May 16, 2020
Sometimes, Chinese dragons seem to be everywhere. We see these symbols in sports, on clothing, in books, and in movies. Some people even have dragon tattoos.
You’ve seen dragon iconography, but have you considered where the creatures originate or what they symbolize? How much do you know about the many types of Chinese dragons? Read on to discover the answers to these and many other questions about China’s most famous mythological creatures.
For starters, it’s worth noting that the Chinese dragon, or 龙 (lóng), is very different than the European dragon. For example, while the European dragon is believed to breath fire, the Chinese dragon typically breaths clouds.
The anatomy of the Chinese dragon is also unique. The head, for instance, often looks like that of a camel while the eyes look like those of a demon. Similarly, the neck looks like that of a snake whereas its paws are those of a tiger. Contrary to what most people assume, the legendary Chinese dragon was usually not vengeful and was not blamed for natural catastrophes and other disasters. Instead, it was often seen as benevolent, wise, and powerful.
The Origins of Chinese Dragon Legends
No one knows exactly when legends about dragons first originated, but the symbol dates back to at least 3000 BCE. According to one theory, the legendary Chinese dragon evolved out of ancient totem-worship practices. Dragons may have been created by combining the attributes of several creatures like tigers, snakes, eagles, and carps.
A different theory posits that the Yan emperor (炎帝 Yán Dì), a legendary Chinese leader from pre-dynastic times, was born of an encounter with a powerful dragon. As a result, Yandi was more powerful than most leaders. He partnered with Emperor Huang Di and together they conquered their enemies and unified China. The two are suggested to have pioneered Chinese civilization.
As time progressed, many Chinese came to believe that Yandi was one of their ancestors, which by extension meant that they also descended from dragons.
Where Do Dragons Live?
In the real world, dragons do not exist (surprise!). In the mythological stories they inhabit, however, dragons are thought to reside in a variety of places. The celestial dragon, for example, is said to live in the sky, while the coiling dragon lives in the sea.
The Importance of Dragons in Chinese Culture
Dragons are significant in Chinese culture because they are associated with the following:
- Business prosperity – During the Chinese New Year, many celebrations start with a dragon dance. The aim of the dance is not just to attract attention but also to ask for a prosperous new business year from the dragon gods.
- Good harvest and health – In traditional times, Chinese farmers requested plentiful harvests by making offerings to dragon gods. When drought struck, they did the same in an attempt to encourage a downpour from the heavens. Some also believed that dragons could protect their lands and harvests from flood damage. In addition to the Chinese New Year, the dragon is a very significant creature during the Dragon Boat Festival, a Chinese holiday that is celebrated throughout China in late spring or early summer. During this festival, dragon-shaped boat races are traditionally held. Although there are many theories about how the festival originated, one theory suggests that in its earliest form, the festival was celebrated in an attempt to request good health as well as a bountiful harvest from the dragon gods.
- Protective tokens – The Chinese dragon is believed to offer protection to homes and businesses. They are seen as protective figures that can be printed or engraved on sentimental or valuable objects.
What Do Chinese Dragons Symbolize?
Dragons are powerful creatures in Chinese mythology. They are associated with the ability to control the seasons, time, and harvests. Generally, they symbolize the following:
- Everything male – In traditional Chinese society, men were considered to be physically strong and powerful and were often influential in community matters. Such trends are embodied in the dragon.
- Nobleness – According to the Chinese astrology, those born in the Year of the Dragon are more prosperous and noble than others. For example, 1988, 2000, and 2012 are considered dragon years (see our full article on Chinese Zodiac Animals). Those born during dragon years are considered strong-willed, decisive, and self-confident.
- Agricultural life – In Chinese mythology, dragons are believed to control the weather and the seasons. Though most Chinese dragons are wingless, male dragons possess the power to fly to the heavens and bring rain, while the female controls earthly waters like rivers, lakes, seas, and wells.
- Good fortune – Some people also believe that dragons symbolize fortune and good luck. Thus, dragons are engraved on utensils and personal items to attract the best life has to offer.
- Kindness – The Chinese dragon is mostly held to be a sign of kindness and warmth. (Remember, the Chinese dragon does not breathe fire as its European counterparts do.) However, there are some exceptions, as we will see below.
What is the Symbolism Behind Dragon Colors?
Chinese dragons are colorful creatures and every such color holds unique symbolism. For example, the blue and the green dragons symbolize nature, health, and tranquility. Some people also associate blue and green dragons with healing, peace, and rest. Other notable dragon colors are:
- Black Dragon – Most people associate the black dragon with vengeance. Thus, it’s often linked to catastrophes like storms and floods.
- White Dragon – The white dragon is thought to symbolize purity, just like in the West. However, it is also sometimes associated with death and mourning and some see it as a bad omen.
- Red Dragon – The red dragon symbolizes good fortune. For this reason, the symbol is popular at weddings and other celebrations to encourage happiness and good luck.
- Yellow Dragon – The yellow dragon is associated with good fortune and power. Some also believe that this dragon can control time and seasons. It’s the most revered dragon and thus is often assumed to be a symbol of empire and the emperor. Other attributes associated with this dragon include warmth, wisdom, and wealth.
Types of Chinese Dragons
- Spiritual Dragon – The spiritual dragon is blue and believed to control both the rain and the winds. Its job is to ensure that humans benefit from these two elements.
- Winged Dragon – The fact that this dragon has wings is somewhat strange considering that most Chinese dragons are supposed to be wingless. It is, however, a very significant type of dragon and is thought to symbolize rain and at times, floods.
- Celestial Dragon – This Chinese dragon is believed to reside in the sky where it protects the celestial gods from falling to earth.
- Coiling Dragon – Known to live in the sea, the coiling dragon is believed to control time. While most dragons are thought to possess the ability to ascend to the sky, the coiling dragon is restricted to the waters.
- Treasure Dragon – The Chinese believe that this dragon can protect hidden treasures like precious metals, money, and personal wealth.
- Underworld Dragon – This dragon is thought to control rivers, streams, and seas. Some believe that it’s the feminine version of the spiritual dragon and for this reason, the two can copulate.
- Horned Dragon – The horned dragon is one of the most powerful Chinese dragons. Although sometimes depicted as having evil tendencies, it’s also associated with making rain.
- Dragon King – Lastly, the dragon king or dragon god is considered the most powerful of all Chinese dragons. He can appear in a variety of shapes and is often depicted as human. He is thought to reign over the seas of China in all four directions (East, West, North, and South).
The Legacy Lives On
Dragons may only be mythological creatures, but they are very important to the Chinese people and the impact of this cultural phenomenon is far-reaching. Historically, dragons have served as important symbols with a variety of mostly positive meanings. Understanding Chinese dragons brings you get one step closer to a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture.