The Chinese dragon—the myths, the interpretations, the inspirations
By Lu Yan  ·  2024-02-04  ·   Source: NO.6 FEBRUARY 8, 2024
Shoppers stock up for the coming Spring Festival at a mall in Beijing on January 20 (WEI YAO)

The Year of the Dragon is here, starting on February 10 and ending on January 28, 2025. While the dragon is often seen as an evil creature in other cultures, the Chinese dragon, or lóng (long with a second tone) according to the official pinyin romanization system, represents power, wisdom, strength and prosperity. 

As a result, the Year of the Dragon carries people's best wishes for wellbeing and prosperity. 

As they usher in the new lunisolar year, Chinese people are exploring ways to transmit the traditional elements of dragon culture, while making innovations to create new modern trends.

Students perform a dragon dance to celebrate International Children’s Day at a primary school in Suzhou City, Jiangsu Province on June 1, 2023 (XINHUA)

A symbol of the nation 

In the Chinese zodiac system, 12 animals represent 12 consecutive years, with every lunisolar year featuring a zodiac sign animal. The Chinese dragon is the fifth of the zodiac animals, which also include the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

More than a zodiac sign, the dragon is considered the symbol of the Chinese nation. Chinese people claim to be descended from dragons. In the Shi Ji, or Records of the Grand Historian, a monumental history book of ancient China compiled by the revered scholar Sima Qian of the Western Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 8), the first emperor of the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220) Liu Bang was said to have been conceived after his mother had seen a dragon in her dreams.

The dragon was a symbol of imperial power and authority in China. Emperors had dragons embroidered on their robes and carved into the throne, beds and even the columns and walkways of their palaces.

"Dragon culture is one of the oldest, longest surviving and most complex traditional Chinese cultures, deeply rooted in the subconscious of every Chinese person," Li Jingyan, Director of the Fuxin Chahai Site Museum in Liaoning Province, told Guangming Daily newspaper. The site is dedicated to a Neolithic human settlement that dates back about 8,000 years.

The legendary creature originated in Chinese mythology and folklore. No one knows exactly when the dragon legends began, but according to Guo Dashun, Honorary Dean of the Liaoning Provincial Institute of Cultural Relics and Archaeology, they can be traced back nearly 10,000 years.

Some scholars believe that its possible origins are snakes, alligators or fish. Today, it is commonly depicted as a combination of nine animal characteristics—the horns of a deer, the head of a camel, the eyes of a rabbit, the neck of a snake, the belly of a clam, the scales of a fish, the claws of an eagle, the paws of a tiger and the ears of an ox—as recorded in a book on flora and fauna written in the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties. Other scholars think the image of the dragon was inspired by lightning.

In Chinese folklore, the Dragon Kings, also known as the Dragon Gods, are a group of deities who live in different bodies of water and are responsible for local rain and snowfall, and all the events and creatures in their respective habitats.

The concept of the dragon is closely related to the development of primitive agriculture. Ancient farmers prayed for rain and the dragon figure over time became an agricultural symbol of good things to come.

According to Guo, this image changed slightly in different dynasties, reflecting the features of a specific time. For example, in the Spring and Autumn (770-476 B.C.) and Warring States (475-221 B.C.) period, commonly known as a tumultuous time when different states fought for power and philosophical schools were on the rise, the dragon appeared in many forms—with many different connotations. But the creature looked simply resplendent in the Tang Dynasty (618-907), one of the most prosperous dynasties in imperial Chinese history. 

Tang emperors wore robes with dragon designs as an imperial symbol. During the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, the number of claws a dragon had varied according to imperial rank, with only emperors worthy of five-toed golden dragon motifs; princes and other nobles had to make do with four.

Related activities have been and continue to be enjoyed by people nationwide.

For example, dragon boat racing, originally a sacrificial activity dating back more than 2,000 years, is a human-powered watercraft activity that usually takes place during the Dragon Boat Festival. This important traditional Chinese festival falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the traditional calendar—usually in early June.

The dragon dance, said to have begun in the Han Dynasty, is most often seen during festive celebrations. The dance is performed by a team of skilled dancers who manipulate a long, flexible, giant dragon puppet using poles placed at regular intervals along its length. The team simulates the imagined movements of this river spirit in a winding, heaving manner.

Additionally, Chinese people also like to use the Chinese character for dragon (long) in male names, think kungfu stars Bruce Lee (Li Xiaolong) and Jackie Chan (Cheng Long), both actors very popular with Chinese and international audiences alike. 

Nowadays, dragon images are ubiquitous in everyday life in China, and are especially popular for this year's Spring Festival. Decorative paper cuttings or stuffed animals are available in supermarkets everywhere for people to buy and place in their homes to create a festive atmosphere.

Online shopping platforms are also flooded with dragon-emblazoned products.

China's leading sportswear brands like Li-Ning and ANTA have inserted the dragon element into their designs. Some of the uniforms worn by Team China during major international events like the Olympic Games had the creature's pattern on them in the hopes of helping the athletes jump higher, run faster and be stronger.

A visitor takes a picture of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics mascot Bing Dwen Dwen with a hat featuring a Chinese zodiac dragon, at China's National Stadium in Beijing on November 29, 2023 (XINHUA)

A joint celebration 

To welcome the Year of the Dragon, dedicated activities are taking place across China. Moreover, the lunisolar New Year has also become a global cultural event. "Some rough estimates suggest that the festival is a public holiday in almost 20 countries and is celebrated in various ways by about one fifth of humanity," Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said on December 25, 2023 at a regular press briefing, adding that traditional celebratory activities are organized in nearly 200 countries and regions.

The UN on December 22, 2023 officially listed the Chinese New Year as a floating holiday on the United Nations Calendar of Conferences and Meetings.

Understanding the symbolism of the Chinese Dragon zodiac sign helps to understand Chinese culture and the lunisolar New Year celebration. 

In April 2023, the Beijing Overseas Cultural Exchange Center (BOCEC) and the Silk Road Art Research and Creativity Center of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) launched a competition inviting artists and designers worldwide to create works centered on the image and symbolism of the Chinese Dragon zodiac sign, while incorporating elements of the Spring Festival or lunisolar New Year.

This event, the 2024 Global Zodiac Design Competition, was sponsored by the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Culture and Tourism and the CAFA. It received 4,033 works covering graphic, multimedia, and interactive product designs from participants from 14 countries across four continents. No fewer than 76 works received an award last December.

"We want to convey the idea that for Chinese people, the dragon is not evil, but represents prosperity and kindness," Wang Hairu, Deputy Director of the Beijing Overseas Cultural Exchange Center (BOCEC), told Beijing Review. Speaking about the differences in the world's understanding of dragons, she said, "When faced with such cultural differences, we must show respect and understanding." 

Great Wall Dragon, a super large moving device made of aluminum created by Chinese robotics artist Sun Shiqian, won first prize in the product design category. Measuring some 20 meters in length and weighing in at 10 (metric) tons, the work consists of a giant dragon with the Great Wall serving as its body. It combines these two distinct Chinese elements in one piece to convey both traditional Chinese culture and futuristic robot vibes.

Some artists designed adorable cartoon-like dragon images, which contrast sharply with the creature's more traditional, dignified images. Another award winner was an eye-catching set of fruit forks crafted by designer Kong Hongmiao. Each of the five forks is decorated with a body part of a cute and colorful cartoon dragon, and the whole set looks like a miniature version of a dragon dance performance. 

Other award-winning works included night lights, pencil sharpeners and toy bricks starring artistic and cartoon dragons, both pleasant to look at and useful in everyday life.

The Global Zodiac Design Competition is an annual event. Since 2014, the competition has featured design works of 10 Chinese zodiac animals, with one for each year. As per usual, following this year's competition, an exhibition of the winning works, as well as works by other artists, is held in Beijing and cities in 10 other countries, including Mexico, Peru, the United States, Greece and Germany.

"The works combine traditional elements with innovative and modern forms of presentation. We hope they are well received both domestically and internationally," Wang said, adding that in the future, the competition will be open to more artists and designers from around the world and continue to serve as a platform for exchange among artists and for non-Chinese people to learn about China's traditional culture.

Wang said the dragon represents diversity and inclusiveness because it is itself a combination of different creatures, inspiring different interpretations from different cultures. "So it can build bridges for communication among civilizations," she concluded.

Artworks about the loong and other Chinese zodiac animals are on display inside an exhibition hall in Beijing on December 20, 2023. The pieces include award-winning works of the 2024 Global Zodiac Design Competition. (WEI YAO)

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

Comments to 

China Focus
Special Reports
About Us
Contact Us
Advertise with Us
Partners:   |   China Today   |   China Pictorial   |   People's Daily Online   |   Women of China   |   Xinhua News Agency   |   China Daily
CGTN   |   China Tibet Online   |   China Radio International   |   Global Times   |   Qiushi Journal
Copyright Beijing Review All rights reserved 京ICP备08005356号 京公网安备110102005860