The Chinese dragon is able to breathe fire, summon wind and call for rain, fly into the clouds and hide at the bottom of the sea. They are also shapeshifters, capable of becoming as large as the sky or disguising itself by being as tiny as a pinhead.
In Chinese lore, the dragon was a benevolent creature with powers to bring rain, floods, and even hurricanes to a land. Along with this ability, the dragon signified power, strength, and good luck. Starting in the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), Emperors took on the symbolism of the Dragon as they hoped to bring good fortune to their lands.
Almost every tribe had its own unique dragon in ancient times. It was said that Huangdi fought with Yandi for the throne after the demise of Chi You, which ended up with the victory of Huangdi who adopted an imaginary dragon for his coat of arms. Later, Huangdi launched a series of wars against the nine tribes on the Yellow River Valley, and incorporated the other tribes’ dragons into his own after defeating them (thus explaining why the dragon has attributes of nine other creatures), claiming himself to be monarch of the central plains of China after his great unification. The dragon totem has been popular throughout China ever since.
The number 9 is considered lucky in Chinese culture, and this fact is reflected in the depiction of the Chinese Dragon. Nine different animal resemblances make up the appearance of the Chinese dragon. The scales of a Chinese dragon further display the significance of lucky number 9. It is said that dragons possess scales of both the yin and yang essence, with 81 and 36 scales respectively, both numbers being multiples of 9.
Children of the Dragon
According to Chinese myths, the dragon has nine children (not including mortals, such as the legendary Yandi): Bixi, Qiuniu, Yazi, Chaofeng, Pulao, Chiwen, Bi’an, Suanni and Pixiu. More interestingly, the nine dragon children have different characters from one another, and their images (to be more specific, imaginary images) are widely used in architectural decoration, especially in the imperial palaces.
- Bixi, the eldest of the nine dragon children, has the shape of a turtle with sharp teeth, and is fond of carrying heavy objects; it’s often depicted on the sides of grave monuments.
- Qiuniu, a yellow scaly dragon, has a liking for music and excels in playing it; it’s often used to adorn musical instruments.
- Yazi, with a snake belly and a leopard head, is keen on fighting and killing; it’s often used as the decoration of sword grips.
Chaofeng has an instinctive taste for adventure; it’s often used to adorn the roof ridges of palaces.
- Pulao is known for its loud crying; it’s often used as handles on the top of bells.
- Chiwen, living in the sea, has a harsh voice and takes delight in devouring the other creatures; it’s often erected on the ends of ridgepoles of palaces.
- Bi’an has a fancy for lawsuits, so it’s often erected at jail gates.
Suanni has a shape of a lion and takes delight in sitting cross-legged and smelling the odor of incense; it’s often depicted on the incense burners and seats of Buddhist temples.
- Pixiu is fierce and majestic with a horse’s body, and it’s in charge of exorcising the demons to keep Heaven safe; it’s often used to guard gates.
Unlike castle-burning dragons of Western stories, Chinese Dragons are a benevolent symbol in Chinese culture. From celebrations to the Zodiac, to historical rulers, the dragon has played a large part in China’s rich history.
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Chinese Idioms Related to Dragon
- 龙飞凤舞(dragon flies and phoenix dances): referring to a flamboyant style of calligraphy and writing devoid of content.
- 龙马精神 (spirit of a dragon horse): referring to vigorous spirit in old age.
- 鱼龙混杂 (fish and dragons jumbled together): referring to good and bad people mixed together.
- 龙腾虎跃 (dragon rises and tiger leaps): referring to a scene of hustling and bustling activity.
- 车水马龙 (carriages move on like a stream and horses pass like a long dragon): referring to a scene of heavy traffic.
- 龙潭虎穴 (dragon’s pool and tiger’s den): referring to a very dangerous spot.
- 画龙点睛 (paint a dragon and dot in the eye): referring to adding the vital finishing touch; the crucial point that brings the subject to life.
- 叶公好龙 (Lord Ye loves a dragon): referring to someone who pretends to like something that he really fears.
- 鲤鱼跳龙门 (carp jumped over the dragon gate): referring to someone who has successfully past the civil service examination.