The Chinese Dragon

Nowadays, not only Chinese people, but also foreigners who know about the culture of China, all of them know the Chinese dragon is the symbol of China. The Chinese dragon is different from the Western dragon, because the Chinese dragon doesn't have two wings as the dragon, and generally they can throw water, but they can't throw fire as the dragon. So in many myths, the Chinese dragon can bring rain and flood. The Western dragon was always the symbol of evil, but the Chinese dragon was the symbol of the best dream. In China, there is an idiom "expecting the son to be a dragon", and this means parents want their son to be an excellent talent. However, no one wants his son to be an evil monster as a dragon.

In fact, there is never such a kind of animal "dragon" in the world, in the past and in the modern days. What is the image of the Chinese dragon from?

The image of the Chinese dragon was from the totem of the snake in the remote ancient times. If we pay attention to the stone sculptures of the Han Dynasty, we can see Fuxi and Nvwa had a human head and a snake body. Fuxi (伏羲) and Nvwa (女娲) were the two important gods who made the people in myths. Why did they have a snake body? Because in the remote ancient times, Huaxia People thought the snake was a divine animal, and regarded it as a totem. As we know, the Westerners thought the snake was an evil animal, because a snake enticed Adam and Eve to eat the apple. However, our ancestors let their gods have the figure of a snake, so we can understand how our ancestors worshiped the snake.

Why did the totem of the snake change to the image of the Chinese dragon? Maybe the reason was related to a kind of animal Milu (麋鹿, Pere David's Deer). In the Pre-Qin Era (the times before 221 BC), Milu was a kind of wild animal which could be seen often. The image of Kylin (麒麟), a kind of favorable animal in myths, was from the figure of Milu. The Chinese dragon has two antlers and four legs, so the image of the Chinese dragon seems to be the combination of the figures of the snake and the Milu.

In the Pre-Qin Period, the image of the Chinese dragon was only decorative. Some reptiles were called “dragon”. According to the records of the Zuo’s Explanation (左传), in the nineteenth year of Lu Zhao-Gong (鲁昭公) (523 BC), there was a flood in the Zheng (郑) State. Two “dragons” fought in a deep pool outside the capital of Zheng State. Some people asked the prime minister Zichan (子产) for performing a consecration to the “dragons”. Zichan refused, and said, “We have fought, but the ‘dragons’ have never visited us with respect. Now the ‘dragons’ fight, why must we visit them with respect? You want to offer a sacrifice to exorcise evils, but the deep pool is their home. We never demand the ‘dragons’, and the ‘dragons’ never demand us, too.” So those people abandoned their ideas. In this story, the “dragons” seemed to be crocodilians. In the Western Jin (西晋) Dynasty (AD 265-316), a famous general Zhou Chu (周处) killed a ferocious animal which was called “Jiao” (蛟) when he was young. The other name of “Jiao” was “Jiaolong” (蛟龙), and it was also a kind of “dragon”. The “Jiao” which was killed by Zhou Chu must be a crocodilian.

The Chinese dragon had been the symbol of imperial power. Only emperors could call themselves “the offspring of a dragon” and dressed themselves in clothing which had the image of the Chinese dragon. In ancient times, if another person wore a garment which had the image of a dragon, he would be regarded as a rebel. He and his family would be killed. So the Chinese dragon was also a symbol of absolutism.

Why do nowadays Chinese love dragons so much? The Chinese dragon was the symbol of the supreme power and riches. The dragon speeds across the sky, how grand it is! How many people dream to be a dragon! However, I am willing to recall the words of Zichan, “We never demand the dragons, and the dragons never demand us, too.” If the great thoughts of our ancestors can be restored, the dragons ought to return their home, deep pools, and live placidly.

Oriental Style
Since February 6th, 2006
Copyright © Yike Jiang