Chinese dragons (Chinese: lóng or “lung”) are legendary creatures in Chinese mythology and folklore, with mythic counterparts among Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Turkic dragons. In Chinese art, dragons are typically portrayed as long, scaled, serpentine creatures with four legs. In contrast to European dragons that are considered evil, Chinese dragons traditionally symbolize potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, and floods. In yin and yang terminology, a dragon is yang (male) and complements a yin (female) fenghuang “Chinese phoenix”.
One of the dragons from The Nine Dragons handscroll, painted by the Song-Dynasty Chinese artist Chen Rong in 1244 CE. Ink and some red on paper. The entire scroll is 46.3 x 1096.4 cm. Located in the Museum of Fine Art – Boston, USA. (from Wikimedia Commons)
From its origins as totems or the stylized depiction of natural creatures, the Chinese dragon evolved to become a mythical animal. The Han Dynasty scholar Wang Fu recorded Chinese myths that long dragons had nine anatomical resemblances.
The people paint the dragon’s shape with a horse’s head and a snake’s tail. Further, there are expressions as ‘three joints’ and ‘nine resemblances’ (of the dragon), to wit: from head to shoulder, from shoulder to breast, from breast to tail. These are the joints; as to the nine resemblances, they are the following: his horns resemble those of a stag, his head that of a camel, his eyes those of a demon, his neck that of a snake, his belly that of a clam (shen), his scales those of a carp, his claws those of an eagle, his soles those of a tiger, his ears those of a cow. Upon his head he has a thing like a broad eminence (a big lump), called chimu. If a dragon has no chimu, he cannot ascend to the sky.
Chinese dragons were considered to be physically concise. Of the 117 scales, 81 are of the yang essence (positive) while 36 are of the yin essence (negative). Initially, the dragon was benevolent but the Buddhists introduced the concept of malevolent influence among some dragons. Just as water destroys, they said, so can some dragons destroy via floods, tidal waves and storms. They suggested that some of the worst floods were believed to have been the result of a mortal upsetting a dragon.
Many pictures of oriental dragons show a flaming pearl under their chin. The pearl is associated with wealth, good luck, and prosperity.
Chinese dragons are occasionally depicted with bat-like wings growing out of the front limbs, but most do not have wings, as their ability to fly (and control rain/water, etc.) are mystical and not seen as a result of their physical attributes.
Liao Dynasty sancai (three-color) flask/pitcher (from Wikimedia Commons)
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.
A dragon in Forbidden City, Beijing (from Wikimedia Commons).
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).
Dragon gods (from Wikimedia Commons)
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. (From Wikipedia)
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