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Chinese Dragons

Chinese Dragon

Chinese Dragon

Since we’ve looked at both the origins of our scaly friends, and their purported racial types, it seems wholly on course to take a jolly meander off the beaten path and explore an entirely different nest of dragons. Dragons feature in most world mythologies, and whilst some traits are similar and their appearances closely resemble one another, sometimes the differences are intriguing and notable.

Since their examination offers a sharp contrast to the dragons (notably more European in origin) featured so far, we’ll give our bewinged friends from the east—Japan, China and thereabouts—their five minutes of fame.

Japanese Dragon

Japanese Dragon

This article deals with just Chinese dragons. Why? Because although Japan and surrounding areas do have a dragon mythology so thick you’d be hard pressed to wade in it, the majority of this is actually imported (we won’t say ‘stolen’!) from Chinese mythology. It’s no surprise, really, given the close proximity of the countries and the similarities between their cultures.

Last time we suggested that some scaly beasties might not be afforded dragon membership due to their overly serpentine physiques; in the case of our East Asian friends, this is hardly a consideration. Depicted throughout Japanese and Chinese mythologies, dragons are long, scaled serpentine creatures, with four legs and clawed feet.

Hold up! Something appears to be missing, doesn’t it? Aha, it would appear our would-be bewinged beasties aren’t so bewinged in East Asian mythology. Not only that, but whilst (most) Western dragons are perceived as evil and villainous, East Asian dragons are quite the opposite.

Whilst it might be a stretch of popular phrase to suggest people and their personalities are compared to dragons, it is doubtless that there have been accounts of hardy, less-appreciated mother-in-laws being referred to as ‘the dragon’, and let’s take even popular culture and raise the notion of the nerve-wracking reality TV show Dragon’s Den. Neither are good connotations and in both cases, the dragon is a fearful thing.

Conversely, in daily Chinese language, people with great achievements and outstanding personalities are compared to dragons. In fact, it is every father’s dream that his son will “become a dragon”, i.e. succeed in life.

Falkor the Luck DragonIn terms of mythology, these slender creatures are not only symbols of good fortune and luck, but also are believed to hold auspicious powers and great strength. These dragons often exhibit control over elements, especially water. The government of floods, rain and hurricanes are the best known examples. With these lucky connotations, it’s not hard to understand where The Neverending Story took inspiration for its (admittedly dog-like) luck-dragons.

Insofar as their origins, dragons on this side of the world are even more mysterious than their Western counterparts. Allegedly, dragons (specifically in China) were first depicted on tribal totems and in stylized depictions of actual creatures—whether now extinct or otherwise. Curiously, there is a species of saltwater crocodile—incidentally the largest living reptile, Crocodylus porosus—that can detect, quite accurately, changes in air pressure and subsequently sense rain. It’s quite a leap from crocodile to dragon, especially since the distribution of the saltwater crocodile is highest in Australia, although cynics could suggest the rarity of the beastie in China and the East could have led to not only warped artistic representations, but also a deeper mythos.

But we’re not cynics—we’re SFF nerds, and we know dragons exist/existed. We’re going to throw off the notion of misrepresented crocodiles and tribal totems. We’re even going to sidestep the story of the first legendary royal, Emperor of China, Huang Di (The Yellow Emperor), who would add to his crest a snake as he conquered, essentially ‘building’ a dragon onto a common snake as a result).

There is solace in mythology, where signs and mention of dragons appeared long before tribal totems and egocentric emperors.

Yin Yang DragonsChinese dragons have deep roots in Buddhist mythology, specifically the origins of less benevolent dragons. These dragons embodied the balance between yin and yang: of a dragon’s (supposed) 117 scales, 81 are of the positive ‘yang’ essence, while 36 are of the negative ‘yin’ essence. Essentially, dragons were ‘yang’, but in the same way Greek gods and goddesses could become angry, or take offence to a mortal’s actions, so could these beasts. Water destroys, they claimed, therefore so can dragons, commanding water as is their skill. This became a warning against upsetting a dragon, lest their wrath be realised and exacted.

If you’ll recall, we found it difficult to catalogue Western dragons; this is not the case with their East Asian counterparts. Chinese dragons come in nine clear varieties (though there are a handful of rarer additions), each with different symbolism.

We have the Qiulong, the Horned Dragons, the most commonly depicted dragon, and mightiest of all.

The Yinglong, the Winged Dragons, (aha, wings!) are the oldest of all eastern dragons and the only kind with wings.

The Coiling Dragons, the Panlong, are water dragons that inhabit the lakes of East Asia.

Dragon by AhyicodaeIn the service of the gods are the Tianlong, the Celestial Dragons, who pull the chariots of the gods and guard their palaces and temples.

The Shenlong are Spiritual Dragons, and govern the wind and rain.

The mysterious Fucanglong, the Dragons of Hidden Treasures, are the underworld dragons; guardians of buried treasures, both natural and man-made. Volcanoes are said to be created when they burst out of the ground to report to heaven.

The Underground Dragons, the Dilong, are earth dragons whose charge it is to preside over rivers and streams. Allegedly, they are the female counterparts of the Shenlong and they fly only in order to mate.

Huang Long by VyrilienHuanglong, the Yellow Dragons, once emerged from the River Luo and presented the legendary Emperor Fu Xi with the elements of writing. They are scholars and represent knowledge and intelligence.

Finally, Lóng Wáng, the Dragon Kings. These deserve an extra mention, being the rulers of the four seas in Chinese mythology.

Ao Guang (Dragon of the East Sea) is said to have ruled the largest territory, whilst the territories of Ao Qin (Dragon of the South), Ao Run (Dragon of the West), and Ao Shun (Dragon of the North) were smaller. This did not alter how fervently they were worshipped compared with Ao Guang, since to neglect and anger a Dragon King would have brought about disaster. These four kings are an important aspect of Chinese mythology and whilst they can transform into full human guise, their true forms are those of beautiful dragons. They live in crystal palaces guarded by shrimp soldiers and crab generals.

Since we’ve touched on shape-shifting, it is only right and natural that we discuss this further—because it’s very cool.

Dragon KingMuch in the same way that the gods and goddesses of other mythologies make contact with humans, the revered dragons are no different. The Dragon Kings are a shining example. These ‘kings’ are often depicted as humanoid, yet with the heads of dragons and imperial attire and adornments. A story tells of one of the Dragon Kings bringing about a great flood as a punishment for the human who abused his wife—the Dragon King’s niece—not only implying their wrath, but also family links.

There are stories of shape-shifting dragons who take on human appearance to blend in, or to ‘mate’ with humans, creating the supposed equivalent of demi-gods in dragon form. Perhaps Robin Hobb (et al) took some inspiration from here for her various instances of dragonkin. Unsurprisingly, the notion of mating with a wyvern is a little unorthodox, and since our East Asian dragons can helpfully shape-shift to humanoid form, it is little wonder why it is from Chinese mythology that the notion of dragonkin evolved.

It is safe to say that only a few of these exciting dragons will ever really feature in the literature we soak up in their detailed forms—and it’s a great pity. They are so different and intriguing in both their symbolic meanings and appearances. They differ so greatly from the European dragons we’re used to, and in many of the best ways.

Generally speaking, any Chinese dragon you might happen upon usually refers to the first on the list; the horned dragon, or Qiulong. This delightful beastie can produce rain and is extremely powerful. However, if you’re praying for rain (or lack thereof), you might have to speak up, as this specimen is completely deaf. In hindsight, with the plethora of choice available, for this deaf thing to have become the single Chinese dragon that people recognise is a little…well…boring.

Clearly our beloved SFF needs more Chinese-inspired dragons! Out with the Whitby Wyrm and in with shape-shifting deities of wind and rain who’ll charm their way into wedlock, give you a few offspring and then flood your city if you step out of line. Of course, I jest. They won’t flood your city. It’ll probably be the world.

Essentially the difference between European dragons and Chinese dragons is that the latter are sacred and worshipped; they are part of a religion. To the East Asians who revere them they are bringers of luck and fortune, guardians of life, angels of the east. Remember that the next time you’re idly passing a representation of a dragon in your local Chinatown and you feel like making fun of that bit that looks like a moustache…

Next we look at dragons from northern and eastern Europe.

This article was originally published on May 10, 2011.

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9 Comments

  1. Avatar Overlord says:

    Really impressed with these articles… so much time and research invested into them. Can’t wait until the next one.

  2. Avatar Ashur-is-King says:

    Great examination of Chinese dragons! I certainly agree that they’re a lot more complex and interesting than the traditional image we in the West have of dragons. In this vein, I’m wondering if you’ve read Elizabeth Haydon’s “Rhapsody” trilogy? Haydon’s dragons are clearly influenced by East Asian dragon lore, notably with the idea of shape-shifting dragons assuming human form and mating with humans.

    Having read the whole trilogy I must confess I have somewhat mixed feelings about these books, but the world-building is consummate and the dragons and human-dragon hybrids are the single coolest element in the series.

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  5. Avatar Arlyn says:

    I would like to point out that the highest rank of Chinese dragon does in fact posses wings. It is called the Ying-Lung.

  6. I don’t even consider long to be dragons anymore. They are just so different in every way, with the only similarity being that they are both big reptiles. Dragons are dragons, long are long.

  7. Avatar B says:

    “With these lucky connotations, it’s not hard to understand where The Neverending Story took inspiration for its (admittedly dog-like) luck-dragons.”

    Falkor’s head may have been famously dog-like in the movie, but in the actual book*, it was lion-like.

    *No one has lived until they’ve read The Neverending Story. Neil Gaiman is my favorite author, but Michael Ende’s The Neverending Story is my single favorite novel. If you’re worried about the target audience, it’s more mature and more deep/philosophical than the movie, while having all the requisite charm.

  8. Qiulong has got to be my favorite, it’s so pretty and those horns are epic. Even though I’m petrified of snakes, I’ve always loved the Chinese dragon more than other varieties around the world because there’s just something so regal about them. I wonder if maybe they made Falcor look more like a dog to appeal to kids.

  9. This article was extremely useful, not to mention genuinely interesting. Plus my heart leapt and melted simultaneously at the Never Ending Story image. I need to bookmark it for reference!!

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