Chinese Dragon or Loong — History, Power, Utilization, and Culture

Chinese Dragon, pronounce as Loong, is a significant cultural icon of China.

 

They are mythical creatures with paramount power and benevolent characteristics, who contributed to defeating evils and protecting humans. 

 

They are representatives of the Chinese emperors' supreme authority, nobility, and responsibility when their images had been exclusively used by royals. 

 

Chinese Dragons are, as well, the symbolization of strength, bravery, invincibility, virtue, unity, intelligence, triumph, integrity, and auspiciousness, and have been widely used in architecture, art, costume, festival, literature, name, and so on and so forth.  

Unearthed Gold Dragon of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms

Golden Dragon of the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms (907 — 979) — Zhejiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Origin and the earliest Chinese Dragons. 

 

  • Archeologically, the most ancient unearthed dragon in China is an about 6600 years old dragon that was piled up using clamshells in a mausoleum of Yangshao Culture (around 5000 BC — 3000 BC). The tomb owner is speculated to be a king named Zhuan Xu, the grandson of the Yellow Emperor (or Huang Di). 

 

This clamshells-made dragon, on the left of the tomb owner, is 178 cm long and 67 cm tall. 

 
Clam Shells Piled Dragon — Xishuipo Site of Henan Province

Clam Shells Piled Dragon — Xishuipo Site of Henan Province

Besides, other neolithic tribes also have many dragon shape cultural relics excavated, the most ancient and famous one is a jade dragon (26cm high) from the Hongshan Culture (around 4000 BC — 3000 BC).

Jade Dragon of Hongshan Culture (around 4000 BC — 3000 BC)

Jade Dragon of Hongshan Culture — National Museum of China

  • Historically, the dragon is believed totem of the tribe of King Fuxi. Centuries later, after Yellow Emperor or Huangdi having defeated many other tribes and built a unified state, he absorbed elements of their totems and created a new dragon. 

 

This new dragon that he created, then, became his new nation's totem, is believed to look like a creature with deer's antlers, rabbit's eyes, ox's ears, lion or pig's head, snake's body, carp's scales, eagle's claws, tiger's paws, whale's tail.

Azure Dragon Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD)

Azure Dragon Eaves Tile of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • Mythologically, many types of dragons hold different magics. They are in charge of natural phenomena such as thunder, wind, rain, assisted accomplished kings in defeating evil monsters and protecting humankind. 

 

They can soar in the sky, dive into the deep sea, and change their sizes and appearances using magic. 

 

In some legends, they are also rides of powerful immortals. 

Immortal Deity Commanding Dragon Jade Pendant of the Warring State Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Immortal Deity Commanding Dragon Jade Pendant of the Warring State Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — Jingzhou Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

 

Types of Chinese Dragons.

 

Dragon Zhu Long

 

Dragon Zhu Long, the deity of Mount Zhong, has several thousands of miles long, snake-shaped red body, with a human's head. 

 

When his eyes open, here comes the daytime; when his eyes close, darkness falls on earth.  

 

He never eats nor sleeps, and barely breathing. The wind is his blowing, winter is his exhalation, and summer is his inhalation. 

Dragon Zhu Long

Dragon Ying Long

Ying Long is a yellow dragon that has two wings, who lives in the middle of the sky and is superior to Four Symbols in ancient Chinese Astrology (Azure Dragon in East, White Tiger in West, Vermilion Bird in South, and Black Tortoise in North), and is the representative of the earth in the Five Elements Theory

In ancient legends, Ying Long had assisted Yellow Emperor (Huang Di) in his unification wars through perishing strong enemies and made great contributions in helping Yu the Great to defeat the huge floods.

Dragon Ying Long

Azure Dragon or Qing Long

Azure Dragon, also named Qing Long or Cang Long, is the Symbol of the East in ancient Chinese Astrology, which represents spring, and wood in the Five Elements Theory

Hence, it is also the symbolization of hope, life, and vitality. 

As one of the most powerful dragons that guard the eastern sky, Azure Dragon is respected by people as the guardian of their homeland as well.

Azure Dragon Portrait Brick of the Southern Dynasties (420 — 589)

Azure Dragon Portrait Brick of the Southern Dynasties (420 — 589) — Henan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Dragon Kui Long

Kui Long is a strong cyan dragon with one foot and no horns. He brings wind and rain when diving into or coming out of the water, can shine light as bright as the sun and the moon, and can howl like thunder. 

Dragon Kui Long Pattern Jade Decoration of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD)

Dragon Kui Long Pattern Jade Decoration of the Western Han Dynasty (202 BC — 8 AD) — Hebei Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Dragon Chi Long

Chi Long is a type of dragon without horns that believed came from the sea, which made it a good fighter against fire. 

Another saying is Chi Long is the female dragon, which made it a representative of beautiful, romantic love. 

Either way, Chi Long has been widely used as a famous pattern in costume, jewelry, architecture, bronze and jade wares, as brave guardians that protect people, and lucky charms that bring auspiciousness and happiness. 

Dragon Chi Long on Underglaze Red Porcelain Cup of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368)

Dragon Chi Long on Underglaze Red Porcelain Cup of the Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368) — Gaoan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Dragon Qiu Long

Qiu Long usually refers to the baby or teen dragons, the phases before a dragon fully grows up and obtains all power. 

Dragon Qiu Long

Dragon Pan Long 

Pan Long is a type of lividity dragon that usually stays on the ground, or swims in rivers and seas. 

As the dragon that doesn't soar in the sky, coiled Pan Long figures have been widely used in pillars, beams, and ceilings of traditional buildings, as a strong guardian.

Dragon Pan Long on Incense Tube of the Qing Dynasty

Dragon Pan Long on Incense Tube of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Forbidden City

Hui 

Hui is a type of poisonous, lizard-or-snake-like creature that lives in water. After five hundred years of diligent cultivation, Hui would transform into Dragon Jiao Long.

Gold Sword Hilt of the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) Carved with Hui Long Pattern

Gold Sword Hilt of the Spring and Autumn Period (770 BC — 403 BC) Carved with Hui Long Pattern — British Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Dragon Jiao Long

Dragon Jiao Long is covered by scale, with ox's horns or hornless, lives in water, and can cause huge floods. 

If a Jiao Long goes through cultivation diligently for a thousand years, without hurting humans nor being interrupted, they would get the opportunity to take the final thunder test.  

Tens of thousands of thunder strikes later, if this Jiao Long didn't burn to death and successfully survived, it would incarnate into a real immortal dragon and fly to the sky. 

Another five hundred years later, it would grow out full horns as a stronger dragon.

 

Then, it would grow wings another thousand years later and transform into one of the most powerful dragons, the Dragon Ying Long. 

Dragon Jiao Long

Fish Incarnated Dragon or Yu Hua Long

It is a type of dragon that incarnated from carp, which has a dragon's head and fish's body. 

In ancient legend, if a carp can leap over the turbulent current of Longmen (Dragon Gate), a canyon that was cut out of a huge mountain by Yu the Great (about 2123 BC — 2025 BC) when he was defeating the huge flood, it would incarnate into a powerful dragon and soar in the sky. (Read More about Grottoes of Longmen)

This is a huge and dangerous transformation, which only a few carps can succeed in the end. 

Therefore, the Fish Incarnated Dragon became a popular representative of achieving great success after hard-working and intense competition. 

Fish Incarnated Dragon Pattern Carved on Gilt Basin of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Fish Incarnated Dragon Pattern Carved on Gilt Basin of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Zhenjiang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

What are Nine Sons of the Dragon?

 

In ancient folklore, the dragon has nine sons, who are unlike dragons and completely different from each other. This phrase later is used to show that children would unlike their parents nor their siblings, every one of them is special.  

Number nine here is believed to describe large numbers of offsprings a dragon has; according to I Ching (or Book of Changes), nine is the largest number (or the largest single digit) of Yang.

However, there are no exact records regarding exactly who are these offsprings, until one day, Hongzhi Emperor (1470 — 1505) asked his most knowledgeable chancellor  Li Dongyang (1447 — 1516), who later provided an official version of the Nine Sons of the Dragon. 

Before and after this, there are other sayings about these nine sons, however, Li Dongyang's version has been one of the most popular and widely accepted. 

 

Chinese Dragons in ancient mythology, legends, and history. 

 

Chinese Dragons, from mythical creatures to representative of paramount power and supreme majesty, is the outcome of their exceptional contributions in assisting kings and emperors, as well as protecting human. 

 

 

  • Dragon Ying Long had assisted Yellow Emperor (about 2717 BC — 2599 BC) in his unification battles by perishing his strong enemy Chi You. 

 

  • King Yao (about 2377 BC — 2259 BC) in many legends was the incarnation of a red dragon. 

 

  • Dragon Ying Long had contributed significantly in helping Yu the Great (about 2123 BC — 2025 BC) defeat the huge flood. 

 

  • Qin Shi Huang (259 BC — 210 BC) the first emperor of China and the founder of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), has been respected as Zu Long, meaning the Ancestral Dragon. 

 

  • Liu Bang (256 BC — 195 BC) the founding emperor of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD), in many historical documents and folklores, is the son of a red dragon or a flame dragon.

 

How Chinese Dragons were used as a representation of paramount imperial power? 

 

Because of the dragon's paramount power and close connections to important kings and emperors, gradually, their images had been widely appreciated and used by ancient Chinese people. 

 

Since Yuan Dynasty (1271 — 1368), the use of dragon patterns became more and more strict. Civilians and officials were not allowed to wear clothes with the noblest dragon patterns.

 

Precisely, the type of dragon that only emperors could use is the dragon with two horns and five claws. 

 
Dragon with Two Horns and Five Claws on Jiulong Bi of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912)

Dragon with Two Horns and Five Claws on Jiulong Bi of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Beihai Park of Beijing (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Forbidden City, the imperial palace of the Ming (1368 — 1644) and Qing (1636 — 1912) dynasties, is the best representative of how dragon patterns are used by royals. 

 

As a kingdom of dragon patterns, today, there are still no accurate numbers regarding how many dragons that Forbidden City has. 

 

Only in the Hall of Supreme Harmony (Tai He Dian or Jin Luan Dian), about 13,844 dragons are engraved, carved, or decorated there. 

Hall of Supreme Harmony (or Tai He Dian) in the Outer Court, also the Largest Hall of the Forbidden City.

Hall of Supreme Harmony (or Tai He Dian) in the Outer Court, Photo from Official Site of Palace Museum.

Use of other types of dragons, those without horns or fewer claws, were allowed to use by non-royals, based on one's social status and which types of dragons they used, and the exact rules differed from time to time.

Development of Chinese Dragons in art.

 

Besides different types, the appearances of Chinese Dragons varied and changed over time. 

 
 

Dragon Boat, Dragon Dance, and Dragon King. 

 

In ancient China, dragons were believed in charge of rain, wind, and thunder, and could bring people protection and luck. 

 

Hence, many worship activities appeared, and the most famous ones are Dragon Boat and Dragon Dance, which were both originally sacrificial ceremonies, to pray for good weather and harvest, and to seek for dragon's protection from drought and flood. 

 

 

 

  • Dragon King or Long Wang is the personification deity that appeared later.

Dragon King of the Four Seas in Murals of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Dragon King of the Four Seas on Murals of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Pilu Temple of Shijiazhuang City

Emperors Li Longji (685 — 762), Zhao Ji (1082 — 1135), and Yin Zhen (1678 — 1735), had conferred some Dragon Kings and built temples to worship Dragon Kings, based on the dragons' colors (yellow, azure, red, white, and black) or guardian locations (east, west, south, and north sea).

 

Inferior to those that were granted by emperors, people believed there are other Dragon Kings guarding in other rivers, lakes, and seas. Those dragon kings also have temples where local people prayed and held worship ceremonies. 

Compatibility Rule of the dragon in Chinese Zodiac Signs.   

 

Dragon is one of the 12 Chinese Zodiac Signs. In traditional customs, dragon people are good matches to those who are born in years of rooster, rat, and monkey, and are restraints to people born in years of dog and rabbit.

 

Click to Read More About Chinese Zodiac Signs.