon spirits, kings that favorably hear all petitions.
*The White Dragon spirits, virtuous and pure kings.
*The Black Dragon spirits, kings dwelling in the depths of the mystic waters.
With the addition of the Yellow Dragon of the Center to Azure Dragon of the East, these Vermillion, White, and Black Dragons coordinate with the Four Symbols, including the Vermilion Bird of the South, of the West, and Black Tortoise of the North.

Children of Dragon

Several Ming Dynasty texts list the Nine Children of a Dragon , which feature prominently in Chinese architectural and monumental decorations. The scholar Xie Zhaozhe gives this listing.
A well-known work of the end of the sixteenth century, the , informs us about the nine different young of the dragon, whose shapes are used as ornaments according to their nature. The , dragons which like to cry, are represented on the tops of bells, serving as handles. The , which like music, are used to adorn musical instruments. The , which like swallowing, are placed on both ends of the ridgepoles of roofs . The , lion-like beasts which like precipices, are placed on the four corners of roofs. The , which like to kill, serve as ornaments of sword-grips. The , which have the shape of the , and are fond of literature, are represented on the sides of grave-monuments. The , which like litigation, are placed over prison gates . The , which like to sit down, are represented upon the bases of Buddhist idols . The , 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 , standing on steep places , and fire.
The ''Sheng'an waiji'' collection by the poet Yang Shen gives different 5th and 9th names for the dragon's nine children: the ''taotie'' , which loves to eat and is found on food-related wares, and the ''jiaotu'' , 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 attestation of the list found in 菽園雜記 , however, he noted that the list enumerates mere synonyms of various antiques, not children of a dragon.

Dragon toes

It is sometimes noted that the Chinese dragons have five toes on each foot, while 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 and Japan because if they traveled further they would have no toes to continue.

However, historical records show that ordinary Chinese dragons had four toes , but the Imperial dragon had five . The four-clawed dragon was typically for nobility and certain high ranking officials. The three clawed dragon was used by the general public . 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 . 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 enforced since 1336 AD . " It is forbidden to wear any cloth with patterns of Qilin, Male Fenghuang , White rabbit, Lingzhi, Five-Toe Two-Horn Loong, Eight Loongs, Nine Loongs, Long-live, Fortune-longevity character and Golden Yellow etc."

Cultural references

Number nine

The number is considered lucky 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 Yin and 36 Yang.
The reason that the dragon of non-supremacy has only one claw is that it was lost in a great battle between rich and the very poor.
This is also why there are nine forms of the dragon and the dragon has nine children . 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 Hong Kong. The part of the Mekong in Vietnam is known as ''C?u 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.

Well-known persons born in the year of the dragon include: Bruce Lee, Ringo Starr, Dr. Seuss, John Lennon, Helen Keller, Salvador Dalí, Susan B. Anthony, Sigmund Freud, Florence Nightingale, Napoleon III, Ronaldo, Mike Allen, James Coburn, Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and Friedrich Nietzsche.


The Azure Dragon - - 青龍 is considered to be the primary of the four , the other three being the - 朱雀 , - 白虎 , - 玄武 . In this context, the Azure Dragon is associated with the East and the element of Wood.

Dragonboat racing

:''Main article Dragon boat''

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.

Dragon dancing

:''Main article Dragon dance''

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. A well used Chinese idiom to describe equal rivals 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.

Chinese dragons in popular culture

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 was stolen from the Eastern 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.

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