Chinese Dragons — Facts, Culture, Origins, and Art

Chinese Dragons — Facts, Culture, Origins, and Art

By Kelly PangUpdated Oct. 13, 2021
chinese dragonA Chinese dragon head on a dragon boat

Chinese dragons are powerful and benevolent symbols in Chinese culture, with supposed control over watery phenomenon, e.g. summoning rain during a drought. Dragons are everywhere in China — in legends, festivals, astrology, art, names, and idioms.

Dragons are seen as lucky and good  quite different to the evil, dangerous, fire-breathing dragons of most Western stories. 

Quick Facts About Chinese Dragons

Dragon has many symbols in Chinese culture
  • Chinese dragons don't exist factually — there is no evidence to prove that they are real creatures.
  •  The Dragon is one of the twelve Chinese zodiac signs.
  •  Emperors in ancient China were identified as the sons of dragons. And, at that time, ordinary people were not allowed to have items with pictures of dragons on them.
  • Chinese dragons are symbolic of being lucky, propitious, powerful, and noble; not as monsters as they are portrayed in Western stories.
  • Most Chinese dragons' pictures have long bodies like snakes and sharp claws like hawks — less like dinosaurs than Western dragons..
  • Chinese dragons live at the bottom of seas, rivers, lakes, or anywhere with water.

See more amazing facts on Chinese dragons.

Ancient Chinese Dragon Symbols

Dragons are found in many aspects of Chinese culture from legends about Chinese ancestry to modern mascots, from festival events to astrology to idioms.

Ancestor of the Chinese People

It was said that thousands of years ago, Yandi (a legendary tribal leader) was born by his mother's telepathy with a mighty dragon. With the help of the dragon, and allied with Huangdi (a legendary tribal leader), they opened the prelude to Chinese civilization; so Yandi and Huangdi were considered to be ancestors of the Chinese people.

As time has gone by, Chinese people refer to themselves as the descendants of Yandi and Huangdi, as well as the descendants of the Chinese dragon.

A Spirit of 'Unrelenting and Pioneering'

Dragon has transformed from an imaginary prodigy to a mascot from ancient times to the present. It represents the Chinese people's unrelenting and pioneering spirit of keeping pace with the times.

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.

Associated with Festivals and Celebrations

dragon danceA dragon dance

Dragon dance: The dragon dance is performed at many celebrations, e.g. Chinese New Year. Generally, there is a long dragon, spanning up to 70 meters, that is constructed using hoops made of bamboo covered with glistening fabric, and held by dancers.

Dragon boat racing: Dragon boats are decorated like a Chinese dragon. This activity usually attracts many people to appreciate the custom during the traditional Dragon Boat Festival.

The 9 Types of the Chinese Dragon 

According to Chinese myths, the dragon has nine sons with different characters, and their images are widely used in architectural decoration, especially in the imperial palaces. The nine sons are often used in buildings' decorations and sculptures.

Images of 9 sons of Chinese dragonImages of 9 sons of Chinese dragon

Names of the 9 Types of Dragons in China

  • Bixi (赑屃 Bìxì /bee-sshee/) — eldest, turtle-shaped with sharp teeth, fond of carrying heavy objects; often on graves/monuments
  • Qiuniu (囚牛 Qiúniú /chyoh-nyoh/) — yellow scaly dragon, likes and excels in music; often adorns musical instruments
  • Yazi (睚眦 Yázì /yaa-dzrr/) — snake belly and leopard head, keen on fighting/killing; often decorates sword grips
  • Chaofeng (嘲风 Cháofēng /chaoww-fnng/) — instinctively adventurous; often adorns palace roof ridges
  • Pulao (蒲牢 Púláo /poo-laoww/) — known for loud crying; often on bell handles
  • Chiwen (螭吻 chīwěn /chrr-wnn/) — lives in the sea, harsh-voiced, delights in devouring creatures; often on palace ridgepole ends
  • Bi'an (狴犴 Bì'àn /bee-an/) — likes lawsuits, often stands by jail gates
  • Suanni (狻猊 Suānní /swann-nee/) — lion-shaped, delights in sitting cross-legged and smelling incense; often on Buddhist temple incense burners and seats
  • Fuxi (负屃 Fùxì /foo-sshee/) — most Chinese dragon-like; often on stone tablets

The Chinese Zodiac Dragon

Chinese zodiac sign of the Dragon: Every year within each 12-year cycle of the lunar calendar is represented in Chinese mythology by one of 12 animals. People born in the year of 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, or 2024 belong to the Dragon zodiac sign.

Dragon Idiom — "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon"

卧虎藏龙 wò hǔ cáng lóng, 'crouching tiger, hidden dragon', means talented individuals in hiding.

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is also a famous movie's name. See 10 movies to watch before going to China.

The Origin of Dragon in China — Ancient Tribal Totems

Chinese dragonChinese 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.

The Yellow Emperor (Huangdi, a legendary tribal leader) launched a series of wars against nine tribes on the Yellow River Valley, and incorporated the other tribes' totems into his own dragon totem after defeating them.

This explains why the dragon has attributes belonging to nine other creatures: eyes like a shrimp, antlers like a deer, a big mouth like a bull, a nose like a dog, whiskers like a catfish, a lion's mane, a long tail like a snake, scales like a fish, and claws like a hawk.

Evolution of Chinese dragonsEvolution of Chinese dragons

Chinese Dragon Decorations — Buildings, Costume, and Opera Shows

dragons decorating the Forbidden CityDragons in the Forbidden City: on chairs, stairs, roofs, and doors

Chinese dragons don't exist in real life, but you can see many dragon elements in China. The following three suggestions are just a few examples of where Chinese dragons "exist". You may discover more dragons by yourself.

In Ancient Imperial Buildings Like the Forbidden City

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 chairs were "dragon chairs".

When you enter the Forbidden City, you can see elements of Chinese dragons nearly everywhere: the nine sons of the dragon on the golden roof, on the stone floor, the imperial chair decoration, wood sculptures on pillars, and handrails, etc.

Embroidery on Imperial Robes and Museum Artifacts

imperial robesDragon's embroidery with 4 toes on an vassal's robe in Shanghai Museum

When you visit a Chinese museum with ancient relics, you may see many imperial clothes embroidered with Chinese dragons.

You may find them boring, because they all look the same. But if you pay attention to each dragon's color, number of toes, and gestures, you will find they are different. The pattern of the dragon on an emperor's robe has four paws with five toes on each, and the one on the vassal's robe only depicts four toes on each paw, which highlights the supremacy of the ancient emperors.

If you are a fan of the Cannes Film Festival, you will remember that the Chinese actress, Fan Bingbing, once walked the red carpet wearing a dress with Chinese dragon embroidery, which was amazing.

It will be more interesting to visit a Chinese museum if you know more about Chinese dragons.

Dragons in Chinese Opera

There are many Chinese opera shows with "dragon" in the title. Also, you can see dragons on imperial robes in an opera show when there are roles depicting an imperial family.

Explore Chinese Dragon Culture

The forbidden city Dragon's sculpture on the stairs in the Forbidden City

The best way to explore China's dragon culture is to visit the country, and learn about the culture, with a local expert.  We are in China, and we are able to arrange a culture tour for you with a local knowledgeable guide. 

The Forbidden City in Beijing is steeped in dragon culture, with emperors taking it as their symbol. See our top Forbidden City tours:

See more China tours for inspiration. 

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