The Chinese dragon, or Long (also spelled Loong or Lung) in Chinese, is a mythical Chinese creature that also appears in other East Asian cultures, and is also sometimes called the Oriental (or Eastern) dragon in the West. Usually depicted as a long, snake-like creature with numerous claws, it has long been a potent symbol of auspicious power in Chinese folklore and art. It is also the embodiment of the concept of yang and associated with the weather as the bringer of rain and water in general. Many Chinese people often use the term "Descendants of the Dragon" as a sign of ethnic identity.
The dragon is sometimes used in the West as a national emblem of China. However, this usage within both the People's Republic of China and the Republic of China on Taiwan is extremely rare. Firstly, the dragon was the sign of the Emperor of China, and was on the national flag of the late Qing Dynasty. These monarchist connotations run counter to modern Chinese ideologies. Secondly, the dragon has aggressive, warlike connotations that the Chinese government wishes to avoid. It is for the latter reason that the giant panda is far more often used within China as a national emblem than the dragon.
Despite this, the dragon still commands much respect in the Chinese culture. It is a taboo to disfigure a depiction of a dragon; for example, an advertisement campaign commissioned by Nike, which featured the American basketball player LeBron James slaying a dragon (as well as beating up an old Kung Fu master), was immediately censored by the Chinese government after public outcry over the disrespect of the dragon.
A number of Chinese proverbs and idioms also feature references to the dragon, for example: "Hoping one's child will become a dragon (, ie. be as successful and powerful as a dragon)".
There is no consensus on the origin of the Chinese dragon, but many scholars agree that it came from totems of different tribes in China. Some have suggested that it comes from a stylized depiction of existing animals, such as snakes, fish, or crocodiles. For example, the Banpo site of the Yangshao culture in Shaanxi featured an elongated, snake-like fish motif. Archaeologists believe the "long fish" to have evolved into images of the Chinese dragon. The association with fish is reflected in the legend of a carp that saw the top of a mountain and decided he was going to reach it. He swam upstream, climbing rapids and waterfalls letting nothing get in the way of his determination. When he reached the top there was the mythical "Dragon Gate" and when he jumped over he became a dragon. Several waterfalls and cataracts in China are believed to be the location of the Dragon Gate. This legend is used as an allegory for the drive and effort needed to overcome obstacles and achieve success.
An alternative view, advocated by He Xin, is that the early dragon depicted a species of crocodile. Specifically, Crocodilus porosis, an ancient, giant crocodile. The crocodile is known to be able to accurately sense changes in air pressure, and be able to sense coming rain. This may have been the origin of the dragon's mythical attributes in controlling the weather, especially the rain. In addition, there is evidence of crocodile worship in ancient Babylonian, Indian, and Mayan civilizations. The association with the crocodile is also supported by the view in ancient times that large crocodiles are a variety of dragon. For example, in the Story of Zhou Chu, about the life of a Jin Dynasty warrior, he is said to have killed a "dragon" that infested the waters of his home village, which appears to have been a crocodile.
Others have proposed that its shape is the merger of totems of various tribes as the result of the merger of tribes. The coiled snake or dragon form played an important role in early Chinese culture. Legendary figures like Nwa (z), Fuxi () are depicted as having snake bodies. Some scholars report that the first legendary Emperor of China Huang Di (S,Yellow Emperor) used a snake for his coat of arms. Every time he conquered another tribe, he incorporated his defeated enemy's emblem into his own. That explains why the dragon appears to have features of various animals.
There is no apparent connection to the western dragon.
The dragon as mythical creature
Non-imperial Chinese dragon in Shanghai.From its origins as totems or the stylized depiction of natural creatures, the Chinese dragon evolved to become a mythical animal. By the Han Dynasty, the dragon's appearance is described as having a body of a snake; the scales and tail of a fish; the antlers of a stag; the face of a camel; and two pairs of talons of eagles; ears of a bull; feet of a tiger and the eyes of a demon. It has a flaming pearl under its chin. Chinese dragons are occasionally depicted with bat-like wings growing out of the front limbs, but most do not have wings, though oddly enough, they are still capable of taking flight.
This description accords with the artistic depictions of the dragon down to the present day. The dragon has also acquired an almost unlimited range of supernatural powers. It is said to be able to disguise itself as a silkworm, or become as large as our entire universe. It can fly among the clouds or hide in water (according to the Guanzi). It can form clouds, can turn into water or fire, can become invisible or glow in the dark (according to the Shuowen Jiezi).
Chinese dragons are strongly associated with water in popular belief. They are believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, or seas. They can show themselves as water spouts (tornado or twister over water). In this capacity as the rulers of water and weather, the dragon is more anthropomorphic in form, often depicted as a humanoid, dressed in a king's costume, but with a dragon head wearing a king's headdress.
There are four major Dragon Kings, representing each of the four seas: the East Sea (corresponding to the East China Sea), the South Sea (corresponding to the South China Sea), the West Sea (sometimes seen as the Indian Ocean and beyond), and the North Sea (sometimes seen as Lake Baikal).
Because of this association, they are seen as "in charge" of water-related weather phenomenon. In premodern times, many Chinese villages (especially those close to rivers and seas) had temples dedicated to their local "dragon king". In times of drought or flooding, it was customary for the local gentry and government officials to lead the community in offering sacrifices and conducting other religious rites to appease the dragon, either to ask for rain or a cessation thereof.
The King of Wu-Yue in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms period was often known as the "Dragon King" or the "Sea Dragon King" because of his extensive hydro-engineering schemes which "tamed" the seas.
The dragon as symbol of imperial authority
An imperial robe from the Qing DynastyAt the end of his reign, the first legendary Emperor Huang Di was said to have been immortalized into a dragon that resembled his emblem, and ascended to Heaven. Since the Chinese consider Huang Di as their ancestor, they sometimes refer to themselves as "the descendants of the dragon". This legend also contributed towards the use of the Chinese dragon as a symbol of imperial power.
The dragon, especially yellow or golden dragons with five claws on each foot, was a symbol for the emperor in many Chinese dynasties. The imperial throne was called the Dragon Throne. During the late Qing Dynasty, the dragon was even adopted as the national flag. It was a capital offense for commoners to wear clothes with a dragon symbol. The dragon is featured in the carvings on the steps of imperial palaces and tombs, such as the Forbidden City in Beijing.
In some Chinese legends, an Emperor might be born with a birthmark in the shape of a dragon. For example, one legend tells the tale of a peasant born with a dragon birthmark who eventually overthrows the existing dynasty and founds a new one; another legend might tell of the prince in hiding from his enemies who is identified by his dragon birthmark.
The Empress of China was often identified with the Chinese phoenix.
Modern belief in the Chinese dragon
In modern times, belief in the dragon appears to be sporadic at best. There appear to be very few who would see the dragon as a literally real creature. The worship of the Dragon Kings as rulers of water and weather continues in many areas, and is deeply ingrained in Chinese cultural traditions such as Chinese New Year celebrations.