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Published on Jun 13, 2013 in Asia, China, News

The Origin of the Chinese Dragon

Whenever we think of a Chinese festival or celebration, we usually conjure up an image of bright colors, confetti, fireworks, and dragons, which have become an important part of Chinese culture and tradition. But why dragons?

One reason is that they look fierce and powerful. And in Chinese lore, that’s actually the point. Chinese dragons are meant to symbolize omnipotent power. In Dynastic China (China up until 221 B.C., at which time China was unified under one emperor and was then known as Imperial China), the dragon was used as a symbol of the power of the Emperor. In Chinese culture, if you’re considered powerful, you’re a dragon. If you’re considered insignificant, you’re a worm.

In Chinese history there’s a pecking order of dragons. For example, in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 B.C. to 256 B.C.), a 5-clawed dragon was a symbol of the emperor, a 4-clawed dragon, was assigned to nobles, and a 3-clawed dragon was the symbol of a minister. That changed slightly in the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C. to 206 B.C.) where the Emperor was represented by the 5-clawed dragon, and commoners by the 4-clawed and 3-clawed dragon. Despite Hollywood, most Chinese dragons don’t have wings and, in Chinese lore, they don’t need wings to fly. In Superman-like fashion, they just do it as a result of their own power.

chinese-dragon-oNo one knows for sure when dragons first became part of Chinese culture, but we know that the symbol of a dragon in China did appear as far back as 5,000 B.C. In fact, as far back as 3,000 B.C., when ancient Chinese would excavate a dinosaur bone, they would refer to their discovery as dragon bones. But the image of a dragon is primarily thought to have originated from the totems of different tribes in ancient China. A totem is an object or symbol which represents an animal or plant. It also serves as the emblem of a group or tribe. It was common in ancient China, when tribes merged, to also merge their emblems. Subsequently, the image of a dragon eventually evolved from the combining of tribal totems into the mystical creature we see today. The image itself is the compilation of many creatures. For example, start with an elongated snake body, make it huge, cover it with carp scales, add deer horns, bull’s ears, a goat’s beard, hawk’s claws, a tiger’s sole, and demon eyes. There are variations, of course, but you can easily see how the incorporation of totems from various ancient tribes would account for the general image of the dragon we see today. Combine that image with folk lore, and you have the historical thread for the Chinese dragon.

The fire-breathing dragon, with large fangs and an extremely bad disposition was first described in the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient poem from Mesopotamia (Iraq). It wasn’t originally a part of Chinese lore.

Surprisingly, in ancient China, the original legends of a dragon were that of a benevolent creature who was powerful, wise, and just. Buddhists first introduced the concept of a malevolent dragon who they blamed for floods, storms, and other natural catastrophes. It was often their way of explaining acts of nature.

The name dragon first entered the English language in the 13th century and came from the French word dragon, which itself was derived from the Latin draconem, which means huge serpent, mythological or not.


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