26 Chinese dragon facts, for those curious about the majestic mascot of the Lunar New Year 2024.
The dragon is the only “animal” of the Chinese Zodiac that’s mythical in origin. A majestic being that occupies a complex, often paradoxical place in Chinese culture too.
Starkly different from the dreadful wyrms and fiery Smaugs of Western traditions, the Chinese dragon is associated with regality, might, success, and rain-making. Within Chinese worship and folklore, though, the highest deities are not dragon gods or draconic beings. There are also no prominent stories of “dragon warriors” conquering great evil, etc.
Being born in a Year of the Dragon doesn’t ensure lifelong prosperity either. Like all other Chinese Zodiacs, “dragon-borns” are subject to the flying stars positions of each year. There will be good years and there will be dire ones.
Most peculiarly, dragons were reduced to minor antagonists in two of the most famous Chinese myths—the Legend of Nezha and the Eight Immortals Cross the Ocean. While all ended well in these two stories, sort of, the dragons were decisively on the losing end by any measure.
In Journey to the West, the unfortunate Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean was practically a comical character.
If You’re Born in a Year of the Dragon …
Previous Years of the Dragon include 1928, 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, and 2012.
If you’re born in any of these years, you are likely courageous and resilient. Known for your energy and optimism.
On the flip side, and not too unlike a sovereign used to having his way, you could be perceived as autocratic, arrogant, and overbearing.
Take note too that Chinese astrology differentiates between dragons of different elements. An adventurous wood dragon is thus a different person from an ambitious firey one.
26 Dragon Facts to Welcome Year of the Dragon 2024 With
1. The Chinese character for the dragon is Lóng (龙). In poetic Chinese, the dragon is represented by the fifth Heavenly Stem of Chén (辰), which has the same pronunciation as “dawn” (晨) and could mean daybreak, time, or occasion. Correspondingly, the hour of Chén under the traditional Chinese time-keeping system is the period from 9 am to 11 pm, i.e., morning. Chén is furthermore the name of the third lunisolar month that typically begins in late March or early April.
2. The Chinese lunisolar calendar uses a cycle of 60 years, and so there are five dragon years within each cycle. These mighty dragon years are, in turn, differentiated by elemental associations. For example, 2024 is a year of the wood dragon. The previous year of the dragon in 2012 was a water dragon year.
3. Bear with me if you already know. The Chinese dragon has little resemblance to Western ones. Chinese dragons have elongated, serpent-like bodies with scales, beards, and in some cases, wings. They also have water-based powers such as rain-making instead of fire breaths, and in classic Chinese art, dragons are often depicted as grasping or toying with a precious pearl. The short of it, dragons are creatures of power, authority, luck, and sometimes, benevolence in Chinese culture. You’d be hard-pressed to find negative depictions of them in Chinese depictions.
4. There is no consensus over the origin of the Chinese dragon. Some historians believe the concept of the dragon began as a collective reference for the constellations of the eastern night sky. Others speculate whether “dragons” are no more than crocodiles or unusual serpents observed by the ancient Chinese people, or natural phenomena such as tornadoes. (It’s important to remember the Chinese word Long has very different connotations from the English noun) What is known, on the other hand, is that dragons were mentioned in ancient texts such as the I Ching, which dates from the Western Zhou Dynasty. This means the concept has existed for almost three millennia.
5. Dragons, or Nagas, exist in the Buddhist cosmology, where they are one of the Eight Legions of Deities (Aṣṭasenā). Described as serpent-like beings, their imagery likely influenced modern iconologies of Chinese dragons. However, it would be wrong to assume Nagas are the origins of Chinese dragons as Buddhism reached Chinese lands during the Han Dynasty, i.e., long after the above-mentioned Western Zhou Dynasty.
6. The Azure Dragon, or Qīnglóng (青龙) is one of the Four Celestial Creatures of Chinese Mythicism. He represents the East and the element of wood. He was also mentioned in numerous ancient and medieval Chinese texts. The Azure Dragon is closely related to the astrological practices mentioned in (4).
7. There are numerous mentions of draconic or dragon-like creatures in ancient Chinese compendiums such as the Shānhǎi Jīng (山海经). The most famous is probably Yīnglóng (应龙), a mighty winged serpent/dragon that supposedly assisted the Yellow Emperor in battling his foes, and later, showed Yu where to create canals to drain the Great Deluge. Yinglong also influenced imperial associations of royalty with dragons as winged dragon designs were present on many valuable objects in earlier Chinese dynasties.
8. The ancient Chinese fire god Zhúlóng (烛龙), or “candle dragon,” is a serpentine giant with a human head. His conflicts with Water God Gònggōng (共工) damaged a pillar of heaven, and the world would have ended had the goddess Nǚwā (女媧) not repaired the pillar with a five-colour rock. Zhulong is described as residing in Mount Zhong and with a body large enough to encircle the mountain.
9. The “Nine Sons of the Dragon,” or Lóngshēng Jiǔzǐ (龙生九子), is a Ming Dynasty myth about the nine offsprings of the mythical dragon. There’s not much story involved, though, as the tale focuses on introducing the names and characteristics of these offspring. The names of these dragon sons are:
- Qiúniú (囚牛): A dragon-like being that loves music.
- Yázì ( 睚眦): A hybrid of a dhole and dragon who is aggressive and loves to fight.
- Cháofēng (嘲風): A hybrid of a phoenix and dragon who is fond of adventure.
- Púláo (蒲牢): A smaller dragon who screams mightily.
- Suānní (狻猊): A lion and dragon hybrid that is often seated.
- Bìxì (贔屭): A turtle and dragon hybrid whose shell can be used to carry heavy objects.
- Bì’àn (狴犴): A hybrid of a tiger and dragon that represents litigation and justice.
- Bāxià (霸下): A reptilian dragon that likes to drink water.
- Chīwěn (蚩吻): A fish and dragon hybrid that likes swallowing.
Note that the nine dragon offspring are often referenced in architectural elements.
10. As mentioned in my introduction, dragon gods were reduced to minor antagonists or victims of heroes in better-known Chinese fantasy sagas. In Investiture of the Gods, Nezha slew the Third Dragon Prince of the Eastern Ocean, after which the boy warrior was forced by the Four Oceanic Dragon Kings to commit suicide. In Journey to the West, Áo Guǎng (敖广), the Dragon King of the Eastern Ocean, could only watch haplessly as Sun Wukong took away the Ocean Calming Needle, i.e., the As-You-Wish Golden Cudgel. Some versions of the Eight Immortals Crossing the Ocean also describe the Eastern Dragon King as coming into conflict with the powerful Eight Immortals. This conflict didn’t end well for the poor dragon king too.
11. The Han Chinese are well-known for referring to themselves as the “Descendants of the Dragon.” This association likely began because of the myth that the Yellow Emperor ascended to heaven as a dragon after his passing, or flew to heaven on one. The Yellow Emperor is regarded as the ancestor of the Han Chinese. The Yellow Dragon is also sometimes regarded as the fifth and most powerful Celestial Beast (see 6) that represents the Middle.
12. Leylines are a big thing in Fengshui, where they are usually called “Dragon Veins” (龙脉 | Lóngmài). According to a TVB interview with Hong Kong Geomancer James Lee Shing Chak, Dragon Veins originate from the Kunlun and Tianshan mountain ranges and are strongest at the highest peak of a city. It is widely believed that harnessing the Qì (气), or energy, of these veins could bring great benefit. Vice versa, disrupting the veins of a city or country has catastrophic consequences.
13. Are there any notable “dragon warriors” in Chinese history or literature? Well, two names come to mind. The first is Three Kingdoms Shu General Zhàoyún (赵云), whose courtesy name is Zilóng (子龙), or “Young Dragon.” The second is Shǐ Jìn (史进) from Water Margin. The latter is nicknamed Jiǔwén Lóng (九纹龙) as he’s exactly that. He has nine awesome dragon tattoos on his body.
14. As is widely known, the dragon is inseparable from Chinese royalty. The Chinese imperial throne is called the “Dragon Throne.” The authority, benevolence, and even visage of the emperor also use the same reference. Chinese emperors furthermore don yellow robes with five-claw dragons to denote their rulership; anyone else who does so will be swiftly executed. Famously, the Book of Han (汉书 | Hàn Shū) claims Liúbāng (刘邦), the founder of the Han Dynasty, was conceived after his mother dreamed of a dragon.
15. There are various Chinese idioms, or Chéngyǔ (成语), that use the character for dragon. Curiously, though, many are obscure, and practically all are used to imply vitality, might, or vigour. The most famous ones are also paired with other mighty animals. For Chinese New Year, the most famous “dragon greeting” is probably Lóngmǎ Jīngshén (龙马精神)—the “vitality of the dragon and horse”.
16. Dragon dancing and dragon boating are two of the most representative cultural celebrations of China. The former originated as a Han Dynasty performance for visiting dignitaries. The latter is inseparable from the Chinese Dumpling Festival and is commonly said to have originated from the desperate attempts of villagers to prevent the corpse of patriot Qu Yuan from being eaten by fish. Note, though, that some historians argued that village boat races, the predecessor of dragon boating, long existed in some parts of China.
17. Liǔyì Chuánshū (柳毅传书), or “The Story of Liuyi,” is one of the four great folktales of China, often performed in Chinese opera too. The Chinese name actually means “The Message of Liuyi” and refers to the scholar’s efforts to save a dragon princess from domestic abuse by delivering a message to her father, the Dragon King of Lake Dongting. Liuyi succeeded but later declined the hand of the dragon princess as the latter’s abusive husband died in the ensuing fracas. Luckily, an uncle of the princess intervened and all ended well.
18. Despite their esteemed status in Chinese culture, there are very few notable draconic weapons in Chinese fantasy sagas and folktales. The most famous are probably Nezha’s Shroud of the Nine Dragons (九龙神火罩| Jiǔlóng Shénhuǒ Zhào) and the fiery Dragon Sword of Acala.
19. Ancient texts such as the Yuèjué Shū (越绝书) speak of the Lóngquán Jiàn (龙泉剑), or “Dragon Spring Sword.” Also known as the Lóngyuān Jiàn (龙渊剑), this elegant blade was supposedly forged by the master swordsmiths Ōu Yězi (欧冶子) and Gànjiàng (干将), and is one of the Ten Legendary Swords of Ancient China. The name supposedly originates from how the blade delivers the impression of gazing at mountain contours. An alternate folktale claims that the sword of Tang Dynasty founding emperor, Lǐ Yuān (李渊), was also named as such.
20. In stark contrast to the above, dragon weapons and techniques feature prominently in Wuxia. The most famous Wuxia sabre ever, hands-down, is Louis Cha’s Dragon-Slaying Sabre (屠龙刀| Túlóng Dāo). The Swimming/Dancing Dragon Sword, or Yóulóng Jiàn (游龙剑), is the heirloom of the Tianshan Sect in Liang Yusheng’s novels. And then there’s the Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms (降龙十八掌 | Xiánglóng Shíbā Zhǎng), one of two supreme techniques of the Beggars’ Clan and the strongest palm strike in Louis Cha’s universe. Not an exaggeration, but you can’t claim you are familiar with Chinese pop culture without knowing the awesome Dragon-Subduing Palms.
21. Speaking of the Eighteen Dragon-Subduing Palms, Louis Cha never did name all eighteen strikes in his writings. The strikes that he did name, on the other hand, all contain the Chinese character for dragon and are inspired by idioms from I Ching. The most well-known strike is Kànglóng Yǒuhuǐ (亢龙有悔). The “arrogant dragon has regrets.” A reminder to never go all out because of pride. A reminder, too, that a pinnacle is always followed by a decline.
22. Believe it, or not, dragons are indirectly associated with homosexuality in Chinese history and culture. The Warring State noble Lord Lóngyáng (龙阳君) was described as the lover of an unknown King of Wei. The most famous gay Chinese Emperor, Emperor Ai of Han, (汉哀帝 | Hàn Āidì), was, well, a dragon sovereign. Both gentlemen gave rise to the idioms Lóngyáng Zhīxìng, Duànxiù Zhīpǐ (龙阳之兴, 断袖之癖), which simply means male homosexuality. The Ming Dynasty collection Lóngyáng Yìshǐ (龙阳逸史) is a collection of short stories about male gigolos.
23. As the dominant civilisation of East Asia, Chinese imageries and veneration of the dragon influenced many surrounding realms. Japanese iconologies of the dragon are largely similar to Chinese ones. Chinese (Asian) Dragons also feature on flags and coat of arms of countries like Vietnam and Bhutan.
24. Are you familiar with Sega’s Like a Dragon games series? If you are, you would know that both Yakuza protagonists of this enduring series have elaborate dragon tattoos on their backs. Over in Hong Kong, the “Dragon Head” or Loong Tow (龍頭), is a colloquial Cantonese term for triad leaders, one that was popularised in many gangland movies and television series. The same pop entertainment shows also popularised the concept of the “Dragon Head Scepter” (龍頭棍 | Loong Tow Guan in Cantonese), the symbol of authority for such leaders.
25. The dragon is present in the world of Chinese tea too. One of the most beloved Chinese tea types is the Lóngjǐng (龙井), or “dragon well tea.” This pan-roasted green tea hails from Longjing Village of Hangzhou and could vary dramatically in price, as there are several grades. There are also various legends associated with the tea. For example, how Emperor Qianlong was deeply impressed by the refreshing, leafy flavour.
26. Lastly, the Chinese dragon has found its way into shadier aspects of life. “Chasing the dragon,” or zhuīlóng (追龙), refers to opium/heroin smoking. “Catching the dragon root/vein” is, well, a service you might be offered in some establishments, but only if you’re male. Let’s … leave it at that!