Dragons are everywhere in China.
as friezes on buildings both ancient and modern, and woven into exquisite silk brocades.
But dragons are seen very differently in China from how they are depicted in the west. The western media often use the image of a dragon to represent China, particularly when they want to illustrate something that China is doing which is thought to be a threat to the west either economically or militarily. Using a ferocious dragon to make such a point shows how completely they misunderstand the symbolism of the Chinese dragon.
In western folklore, dragons are fearsome, evil, voracious creatures who think nothing of devouring a virgin or two for breakfast. Indeed England’s own patron saint, St George, gets his legendary claim to fame from slaying a dragon in order to rescue just such a maiden.
Dragons are mentioned in the Bible, but not in a positive way; there are numerous mentions of them in the Old Testament, and the New Testament has Satan depicted as a dragon in the Book of Revelation.
Thousands of gamers play ‘Dungeons and Dragons’ where the dragons are among the villains. In the of Lord of the Rings books by Tolkien, dragons feature regularly, and they are not on the side of the good guys, likewise in the Harry Potter books.
You get the picture – Dragons are BAD, avoid them at all costs.
In China dragons are the exact opposite: benign, positive, strong and lucky.
On wedding invitations this image is often printed in gold on a red background.
The dragon is one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac, and a ‘Dragon Year’ is the most popular year for having babies.
Precise descriptions of what a Chinese dragon looks like have been laid down since antiquity: a dragon has a head resembling a camel, with the horns of a deer, the eyes of a rabbit, the ears of a cow, the neck of a snake, the belly of a frog, the scales of a carp, the claws of a hawk and the palm of a tiger. There is a ridge of 81 scales down its back, the scales on the throat face the head, and the scales on the head are like a chain of mountains.
On either side of the dragon’s mouth are whiskers, and there is a beard under its chin. Its breath proceeds from the mouth like a cloud of vapour, sometimes being changed into water, sometimes into fire. They are always shown chasing a ‘flaming pearl’ (which they never seem to catch).
On Chinese New Year, if you go to watch the celebrations at any Chinatown in the west you are likely to see the ‘Dragon Dance’, with the ‘dragon’ following someone dancing in front of it with a ‘pearl’ on a stick to lure it on.
Despite dragons having a voice that resembles jangling copper pans, ALL Chinese dragons are deaf – which is the reason the Chinese word for a deaf person is lóng 聋, which is the same as the word for dragon 龙, but with the addition of the character for ‘ear’; in other words, a deaf person has dragon ears.
The next time you see a political cartoon in a western newspaper which features China as an aggressive dragon squaring up to Uncle Sam or John Bull, remember that in fact the poor old Chinese dragon is being demonised yet again.