Dragons “R” China

Dragons are everywhere in China.

On Ming vasesming dynasty vase with dragon, beautifully carved from red lacquer,  in gold and diamond jewelry, enameled in cloisonné bowls and boxes, cloisonne-jar-with-dragons

as friezes on buildings both ancient and modern, and woven into exquisite silk brocades.

Dragon robe  Imperial court 1890s Dragons are carved from wood, made of bronze, brass and glass. You can find plastic dragons, tatty beaded dragon ‘dangles’ to hang from the rear-view mirror in your car, dragon Xmas tree ornaments.

Dragon stampEven the design of Beijing’s International Airport is designed to resemble a dragon when seen from above.   

Communist dragons  Dragons ARE China


But dragons are seen very differently in ChinaDragon - Angry 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.   St George & the dragon             

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. 

The image of a dragon and a phoenixdragon-and-phoenix together symbolizes husband and wife, man and woman, Emperor and Empress.  

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.

Chinese Zodiac Wheel

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.      

Dragon chases flaming pearl 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. Dragon dance

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 ,  which is the same as the word for dragon , but with the addition of the character for ‘ear’;  in other words, a deaf person has dragon ears.

Dragons feed on  roasted swallows (why, I have no idea), and as they are divine animals nothing much can kill them, so they usually die of their own accord. Dragon papercut

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.

























About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
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6 Responses to Dragons “R” China

  1. Hari Qhuang says:

    I have always wondered why “long” is translated as “dragon”.
    They are both reptiles, I guess, but they do not have to be the same creature.
    Aren’t there too many differences between “long” and “dragon”? I mean, let us start with their physical appearances! 😀

    • I talked about dragons a while ago too. I saw a pair of vases given to King George V by the last Emperor Pu Yi at Buckingham Palace last summer. The vases captured stunning images of dragons.

      • herschelian says:

        Janet – thanks for your comment, I just looked at the vases given to George V to which you referred, they are truly stunning, and indeed they show the ‘true’ Chinese dragon. I just want people to realise that dragons in the west and dragons in China are two different species.
        I love Chinese dragons!!

    • herschelian says:

      Hi Hari – I’m not sure I understand the point you are making. What do you mean when you say “they are both reptiles..”? I am just an ignorant laowai, so despite my research I cannot claim any expertise on the subject! There are other classes of dragon I know, but they seem to be grouped together under the name ‘lóng’. If you know more/better please enlighten me!

      • Hari Qhuang says:

        Ha ha ha
        Well, I am one of those few traditional Chinese folks who are not sure if “Long” is “Dragon”.

        I mean, “Long” IS translated as “dragon” in Chinese-English dictionary but are they really the same species?

  2. camparigirl says:

    Somehow I love the idea that dragons are deaf. Also that Chinese and Western mythologies are such polar opposites

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