January 15, 2020
Sometimes, Chinese dragons seem to be everywhere. You can see these symbols featured on kids’ clothing, in books, and in movies. Some people even have dragon tattoos.
You’ve seen these dragons everywhere, but have you ever taken the time to understand where these creatures originate from or what they symbolize? How much do you know about the many different types of Chinese dragons? Read on to discover the answers to both these questions and many others you might have about these mythological creatures.
For starters, it’s worth noting that the Chinese dragon, also known as 龙 (lóng), is very different from the European dragon. For example, while the European dragon is believed to breathe fire, the Chinese dragon is thought to breathe clouds.
It’s also worth noting that the anatomy of the Chinese dragon is quite unique. The head, for instance, 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. Interestingly, and contrary to what most people assume, the legendary Chinese dragon was usually not vengeful and was not commonly 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 can tell exactly when legends about Chinese dragons first originated, but the symbol dates back to 3,000 BC. According to one theory, the legendary Chinese dragon evolved out of ancient practices of totem-worship. Dragons may have been created by combining the attributes of several creatures such as the tiger, the snake, the eagle, and the carp, which originally served as totems for tribes that were conquered by a legendary Chinese ruler.
A different theory argues that Yandi, an ancient leader who existed thousands of years ago, was born from 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 the years went by, more Chinese came to believe that Yandi was one of their ancestors, which by extension meant that they were also descended from dragons.
Where Do Dragons Live?
In the real world, dragons do not exist. There is no evidence to suggest that these creatures live in a physical place. In the mythological stories they inhabit, however, different dragons are thought to live in different places. The celestial dragon, for example, is said to live in the sky, while the coiling dragon is said to live 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 the old days, Chinese farmers would make offerings to the dragon gods as a way to ask for a good harvest. When drought struck, they would do 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 holiday that is celebrated all over China in late spring or early summer. During this festival, dragon-shaped boat races are traditionally held. Although there are many different theories about where the festival came from, 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 – For many years, the Chinese dragon has been thought to offer protection to not only homes but businesses too. 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 culture and they are associated with superpowers such as the ability to control many things such as 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 Chinese dragon.
- Nobleness – According to the Chinese astrology, the dragon years are believed to be more prosperous and noble than other years. For example, 1988, 2000, and 2012 are considered dragon years. Those born during the dragon years are believed to be strong-willed, decisive, and self-confident.
- Agricultural life – In China, 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 is thought to control earthly waters such as rivers, lakes, seas, and wells.
- Good fortune – Some people also believe that dragons symbolize good things and good luck. Thus, they engrave these mythological creatures on utensils and personal items to attract good fortune.
- Kindness – Since the Chinese dragon does not breathe fire as its European counterparts do, it’s believed to be a kind animal. As a result, the Chinese dragon is mostly held to be a sign of kindness and warmth at home. This explains why it’s often linked to rainfall and good harvests. However, there are some exceptions, as we’ll later see when we look at dragon colors.
What is the Symbolism Behind Dragons’ Colors?
Chinese dragons are colorful creatures and every color signifies something in Chinese culture. 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 – Read about this dragon in the next section below.
Types of Chinese Dragons
- Yellow Dragon – The yellow dragon is associated with good fortune and power. Some people also believe that this dragon can control time and different 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.
- 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).
Dragons might only be mythological creatures, but they are very important to the Chinese people. Historically, they have served as important symbols with a variety of (mostly positive) meanings. Understanding Chinese dragons can help you get one step closer to a better understanding of traditional Chinese culture.