The Chinese Dragon: A Symbol of China's Strength and Prosperity

As is an imaginable paws of the tiger, the beard of the goat, the scales of the carp and the belly of the snake. According to legends, the Chinese dragon is able to breathe fire, summon wind and call for rain, fly into the clouds and hide at the bottom of the sea; it's also capable of becoming as large as the sky or disguising itself by being as tiny as a pinhead.

Unlike castle-burning dragons of Western stories, Chinese Dragons are a benevolent symbol in Chinese culture. From celebrations to the Zodiac, to historical rulers, the dragon has played a large part in China’s rich history.

Symbolic Value

It was said that Yangdi (a legendary tribe leader) was born by his mother's telepathy with a mighty dragon, who, with the help of the dragon, allied with Huangdi (a legendary tribe leader) against Chi You (a legendary barbarian tribe leader) and defeated him in the battle of Zhuolu (presently Yuncheng of Shanxi Province), opening the prelude to Chinese civilization; so Yandi and Huangdi were considered as ancestors of the Chinese people. As time has gone by, the Chinese people refer to themselves as the descendants of Yangdi and Huangdi, as well as the descendants of the dragon.

Dragon Legends

In Chinese lore, the dragon was a benevolent creature with powers to bring rain, floods, and even hurricanes to a land. Along with this ability, the dragon signified power, strength, and good luck. Starting in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), Emperors took on the symbolism of the Dragon as they hoped to bring good fortune to their lands.

The number 9 is considered lucky in Chinese culture, and this fact is reflected in the depiction of the Chinese Dragon. Nine different animal resemblances make up the appearance of the Chinese dragon.

The scales of a Chinese dragon further display the significance of lucky number 9. It is said that dragons possess scales of both the yin and yang essence, with 81 and 36 scales respectively, both numbers being multiples of 9.

Origin of the Dragon

A number of legends concerning the origin of the dragon emerged in the course of Chinese history, of which the Totem-Worship Theory is more popular than the others. A totem is an object (such as an animal or a plant) that serves as an emblem or protector of a tribe, reminding them of their ancestry, and the tribe firmly believes that they are related by blood to a certain animal. Almost every tribe had its own unique totem in ancient times. It was said that Huangdi fought with Yandi for the throne after the demise of Chi You, which ended up with the victory of Huangdi who adopted an imaginary dragon for his coat of arms. Later, Huangdi launched a series of wars against the nine tribes on the Yellow River Valley, and incorporated the other tribes' totems into his own after defeating them (thus explaining why the dragon has attributes of nine other creatures), claiming himself to be monarch of the central plains of China after his great unification. The dragon totem has been popular throughout China ever since.

Children of the Dragon

According to Chinese myths, the dragon has nine children (not including mortals, such as the legendary Yandi): Bixi, Qiuniu, Yazi, Chaofeng, Pulao, Chiwen, Bi'an, Suanni and Pixiu. More interestingly, the nine dragon children have different characters from one another, and their images (to be more specific, imaginary images) are widely used in architectural decoration, especially in the imperial palaces.

  • Bixi, the eldest of the nine dragon children, has the shape of a turtle with sharp teeth, and is fond of carrying heavy objects; it's often depicted on the sides of grave monuments.
  • Qiuniu, a yellow scaly dragon, has a liking for music and excels in playing it; it's often used to adorn musical instruments.
  • Yazi, with a snake belly and a leopard head, is keen on fighting and killing; it's often used as the decoration of sword grips.
  • Chaofeng has an instinctive taste for adventure; it's often used to adorn the roof ridges of palaces.
  • Pulao is known for its loud crying; it's often used as handles on the top of bells.
  • Chiwen, living in the sea, has a harsh voice and takes delight in devouring the other creatures; it's often erected on the ends of ridgepoles of palaces.
  • Bi'an has a fancy for lawsuits, so it's often erected at jail gates.
  • Suanni has a shape of a lion and takes delight in sitting cross-legged and smelling the odor of incense; it's often depicted on the incense burners and seats of Buddhist temples.
  • Pixiu is fierce and majestic with a horse's body, and it's in charge of exorcising the demons to keep Heaven safe; it's often used to guard gates.

Development of Conceptions of the Chinese Dragon

  • In the Shang Dynasty (1600 BC-1046 BC), the dragon existed as a supernatural power in the mind of ancient people, and it was worshipped as a two-pawed prodigy owing to its ferociousness and mysteriousness.
  • In the Zhou Dynasty (1046 BC-221 BC), the image of the dragon was greatly weakened owing to the emergence of the image of the phoenix, and the phoenix coronet was even grafted on the head of the dragon in some patterns, making the dragon more feminine (Yin) and artistic. 
  • In the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC-476 BC), the image of the dragon became more vivid, featuring a combination of Yin and Yang, which was widely painted as an emblem of good augury with four paws, and it looked more powerful and masculine (Yang).
  • In the Qin (221 BC-207 BC) and Han (206 BC-220) dynasties, the image of the dragon was basically finalized in its essentials, featuring long horns, pointy ears, sharp paws and a snakelike belly. Qin Shi Huang (259 BC-210 BC) claimed himself to be the son of the dragon during his reign, as the dragon had become the monarchial power incarnate.
  • In the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties, the dragon was depicted as a prodigy with the belly of a carp, so the scholars who succeeded in the civil service examination were often compared to the carps that jumped over the dragon gate.
  • In the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, the image of the dragon became more artistically perfect, playing an important role in traditional Chinese paintings, which were of a high aesthetic value.
  • In the Ming (1368-1644) and the Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the image of the dragon became a tool and a symbol of imperial power, which was exclusively for emperors. The dragon was painted with five paws in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Culture on Chinese Dragon

The Chinese dragon has transformed from an imaginary prodigy to a mascot from ancient times to the present, representing the Chinese people's unrelenting and pioneering spirit of keeping pace with the times, whose image has been deeply rooted in the mind of the Chinese people and has a substantial influence on various aspects of Chinese culture. Not only is the dragon prevailing in China, but it's also very popular among the Chinese people living overseas; it has become the symbol of China and of Chinese culture.

The dragon culture is great, because it earns respect from its descendants (the Chinese people); the dragon culture is encouraging, because it symbolizes the unrelenting spirit of the Chinese people; the dragon culture is profound, because it represents Yang according to the Five Element Theory; the dragon culture is exclusive, because of its imperial culture in essence in the history of China; the dragon culture is also open, because it makes great contributions to world civilization.

Dragon and Ancient Celestial Guardians

As one of the four celestial guardians, along with the vermilion bird, the white tiger and the black tortoise, the dragon represents the east and the element of wood according to ancient Chinese astrology and the Five Element Theory; the vermilion bird associates with the south and the element of fire; the white tiger symbolizes the west and the element of gold; the black tortoise signifies the north and the element of water.

Dragon and Chinese Zodiacs

Every new year of the Lunar Calendar is represented in Chinese mythology by one of 12 animals, and thus every 12 years is the year of the Dragon. Lining up with the powerful symbolism of Chinese culture, it is considered quite fortuitous to be born in the year of the dragon, as presumably a long, happy life awaits those with a dragon birth year. Those born in 1976, 1988, 2000, or 2012 can look forward to a prosperous life.

According to the love compatibility of the 12 Chinese zodiacs, the best matches for the dragon are the rooster and the monkey, while the worse ones are the dog, tiger, rabbit and rat.

Symbol of Imperial Authority

The Chinese dragon symbolizes the sovereignty of emperors, and everything related to it was exclusively for emperors in the Chinese feudal society. The ancient emperors called their sons'seeds of dragons', their robes were'dragon robes', and their palace was a'dragon palace'. The imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne.

More interestingly, the pattern of the dragon on the emperor's robe has five paws and the one on the vassal's robe only has four paws, which highlights the supremacy of the ancient emperors.
Dragon carvings are very common in imperial palaces and tombs, such as the Forbidden City - imperial palace of generations of emperors from the Ming and Qing Dynasties which were the last two dynasties in ancient Chinese history.

The Artistic Influence of Dragons

The dragon is used as a symbol of strength and gentleness for the nation itself in virtually all forms ofChinese art – from paintings on ancient Chinese scrolls to modern day dances, and of course the architecture.

Ancient Chinese architecture heavily incorporated the dragon motif into their work, which can be seen today in the form of adornments on rooftops of historical buildings, or as large stone statues. Sometimes the strength and shape of the dragon was even incorporated into the layout of an edifice.

The empowering qualities associated with the dragon ignite pride in the Chinese for their country. Dragon sculptures, paintings, or other small trinkets are a great gift idea to commemorate your China trip.

Dragon Dance

dragon dance

The dragon dance is performed at many celebrations, including the extravagant Chinese New Yearcelebrations, in hopes of bringing the good fortune and prosperity associated with the dragon. Generally a long dragon, spanning up to 70 meters, was historically constructed using hoops made of bamboo covered by glistening fabric and supported by poles, held by dancers moving fluidly as one body. They bring the dragon to life by raising and lowering their poles to let the majestic creature undulate through the air.

Chinese Idioms  Related to Dragon

  • 龙飞凤舞(dragon flies and phoenix dances): referring to a flamboyant style of calligraphy and writing devoid of content.
  • 龙马精神(spirit of a dragon horse): referring to vigorous spirit in old age.
  • 鱼龙混杂(fish and dragons jumbled together): referring to good and bad people mixed together.
  • 龙腾虎跃(dragon rises and tiger leaps): referring to a scene of hustling and bustling activity.
  • 车水马龙(carriages move on like a stream and horses pass like a long dragon): referring to a scene of heavy traffic.
  • 龙潭虎穴(dragon's pool and tiger's den): referring to a very dangerous spot.
  • 画龙点睛(paint a dragon and dot in the eye): referring to adding the vital finishing touch; the crucial point that brings the subject to life.
  • 叶公好龙(Lord Ye loves a dragon): referring to someone who pretends to like something that he really fears.
  • 鲤鱼跳龙门(carp jumped over the dragon gate): referring to someone who has successfully past the civil service examination.

See Dragons on Your China Tour

Better yet, tour China during a celebration like Dragon Boat Festival or Chinese New Year, and snap a photo of a famous dragon dance.

Hi, I'm Michael Yang
I updated this article on April 10, 2014
See all my travel articles
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