Just as their appearances differ from culture to culture, these creatures represent many
contrasting ideas for the different peoples of the world. Dragons are perhaps most well recognized within the
Chinese tradition. The Chinese recognize them as one of the four sacred creatures that contain all of the
elements of yin and yang - dark and light. The other three are the Phoenix, the Unicorn and the Turtle.
The Chief of all scaly creatures, the dragon symbolised wisdom, strength, goodness
and the element water. In China, they were often drawn with whiskers and antlers on their heads. When depicted with
five claws, it represented the Emperor and was known as the Imperial Dragon. In some traditions, they were
attributed to controlling the weather, and ritual dances were performed to encourage the creature to send down the
The Chinese dragon or Oriental dragon is a mythical creature in East Asian culture with a Chinese
origin. It is visualized these days as a long, scaled, snake-like creature with four legs and five claws on each
(though it did not always have five claws).
In contrast to the European dragon which stands on four legs and which is usually portrayed as
evil, the Chinese dragon has long been a potent symbol of auspicious power in Chinese folklore and art. The Chinese
dragon is traditionally also the embodiment of the concept of yang (male) and associated with the weather as the
bringer of rain and water in an agriculturally water-driven nation. Its female counterpart is the Fenghuang
(usually translated as a "phoenix").
The dragon is sometimes used in the West as a national emblem of China. However, this usage within
both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan is rare.
Firstly, the dragon was historically the symbol of the Emperor of China. Starting with the Yuan
Dynasty, regular citizens were forbidden to associate themselves with the symbol. The dragon re-emerged during the
Qing Dynasty and appeared on their national flags.
Secondly, in European-influenced cultures, the dragon has aggressive, warlike connotations that the
Chinese government now wishes to avoid. It is for these reasons that the giant panda is now more often used, within
China, as a national emblem than the dragon. In Hong Kong, however, the dragon is part of the design of Brand Hong
Kong, a symbol used to promote Hong Kong as an international brand name.
Many Chinese people often use the term "Descendants of the Dragon" as a sign of ethnic
identity. This is part of a trend that started in the 1970's when different Asian nationalities were looking
for animal symbols for representations. The wolf was used among the Mongols and the monkey among
In today's Chinese culture, it is mostly used for decorative purposes only. It is absolutely taboo
to disfigure a depiction of a dragon. Not too long ago Nike commissioned an advertising campaign which
featured the American basketball player LeBron James slaying a dragon (as well as beating up an old Kung Fu
master). This ad was immediately banned by the Chinese government after much public outcry over the disrespect
A number of Chinese proverbs and idioms also feature references to the dragon. For
"Hoping one's son will become a dragon"(i.e. be as successful and
powerful as a dragon).
The origin of Chinese dragon is not certain, but some scholars believe that it originated from totems of
different tribes within China. Some have suggested that it comes from a stylized depiction of existing animals,
such as snakes, fish, or crocodiles. For example, the Banpo site of the Yangshao culture in Shaanxi featured an
elongated, snake-like fish motif. The theory of snakes, or fish, as the origin of the Chinese dragon is not widely
An alternative view, advocated by He Xin, is that the early dragon depicted a species of crocodile.
Specifically, Crocodylus porosus, which is the largest living reptile. The crocodile is known to be able to
accurately sense changes in air pressure, and be able to sense coming rain.
This may have been the origin of the dragon's mythical attributes in controlling the weather, especially the
rain. The association with the crocodile is also supported by the view in ancient times that large crocodiles
were a variety of dragon. For example, in the Story of Zhou Chu, about the life of a Jin Dynasty warrior, he
is said to have killed a "dragon" that infested the waters of his home village, which appears to have been a
Others have proposed that its shape is the merger of totems of various tribes as the result of the merger of
tribes. The coiled snake, or dragon form, played an important role in early Chinese culture. Legendary figures like
Nüwa and Fuxi are depicted as having snake bodies. Some scholars have noted that a myth arose that the first
legendary Emperor of China Huang Di (Yellow Emperor) used a snake for his coat of arms. According to the myth,
every time he conquered another tribe, he incorporated his defeated enemy's emblem into his own, thus it explains
why the dragon appears to have features of various animals.
From its origins as totems or the stylized depiction of natural creatures, the Chinese dragon evolved to become
a mythical animal. The Han Dynasty scholar Wang Fu recorded Chinese myths that long dragons had nine anatomical
The people paint the dragon's shape with a horse's head and a snake's tail. Further, there are expressions as
'three joints' and 'nine resemblances' (of the dragon), to wit: from head to shoulder, from shoulder to breast,
from breast to tail. These are the joints.
The nine resemblances are the following: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes
those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam, his scales those of a carp, his claws those
of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow. Upon his head he has a thing like a broad
eminence (a big lump), called [chimu]. If a dragon has no [chimu], he cannot ascend to the sky.
Further sources give variant lists of the nine animal resemblances. Sinologist Henri Doré lists these
characteristics of an authentic dragon: "The horns of a deer. The head of a camel. A demon's eyes. The neck of a
snake. A tortoise's viscera. A hawk's claws. The palms of a tiger. A cow's ears. And it hears through its horns,
its ears being deprived of all power of hearing.
He notes that, "Others state it has a rabbit's eyes, a frog's belly, a carp's scales." The anatomy of other
legendary creatures, including the chimera and manticore, is similarly amalgamated from fierce animals.
Chinese dragons were considered to be physically concise. Of the 117 scales, 81 are of the yang essence
(positive) while 36 are of the yin essence (negative). Initially, the dragon was benevolent but the Buddhists
introduced the concept of malevolent influence among some dragons.
Just as water destroys, they said, so can some dragons destroy via floods, tidal waves and storms. They
suggested that some of the worst floods were believed to have been the result of a mortal upsetting a dragon.
Many pictures of oriental dragons show a flaming pearl under their chin. The pearl is associated with wealth,
good luck, and prosperity.
Chinese dragons are occasionally depicted with bat-like wings growing out of the front limbs, but most do not
have wings, as their ability to fly (and control rain/water, etc.) are mystical and not seen as a result of their
This description accords with the artistic depictions of the dragon down to the present day. The dragon has also
acquired an almost unlimited range of supernatural powers. It is said to be able to disguise itself as a silkworm,
or become as large as our entire universe. It can fly among the clouds or hide in water (according to the Guanzi).
It can form clouds, can turn into water or fire, can become invisible or glow in the dark (according to the Shuowen
In Singapore and many other countries, folktales speak of the dragon having all the attributes of the other 11
creatures of the zodiac, this includes the whiskers of the rat, the face and horns of an ox, claws and teeth of a
tiger, belly of a rabbit, body of a snake, legs of a horse, the beard of a goat, wit(or brain) of a monkey, crest
of a rooster, ears of a dog, the snout of a pig.
A dragon seen floating among clouds, on a golden canteen made during the 15th century, Ming Dynasty Chinese dragons
are strongly associated with water in popular belief. They are believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water,
such as waterfalls, rivers, or seas.
They can show themselves as water spouts (tornado or twister over water). In this capacity as the rulers of
water and weather, the dragon is more anthropomorphic in form, often depicted as a humanoid, dressed in a king's
costume, but with a dragon head wearing a king's headdress.
There are four major Dragon Kings, representing each of the four seas: the East Sea (corresponding to the East
China Sea), the South Sea (corresponding to the South China Sea), the West Sea (sometimes seen as the Indian Ocean
and beyond), and the North Sea (sometimes seen as Lake Baikal).
Because of this association, they are seen as "in charge" of water-related weather phenomenon. In pre modern
times, many Chinese villages (especially those close to rivers and seas) had temples dedicated to their local
"dragon king". In times of drought or flooding, it was customary for the local gentry and government officials to
lead the community in offering sacrifices and conducting other religious rites to appease the dragon, either to ask
for rain or a cessation thereof.
The King of Wu-Yue in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period was often known as the "Dragon King" or the
"Sea Dragon King" because of his extensive hydro-engineering schemes which "tamed" the sea.
At the end of his reign, the first legendary Emperor Huang Di was said to have been immortalized into a dragon
that resembled his emblem, and ascended to Heaven. Since the Chinese consider Huang Di as their ancestor, they
sometimes refer to themselves as "the descendants of the dragon". This legend also contributed towards the use of
the Chinese dragon as a symbol of imperial power.
The dragon, especially yellow or golden dragons with five claws on each foot, was a symbol for the emperor in
many Chinese dynasties. The imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. During the late Qing Dynasty, the dragon
was even adopted as the national flag. The dragon is featured in the carvings on the steps of imperial palaces and
tombs, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing.
In some Chinese legends, an Emperor might be born with a birthmark in the shape of a dragon. For example, one
legend tells the tale of a peasant born with a dragon birthmark who eventually overthrows the existing dynasty and
founds a new one. Another legend might tell of the prince in hiding from his enemies who is identified by his
dragon birthmark. In contrast, the Empress of China was often identified with the Fenghuang.
For more information on peculiarities in the depiction of the dragon in other Asian cultures, see:
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