Representing the Chinese Emperor himself, the symbol of the dragon is a potent one in Chinese culture. Of all the many animal symbols that are important in the history and culture of China, it’s the dragon that reigns supreme.
Unlike the dragon found in Western mythology, a Chinese dragon is usually a long and sinuous beast without wings. It does have 4 legs in most artwork, but it is otherwise very snake-looking.
Dragons in Art
Dragon pictures and artwork are found all through China’s history, as well as in contemporary symbolism. Black and white ink brush paintings or more contemporary color pieces all portray the dragon in all its glory. A well-known example of Chinese painting with dragons is the long scroll titled “Nine Dragons” by Chen Rong. Painted mainly in black ink, it was done in 1244 and shows 9 dragons flying among the clouds high above the mountain landscapes below. The number 9 is already considered lucky in Chinese culture, though it is specifically connected to the 9 sons of the Dragon King in this case.
Another form of artwork where you see these images is the traditional Chinese dragon tattoo. Many people take a dragon design to represent beauty, power and all the other traits that the dragon holds. Tradition in China states that if you wear a dragon on your skin, you must live a life worthy of that image or the dragon will devour you.
Other than dragon pictures or paintings, there are numerous examples of dragons in Chinese statuary and sculpture too. City walls, gates, temples and shrines were often adorned with elaborate dragon statues to act as protectors for the buildings within.
Dragons in Myth and Culture
In mythology, the dragon is often the enemy of the tiger, and they frequently do battle. On the other hand, they are paired more peacefully with the phoenix as the yang to compliment the phoenix’s yin.
There are many mythological stories that include dragons, but the best known figure would be Yinglong who is the god of rain. He is a figure in many myths, particularly the “Three Sovereigns and Five Emperors”.
As mentioned earlier, the dragon was the symbol of the Chinese Emperor. More specifically, the Imperial dragon was one with 5 toes. Lesser nobility was free to use their own dragons, provided they had 4 or fewer toes. Basically, the Emperor held that his dragon symbol was unique to him alone.
The Chinese Zodiac Dragon
Though the dragon symbol is found through many aspects of Chinese culture, art and mythology, it’s probably the best known as one of the 12 animal symbols of the zodiac. Of all the symbols, the dragon is the most esteemed and people often try to have their children during a year of the dragon to ensure a good future for them. The year 2012 was a dragon year and the next one will be in 2024. Those lucky enough to be born under this sign are usually confident, successful, strong and charismatic.
Of course Chinese culture isn’t the only place where we find dragons. Almost all Asian nations (particularly Japan and Vietnam) have their own variations of the dragon, not to mention there are similar creatures through many European cultures as well. Though dragons tend to be the villain in European tales, such as in the myths of Greece or the United Kingdom, the idea that a dragon is filled with power and strength is quite universal.