The Chinese dragon

The dragon is one of the most popular divine creatures in Chinese mythology. Photo: The Chinese Dragon

WASHINGTON, September 13th, 2013 — The Chinese dragon is the mythical animal that symbolized China and its people. It is also the most popular divine creatures in Chinese mythology.

Unlike the evil associated by Western mythology with dragons, Chinese dragons are gracious, benign creatures that people revere. To the Chinese, dragons are powerful supernatural demigods. They rule the seas, lakes and rivers, and they offer rain to the earth and allow the crops to grow.


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A typical Chinese dragon sports a beautiful pair of elongated stag horns atop his scaly head, two long tentacles arch from the end of a crocodilian snout, a thick serpentine body and four giant chicken legs with sharp eagle claws at the toes complete the portrait. Although wingless, Chinese dragons can levitate through the air and swim in the deepest oceans. They are physically precise with exactly 117 scales; 81 of the scales are positive or yang and 36 scales are negative or yin. Their colors usually reflect their domains – rulers of oceans have deep blue scales, kings of lakes and ponds sport an aqua sheen on their bodies, and denizens of bogs and fens are muddy black.

A standard Chinese dragon has four toes, while the Imperial Dragon has five.  During the Imperial Era, a golden, five clawed dragon represented the Emperor. People deferred to the Imperial ruler as the “Dragon Personage.” It was a capital offense for anyone other than the emperor to use the five-clawed dragon motif. 

As previously stated, Chinese Imperial dragons have five toes on each foot; Indonesian dragons have four toes and Japanese dragons have three toes. That was because the further away from China a dragon went, the fewer toes it had, and dragons only existed in China, Korea, Indonesia, and Japan because if they travelled any further there would be no toes left to walk on.

Japanese legends professed an opposing view. The Japanese claimed that dragons originated in Japan and the further they traveled away from home, the more toes they grew and as a result, if they went too far they would have too many toes to walk properly. In modern times, the Chinese dragon has evolved to become the symbol of China.


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In paintings, Chinese dragons were often depicted in misty clouds, because normal humans were supposedly unable to see the divine dragon in its entirety.  Chinese sometimes described a talented or heroic person as a descendent of dragons. It was not so much about genetics, but rather a euphemistic referral to a great ancestral heritage. Its benevolence represented goodness, greatness and blessings as well as all things divine and noble.

The Chinese high regard for dragons could be seen in carvings, paintings and writings, resulting in the dragons becoming the most popular and prevalent symbol in that country. Since they also ward off evil spirits and protect the innocent, Chinese dragons became known as divine mythical animals that were the ultimate symbol representing good fortune and long life. They often decorated the posts, beams, walls and roof tops of houses, temples and palaces. The written character for dragon, long, is also a popular given name; some examples are Bruce Lee (Li Xiao Long), Jackie Chen (Cheng Long) and yours truly (Tang Long).

Chinese believed that disasters such as tidal waves, floods and harsh storms were a direct result of people upsetting the dragons. In Shanghai, the massive construction of the city’s Yan’an elevated highway (1995-1999) had been going relatively smoothly until reaching its hub point at the Chengdu Lu crossing. Oddly, defying all explanation, the digging crew’s endless pounding couldn’t budge the ground beneath the site for its central pillar.

After a stream of engineers failed to figure out the cause of the delay, a priest was summoned to the site. At the end of the lengthy prayer and meditation, the priest informed the workers of a most unusual problem, a dragon was sleeping beneath their work site. The construction had awakened it, and it was preventing the pillar from being installed. Dragons are proud creatures, the priest explained, so a simple yet noble gesture in its honor would restore its slumber allowing construction to continue. The workers complied, the pillar was erected and they all lived happily ever after. 


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Tang Long

William Tang is a research analyst. Born in Taiwan, he is fluent in three dialects of Chinese and Spanish, plus survival level German and Japanese. He is a graduate of the Officers Advance Course at the General Political Warfare College, Taipei, Taiwan.

He lectures on Chinese history and culture and has two books in publication: “Tales of the Dragon – The Book of Lore,” an anthology of Chinese legends, fables, and historical anecdotes; and “Pets Only,” which recounts a pets operated eating establishment in northern Virginia. He lives with Shadow (Lab), Taz (Boxer) and Foxy Lady (Japanese Shiba Inu) in Fredericksburg, VA. He writes under the penname of TANG Long.

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