Growing up in the Western tradition, I first knew of dragons as the Europeans saw them—fierce monsters who guarded great treasures and threatened human civilization. Later, when I hit a stage of science fiction/fantasy fandom, I saw them as intelligent, powerful creatures that could stand as either clever enemies or close friends and allies for humans. I left that obsession back with my teenage years, but now that I’m taking a new look at dragons for Dragon Crossing, I’m curious about another tradition: the Eastern one.
The most famous Asian dragon is the Chinese dragon, long viewed as a wise protector and bringer of good luck. Where Western dragons are greedy and cruel, Chinese dragons are generous, protecting, and even kind. Where the dragons of Europe are built like solid lizards with large wings, Chinese dragons are long, sleek, and able to fly with small-to-nonexistent wings.
The Chinese dragon is said to be a combination of nine other animals—it has the horns of a deer, the head of a camel, the eyes of a demon, the neck of a snake, the viscera (inner organs) of a tortoise, the claws of a hawk, the palms of a tiger, and the ears of a cow. Some variations list different animals, such as the fish, the ox, or the rabbit, as part the dragon’s form. Whatever it’s made of, though, the dragon will most often appear in human form when interacting with humans.
The dragons of China, with their ruling of the water and authority over the weather, were seen as powerful protectors, leading to many ceremonial rituals asking them for rain. Some of these rituals, like the dragon dance and dragon boat festival, are still celebrated today, though they have become less of a ritual and more of a cultural holiday.
Because Westerners like me are most familiar with the legends surrounding our European dragons (like Beowulf’s dragon or the tale of Saint George), I thought it would be interesting to look into just a few of the many stories of China’s dragons. It won’t just help in understanding the dragons—it will help in understanding another culture, too! Stories have always been my gateway into other places, whether real or imaginary, and it’s time now to step into the mind of ancient China. In my next two posts, I will be sharing two of the legends I have discovered.