|The dragon is an important cultural totem of the Chinese people, who name themselves “the descendants of the dragon”. You may have many questions about this mythical and powerful creature in Chinese history and legend. How many animals are featured in the dragon’s form? What does the number of dragon claws indicate? Why is the dragon an emblem of imperial power? Where will you find the 9 sons of the dragon? Let’s roll down to find the answers in the story.
Where does the Chinese dragon come from? One theory is that its form originated from totems(图腾) of different tribes in ancient China, as a merger(合并) of totems of various tribes that had merged.
Legend has it that many tribes settled along the Yellow River about 4,000 years ago, each having its own totem bearing the images of tigers, oxen, horses or deer. The first legendary emperor of China, Huangdi, used a snake for the totem of his tribe.
Every time Huangdi conquered another tribe, he incorporated his defeated enemy’s emblem into his own, and fashioned the image of what has come to be known as a dragon, thus explaining why the dragon appears to have features of various animals.
According to a general description, Chinese dragons have the head of a camel, horns of a deer, eyes of a rabbit, body of a snake, belly of clam(蛤), scales of fish, claws of an eagle, paws of a tiger, and ears of a cow.
Many pictures of Chinese dragons show a flaming pearl under their chin. The pearl is associated with wealth, good luck and prosperity.
The breath of the dragon forms a cloud, which can change into either rain or fire. It is able to expand or shrink its body, and in addition it has the ability to transform itself and become invisible.
The number of claws or toes of a dragon is no minor matter. It has a connotation of social class status. In the Zhou Dynasty, the 5-clawed dragon was assigned to the Son of Heaven, the 4-clawed dragon to the nobles, and the 3-clawed dragon to the ministers.
From the Yuan Dynasty, 5-clawed dragons were reserved for emperors only. The 4- or 3-clawed dragon was used by lower ranks and the general public.
Chinese dragons are strongly associated with water in popular belief. They are believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes or seas.
Because of this association, they are seen as “in charge” of water-related weather phenomenon. In pre-modern times, many villages had temples dedicated to their local “dragon king”. In times of drought or flooding, the community would offer sacrifices to appease the dragon, either to ask for rain, or a cessation thereof.
In Chinese palaces, we can sometimes see dragon-head scuppers(排水口) on the base of the walls. This is because people believe dragons control water and they hope the dragon-head scuppers can help their drainage system work better. So nowadays, faucets, in Chinese, are called “Shuilongtou” which means “Water Dragon’s Head.”
Historically, the dragon was the symbol of the emperor of China. According to legend, both of China’s earliest emperors, Yandi and Huangdi, were closely related to the dragon.
At the end of his reign, Huangdi was said to have ridden on a dragon, and ascended to heaven. The other legendary emperor, Yandi was born from his mother’s telepathy with a mythic dragon.
Since the Chinese consider Huangdi and Yandi as their ancestors, 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.
According to Ming Dynasty texts, the Chinese dragon has 9 offspring. Each of them has different interests. Their shapes are used as ornaments according to their nature.
Pulao, which like to cry, are represented on the tops of bells, serving as handles.
Chiwen, which like swallowing, are placed on both ends of the ridgepoles of roofs to “swallow fire”.
Qiuniu, which like music, are used to adorn 2-stringed violins.
Yazi, which like to kill, serve as ornaments of sword-grips.(See photo)
Chaofeng, which like precipices, are placed on the corners of roofs.
Bixi, which like to carry heavy objects, are placed under grave-monuments.
Bi’an, tiger-like beasts which like litigation, are placed over prison gates.
Suanni, which like to sit down, are represented upon the bases of Buddhist idols.
Fuxi, which are fond of literature, are represented on the sides of grave-monuments.
The dragon occupies a very important position in Chinese mythology. There are still many tales to tell about the charismatic creature. It shows up in Chinese arts, poetry, songs and architecture. It leaves its footprints on the thousands of years of Chinese history, and is now deeply rooted in every Chinese person’s heart.