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Chinese Dragons — Facts, Culture, Origins, and Art

Chinese Dragons — Facts, Culture, Origins, and Art

Written by Mike HoUpdated Dec. 14, 2021

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.

Chinese DragonChinese Dragon

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

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Quick Facts About Chinese Dragons

  • 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.

What Do Chinese Dragons Symbolize?

The Dragon is one of the 12 Chinese zodiac animals, with its own astrological personality and symbolism. Apart from that, in Chinese culture, dragons symbolize imperial power, good fortune, power over weather and water, and a pioneering spirit.

Dragon MeaningYellow Dragon

Imperial Power and Authority

During China’s imperial dynasties, emperors used the dragon as a symbol of their imperial power and authority. Dragon emblems can be found in carvings on the stairs, walkways, furniture, and clothes of the imperial palace. It was against the law for common people to use things related to dragons in imperial times.

Ruler of Weather and Water

In Chinese legend, the Dragon Kings were believed to be the rulers of weather and water, such as rainfall, waterfalls, rivers, and seas. Four Dragon Kings each controlled a sea of China: ‘East Sea’ (the East China Sea), ‘South Sea’ (the South China Sea), ‘West Sea’ (Qinghai Lake and lakes beyond), and ‘North Sea’ (Lake Baikal). The four Dragon Kings were believed to be the dispensers of rain and wind.

In many Chinese villages, there are still some temples or shrines to worship the Dragon Kings to seek their blessings of good weather for harvests and all year round. In pre-modern times, local people offered sacrifices to appease the Dragon Kings to stop flooding or droughts.

A Dragon CarvingA Dragon Carving

Ancestor of the Chinese People

It was said that thousands of years ago, Yandi (a legendary tribal leader) was born through his mother's telepathic interaction with a mighty dragon. With the help of the dragon and allied with Huangdi (a legendary tribal leader and, by some accounts, the grandson of a dragon), they opened the prelude to Chinese civilization. So, “emperors” Yandi and Huangdi were the ancestors of the Chinese people. It is said that the two emperors were immortalized as dragons before they ascended to heaven.

As time went by, Chinese people began to refer to themselves as ‘the descendants of Yandi and Huangdi’, as well as ‘descendants of dragons’.

Good Fortune

In ancient China’s legends, Shennong the ‘Divine Farmer’ was the son of a dragon and a beautiful princess, and some say the father of Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor). He taught people to develop agriculture and to use herbal drugs. Shennong was considered as a primogenitor of the Chinese people and hero of ancient China. So, the dragon is considered to bring good fortune, harvest, and prosperity.

An 'Unrelenting and Pioneering' Spirit

The Chinese dragon has been transformed from an imaginary progenitor 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 has the Chinese dragon prevailed in China, but it's also very popular among Chinese people living overseas. It has become a symbol of China and Chinese culture.

What Do the Colors of Chinese Dragons Mean?

There are blue, green, red, black, white, yellow, and golden dragons in Chinese culture. Different colors of dragon represent different things.

Chinese Dragons in different colorsDragons in different colors

Red Dragons

Red is China’s luckiest color. It is often used to decorate the house/building used for a wedding or festival. The red dragon therefore has lucky symbolism. People paint red dragons to decorate their houses or walkways to celebrate various festivals. It is a tradition to use red dragons for dragon dances.

Black Dragons

Black Chinese dragons are often related to vengeance. In some Chinese movies, many criminal organizations or street gangs use black dragons as their emblems. Criminals often have black dragon tattoos on their arms or back, which represent evil or revenge. In ancient China, the black dragon is often linked to catastrophes like storms and floods.

White Dragons

White is traditionally connected to death and mourning in Chinese culture. However, a white Chinese dragon symbolizes purity and virtue.

Blue and Green Dragons

In Chinese culture, blue and green are colors representing nature, health, healing, peace, and growth. A blue/green dragon symbolizes the approaching of spring, new life, and plant growth.

Yellow Dragons

Since ancient imperial dynasties, yellow has been regarded as the royal color. Yellow dragons were a symbol of the emperor. They represented wisdom, good fortune, and power.

Yellow Dragon on imperial robeYellow Dragon on Imperial Robe

Golden Dragons

Golden Chinese dragons are associated with powerful deities or harvest. Golden dragons always symbolize wealth, prosperity, strength, harvest, and power.

Types of the Chinese Dragon

The green dragon is also called the azure dragon. It is one of the four great beasts in Chinese mythology (the Black Tortoise, Vermilion Bird, White Tiger, and Azure Dragon) representing the four directions (north, south, west, and east) respectively. The green dragon represents the east and controls rain and wind.

The winged dragon is said to reside in the sky. In Chinese legend, the winged dragon is the ancestor of dragons. It controls the four seasons and descendants of the Yellow Emperor.

types of Chinese dragonDifferent Types of Dragons on the Roof of Forbidden City

The coiling dragon is said to live on the earth and not be able to fly to the sky. It is said that the coiling dragon can control time.

The horned dragon, according to Chinese legend, is a dragon that has lived more than 500 years, and at that age developed horns. It is a powerful and evil dragon that often makes floods.

The underworld dragon is said to live in the seas, rivers, lakes, or underground. It can control the flow of rivers or streams.

The treasure dragon, it is said, can protect hidden treasures or personal wealth.

The cloud dragon, according to legends, lives in the cloud. It can fly through thick cloud and make rain. It is also a popular dragon that Chinese painters like to paint.

The dragon king, or old dragon, is the most powerful and intelligent Chinese dragon in China’s mythology. It can change into different shapes, even human beings’. It is said that it can control all the seas of China in all directions.

The 9 Sons 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

Chinese Dragon Mythology

In ancient China, people lived mainly on agriculture. The rain and wind played an important role in people’s lives. They believed there was something powerful controlling the rain and thunder. And, in Chinese mythology, the dragon was such a powerful beast that lived in rivers, lakes, and seas. The dragon was used as a symbol of great power, a ruler even of the emperor.

According to the Chinese legend, the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi, a legendary tribal leader) launched a series of wars against nine tribes in the Yellow River Valley and incorporated the other tribes' totems into his 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.

Dragons in Chinese Culture

Dragons play an important role in Chinese culture, such as the zodiac, dragon dances, idioms, art, the dragon boat festival, festival decorations, films, legends, and literature. You can always find dragon elements whenever you are learning about Chinese culture.

The Chinese Zodiac Dragon

The Dragon is the fifth Chinese zodiac sign, part of the 12-animal cycle. People born in the years 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, or 2024 belong to the Dragon zodiac sign, and are known as Dragons. People born in a year of the Dragon are believed to have a personality of confidence, power, resolution, and high esteem. Read more about Year of the Dragon.

Chinese Zodiac DragonYears of the Dragon Zodiac

Babies born in a year of the Dragon are believed to be lucky, wealthy, and successful. Because of its auspicious connotations, the dragon is the favorite sign with Chinese parents who prefer to give birth to their babies in a year of the Dragon. According to public data, the number of children born in Dragon years is much larger than in other zodiac years.

Dragon Dances

The dragon dance is an important cultural performance used to celebrate festivals in China. It is also a symbol of Chinese culture.

Chinese dragons symbolize wisdom, power, good fortune, and wealth, so people perform dragon dances as a custom to welcome in good fortune and wealth.

In ancient times, when there was no rain for a long time, people prayed for rain with a dragon dance, and dragon dances after planting were also a way to pray against insect attacks. Nowadays, dragon dances are performed during festive occasions to chase away evil spirits and welcome in prosperous times.

Dragon DanceDragon Dance

The Dragon Boat Festival

Chinese people believed a dragon-like boat would scare away evil spirits. People celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival to commemorate the death of Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet who was known for his patriotism and contributions to Chinese classical poetry.

According to the Chinese legend, Qu Yuan drowned in the Miluo River to show his protest and despair at the corruption of the local government. To save Qu Yuan from the river, local people took their dragon-like boats to search for him, but in vain. The shipmen beat drums, splashed the river water with paddles, and threw dumplings into the river to keep the fish and evil spirits away from his body.

Since then, the ritual search for Qu Yuan’s body has become the dragon boat race. Now, dragon boat races are one of the activities of the Dragon Boat Festival celebrations. The boats are made in the form of a traditional Chinese dragons, which are often painted colorfully.

Dragon Feng Shui

Feng shui is Chinese geomancy. In feng shui, the dragon is an earth element representative. It is also one of the Four Great Animals of China’s four directions, representing east, where the sun rises.

Dragon on StairsDragon Carvings on Stairs in Forbiden City

In feng shui, the dragon is the best yang (masculine) token. People in need of yang aspects in their feng shui balance are recommended to get more dragon elements, such as wearing dragon amulets, and adding some dragon symbols. Read more about Feng Shui

Dragon Idioms

Because the Chinese dragon represents great power and good fortune, there are many idioms related to dragons that are used to express good wishes and fine sentiments. Here are some of the most used ones:

卧虎藏龙 (wò hǔ cáng lóng): ‘crouching tiger, hidden dragon’ means talented individuals in hiding.

龙马精神 (lónɡ mǎ jīnɡ shén): ‘dragon horse spirit’ means to be full of a dragon’s spirit (unrelenting, pioneering, confident, etc.) and horse’s vigor.

望子成龙 (wàng zǐ chéng lóng): ‘To wish your son becomes a dragon’ refers to parents hoping for their kids to be successful.

Dragon Art in China

Dragons are the favorite Chinese mythological creatures that are used as elements in decorations of buildings, costumes, paintings, and carvings.

Dragons in carvings or paintings are used to decorate buildings, particularly imperial ones. The Chinese dragon symbolized the sovereignty of emperors, and everything related to dragons was exclusively used for emperors’ property in China’s feudal times. When you are in the Forbidden City, you can see Chinese dragon elements nearly everywhere: the nine sons of the dragon on the golden roofs, on the stone floors, the imperial chair decorations, wood sculptures on pillars, and handrails, etc.

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.

Chinese Dragons vs Western Dragons

There are many differences between Western dragons and Chinese dragons.

Homes: Unlike Chinese dragons, Western dragons often live in lairs or caves in mountains, while Chinese dragons live at the bottoms of lakes and rivers, and in cloudy skies.

Appearance: Western dragons have large bat-like wings and big claws and most Western dragons look like carnivorous dinosaurs with wings, while Chinese dragons, though also dinosaur-size or larger, have elements of many different animals and in general look long and snake-like.

Character: Western dragons are depicted as dangerous creatures and symbols of evil (usually), while Chinese dragons, by contrast, are believed to be friendly, auspicious, and lucky (usually) — symbols of great power, good fortune, wisdom, and health.

Explore Chinese Dragon Culture

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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