The Significance of Dragons in Chinese Culture

You’ve probably heard countless stories about heroes slaying dragons while growing up, but that fact isn’t only limited to children’s stories, as a lot of movies and shows also portray dragons as monsters that breathe fire and terrorize towns. However, when you’re a Chinoy, you probably have a very different outlook on dragons, since dragons are a vital part of Chinese culture. You only have to look at the dragon-themed holidays that exist, particularly the Dragon Boat Festival and Chinese New Year, which features the dragon dance. Dragons-themed items can also be found in many Chinese establishments–everything from statues to door engravings to paintings. In addition, the dragon zodiac sign is highly regarded, as many parents want their children to be born in the year of the dragon because they believe it will bring good luck to their family. If dragons are supposed to be vicious creatures, then why are they so important to Chinese culture? 


There’s a difference between European dragons and Chinese dragons.

Due to the predominance of Western culture, most of us think we have a universal idea of what a dragon is, but there’s actually a big difference between European dragons and Chinese dragons, the most obvious one being their appearance. European dragons typically resemble giant lizards or dinosaurs with bat-like wings, while Chinese dragons are more serpent-like and don’t have wings. They are said to be a combination of nine different animal body parts: horns of a stag, head of a camel, eyes of a demon, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a carp, claws of an eagle, paws of a tiger, and ears of a cow. Some also say that Chinense dragons are a combination of all the animals in the Chinese zodiac.


Another main difference between European dragons and Chinese dragons is that the idea of dragons being destructive and malevolent creatures came from European culture, as they are usually associated with fire and poison. Chinese dragons, on the other hand, are  life-giving and are commonly associated with air and water. 


Dragons are a significant part of the Chinese creation story.

It is said that dragons helped the goddess Nu Kua create the Earth and humanity. Nu Kua herself had the body of a dragon (or a snake in some versions), and she carved pillars to hold up the sky and placed a dragon on top to keep the weight of the heavens from crashing down. She then created the first humans, among which was the Yellow Emperor (黃帝), who was the father of the Han Dynasty. This is why emperors were regarded as deities, since they were believed to be the direct descendants of dragons and therefore possessed the knowledge and wisdom of their dragon forefathers. This is also the reason why the Chinese began calling themselves the descendants of the dragon to mark their ethnic identity. 


However, not all dragons were good, as the four Dragon Kings (who were meant to represent the four known seas at the time) were jealous of Nu Kua’s achievements and caused devastating floods that nearly destroyed the Earth. After the Dragon Kings were defeated, Nu Kua created a new legion of dragons that would live alongside humans and teach them the basic skills for agriculture and fishing.


Chinese dragons don’t breathe fire, nor are they mindless beasts.

As mentioned before, dragons are believed to possess knowledge and wisdom. In fact, they are considered to be one of the most intelligent creatures along with the tortoise, phoenix, and unicorn. Dragons also have the ability to control the weather. Legends say they are the ones who conjure thunderstorms, hailstorms, and tornadoes, but they can also protect humanity from them and bring much-needed rain to allow crops to grow and prosper. In rural areas, farmers would arrange a procession where they would carry a dragon figure that’s typically made with cloth spread over a wooden frame. The purpose of this procession is to thank the dragons for their generosity, encourage them to bring more rain, or ask for their protection against illness and natural calamities. This practice eventually became known as the Dragon Dance, which is an essential part of the Chinese New Year. And this was also how dragons became a symbol of good luck and wealth. 


The same goes for the Dragon Boat Festival. Dragon Boat racing began more than 2500 years ago, and it was originally created by fishing communities to appease the rain gods (presumably the dragons). However, the Dragon Boat Festival surprisingly has little to do with dragons, as the tradition began when Qu Yuan, a respected poet and official during the Warring States Period, drowned himself in a river out of sorrow after he was exiled by the emperor. Villagers went to look for him on dragon boats and threw sticky rice dumplings (now known as Machang) into the water to keep the fish from eating Qu Yuan’s corpse. The villagers never found him, but the Dragon Boat Festival continues to be celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, which is the day of Qu Yuan’s death. 


In the end

Chinese dragons are more than just mythical creatures to be slain by knights in shining armour. They are more than just aesthetics or characters that are added to a movie for the sake of showing off special effects. They are an important part of Chinese culture and tradition because they are believed to be humanity’s tutors and protectors. They have become the most popular symbols of wealth and good luck, so it’s no wonder that they are still being celebrated and revered today. 

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