The China Dragon

The China Dragon

The China Dragon

History of the China Dragon

Numerous ancient nations had dragon mythologies, but nowhere was the mythical beast more venerated than in China. There, the dragon was nearly always seen in a good light and was especially connected with life-giving rains and water supplies, in stark contrast to other global mythology. The dragon was prevalent in ancient China and continues to have a significant influence on the Chinese psyche today. It was regarded as the most auspicious year sign, was worn on the robes of emperors, was represented in the most priceless objects, including gold jewelry and jade figurines, and was frequently mentioned in literature and the performing arts.

China Dragon
Origins and Physical Characteristics

The dragon, one of the first animals to emerge in Chinese myths and legends, is often shown as a huge, lean beast that lives in clouds or bodies of water. The China dragon is very strong, and as it soars, thunder and lightning are often present. It is unknown when, by whom, or in what reality the dragon was initially created, while some historians have suggested a connection with rainbows and a "serpent of the sky" that is seen near waterfalls or after rain showers. Long before any documented accounts of the beast arose, carvings of jade dragons have been discovered at sites of the Hongshan civilisation, which may be dated to 4500–3000 BCE. According to historian R. Dawson, the physical characteristics of the China dragon are as follows:

The dragon was designed to have the best qualities of other animals since it was the top animal. According to the traditional description, it has stag's horns, a camel's forehead, demon's eyes, a snake's neck, a sea monster's belly, carp's scales, an eagle's claws, a tiger's pads, and ox's ears. 

Alternative accounts describe similar characteristics, but sometimes with a snake's body, a rabbit's eyes, a frog's belly, and deer antlers. The dragon also had the ability to alter its size and form at whim, as well as to vanish and then return anywhere it pleased.

Wen Yiduo, a Chinese scholar, proposed that this amazing assembly of animal parts was really based on the political unification of several tribes, each of which had a different animal as its totem. The amalgamation of these tribes into a single entity was consequently symbolized by the dragon. Although a compelling theory, it does not account for the presence of dragons in early Chinese towns long before any such political affiliations existed.

Regulatory & Associations

Despite the dragon's intimidating appearance, it was not often thought of as the malicious creature that lives in tales of other civilizations throughout the globe and is frequently killed by a valiant hero figure. The dragon was and still is thought of as a righteous and kind monster in China. Because of this, they came to be connected with governing, particularly with Chinese emperors who, as stewards of the Mandate of Heaven and as God's representatives on earth, were obligated to uphold justice and impartiality at all times for the benefit of all their people.

Dragons were formerly thought to be among the four most intellectual creatures, which is another reason why monarchs should model them after them (along with the phoenix, unicorn, and tortoise). One well-known tale claims that a dragon actively assisted Yu the Great (c. 2070 BCE), the mythical founder of the Xia dynasty, in managing the floods that were destroying his realm and channeling them into a better irrigation system.

In general, the people saw the dragon as a fortunate charm and wealth-bringer. Additionally, farmers in antiquity believed that dragons supplied much-needed rain and water to support their crops. Strong winds, hailstorms, thunder, lightning, and tornadoes were also attributed to dragons; the latter are still referred to as "dragon's whirlwind" or long juan feng. It's also fascinating to see how often early jade dragon representations are round.

In rural areas, there was a dragon dance performed to entice the animal to be generous with the rain and a parade when a sizable dragon figure made of paper or cloth draped over a wooden frame was drawn. As an alternative, little clay dragons or banners with a drawing of a dragon and written prayers for rain were carried. Following the parade, attendants splashed bystanders with willow branches while carrying buckets of water and shouting, "Here comes the rain!" Drawing dragons and hanging them outside the house was another way to ask for rain when it seemed like a drought was about to begin.

The dance processions also served the useful goal of fending off sickness and disease, particularly during epidemics. The dragon dance was incorporated into rural celebrations and grew to be strongly linked to the Chinese New Year festivities. Shamanism, which was widely practiced in ancient China, may be the source of the connections between dragons and rain, dance, and healing.

According to folklore, there existed a race of dragons ruled by Lung-Wang, the Dragon King. They could assume human shape and abduct young girls thanks to their scaly bodies, four legs, and horns. They resemble Nagas, the snake-like mythical beings from Hinduism that guard water supplies. These dragons often have a gorgeous pearl in their possession in Chinese art, and it's possible that this pearl alludes to the notion of riches associated with the phenomena of a rainbow due to its iridescent brightness.

Another common misconception was that a different dragon king ruled over each of the Four Seas of the earth (the ancient Chinese only saw four seas, not seven). They are Ao Kuang, who governs the East, Ao K'in, who governs the South, Ao Jun, who governs the West, and Ao Shun (North). Although Ao Kuang is in charge, all four must submit to the Jade Emperor's will, to whom they pay respect in the third month of the year—the month with the most intense rains. In addition to these more powerful individuals, villagers often thought that any nearby water source was the residence of a dragon. Over 40 Chinese rivers include the term "dragon" in their names, demonstrating the long-standing association between dragons and rivers.

A significant importance for the dragon also developed in some of the more formal Chinese faiths. A dragon that appeared from behind clouds in Chan Buddhist art represented truth and the challenges of fully understanding it. The dragon was much more significant to Taoists since it stood for the center, all-pervasive Tao energy. Taoists also embraced the four dragon monarchs of the Four Seas. The most recent "year of the dragon" was from January 2012 to February 2013. The dragon is the fifth sign of the Chinese zodiac, or shengxiao, and it is linked to one of the 12 years in the calendar cycle.

Chinese Zodiac Signs
Robes of Dragons

As we have seen, the Chinese emperor and dragon made the ideal couple the Son of Heaven, the greatest mythical being, and the most significant person in the realm. In fact, a lot of people believed that the emperor was the ultimate rain-bringing dragon in human form. Therefore, the emperor donned silk garments with wonderfully embroidered dragon designs on them, sat on a throne with dragon carvings, and had his palace decorated with architectural details depicting dragons in order to emphasize this fortunate link. To set it apart from other lesser dragons, which only had four claws, the dragon connected to the emperor always had five claws.

Depending on the dynasty, the so-called Dragon Robes of the Emperor, or longpao, changed. A full-length surcoat that clasped at the side and was decorated with nine five-clawed dragons floating above clouds, rocks, and sea—the three elements of the universe—was one of the most striking ensembles worn by Qin emperors. The size, color, and cut of these robes were all rigorously regulated in a complex hierarchy of social custom for empress women, select favored and high-ranking court officials, and their own spouses. On rare occasions, foreign dignitaries and diplomats were given the privilege of entering court while dressed in dragon robes.
Chinese Dragon Robe

Chinese Art Features Dragons

As was already noted, dragons were a common motif in certain religious paintings, but many secular painters couldn't help but be moved by the sight. Dragons were etched on weapons and armor, carved in jade, painted on exquisite porcelain, carved and inlaid in lacquerware, and shown in paintings and wall hangings. They also appeared in jewelry. Dragons were utilized as ornamental borders on ceramics and bronzes, and these borders became more and more stylized until they were no longer recognizable as the source of their inspiration.

A stylized C-shaped carving in jade is the oldest known portrayal of a dragon. It belongs to the Hongshan civilisation, which flourished between 4500 and 3000 BCE, and was discovered in eastern Inner Mongolia. Similar to how the dragon has remained a popular theme in Chinese art, the Hongshan image is still likely the most well-known since it is being utilized in a variety of contexts today, from corporate logos to welcome banners at Beijing's international airport.

Chinese Hongshan Statue

Festival of the Dragon Boats

The poet and politician Qu Yuan was first honored at the Longzhou jie, also known as the Dragon Boat Festival (c. 340-278 BCE). The Chu Minister of State had committed himself by plunging into the Miluo River as a dramatic reaction to being banished after a rival politician had slandered him. Boats were sent out to look for his corpse, but they were unsuccessful, so in honor of him, his followers dropped rice dumplings (zongzi) into the lake. In order to further remember the tragedy, a boat race was organized on the river every year after that. This custom then spread to other rivers around China, and it quickly expanded to serve the greater purpose of appeasing the rain-bringing dragon. As a result, the prow of the boats usually has a dragon head, while the stern usually has a tall dragon's tail. Today's race, which traditionally takes place on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, is an eye-catching component of the Duanwu Festival.

Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

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