Undulating as gracefully through the vast sky above as the watery depths below, the Chinese dragon is one of the world’s most globally recognized monsters.
Their behavior could be described as benevolent—but their appearance can still inspire fear and awe.
These dragons, or long, as they’re called in Chinese Mythology, have been a crucial component of religion, culture, mythology, and folklore in China for thousands of years.
The dragon is one of the Four Benevolent Animals in Chinese mythology and one of the twelve members of the Chinese zodiac.
And those are only small parts of their influence.
Dragons played a major role in China’s history.
They were both creators and destroyers, and controlled the elements.
So what was it about the Chinese Dragon that made it such a central figure in Chinese culture?
I'm Dr. Emily Zarka, and this is Monstrum The dragon was born in China a long time ago, and has appeared throughout ancient and modern history.
Cave carvings in the Shanxi province depicting the creature date back to 8,000 BCE.
A Jade Dragon discovered from the Hongshan culture dates to around 6,000 years ago.
And dragon heads appear on oracle bones from 1300 BCE.
More recently, Disney’s Shang-Chi gave us a beautiful (and mythologically accurate) representation of the creature.
That’s a pretty solid track record.
Wang Fu, a Chinese historian and philosopher in the Eastern Han Dynasty wrote that the dragons’ unique appearance is actually a composite of many different animal features.
And the list is long!
Their heads are the same shape as a camel, their ears are like a bull, and they regard us with eyes similar to a hare or a murderous demon, depending on the source.
Atop their majestic heads grow the antlers of a stag.
They have the writhing body of a snake and the well-armored belly of a clam.
They have the feet of a tiger and the enormous talons of an eagle.
Finally, covering their whole body are the protective scales of a carp.
Some scholars believe that these various attributes evolved out of the influence of the disparate tribes that eventually unified into the China we know today.
Others see them as emblematic of desirable human characteristics or as a representative amalgamation of ancient spiritual totems.
Some traditions claim that Chinese dragons conceal a large pearl in their throat or chin.
The pearl, often depicted in art as a glowing white disk in a dragon’s claw or mouth, may represent the sun, the moon, or the earth.
Or maybe it’s just a giant jewel.
Regardless, the dragon’s ability to hold the precious orb represents immense power.
Even the number of scales on the Chinese dragon’s body carries important significance.
The number is said to be 117 which in traditional Chinese philosophy and religion represents a perfect balance of yin (negative essence) and yang (positive essence).
Because of this natural duality, while usually compassionate, the dragon can be malicious as well.
Or even just really invested in politics.
In the 17th century, scholar Xie Zhaozhe’s text The Five Assorted Offerings tells the story of his own encounter with dragons.
According to Xie, while traveling by sea at 10-years-old with his uncle on a diplomatic mission, they were suddenly plagued by wind, rain, hail, thunder, and lightning.
Three dragons surrounded them.
At first, everyone was terrified of the extraordinary creatures.
But an elder remarked that they must be there to hear the Emperor’s message.
They interact with gods and immortals in the heavens.
Even without wings, they can fly through the air.
They are shapeshifters, capable of taking on any size or shape—including human form.
They can turn invisible at will, are highly intelligent, in some stories they can even speak.
The deep meanings attributed to Chinese dragons are ancient, so much so that their exact origins are largely lost to the past.
The evidence that we do have, however, suggests dragons were a universal facet in all early cultures in China even though traditions and spiritual significance differed.
In The Guideways through Mountains and Seas, an encyclopedic tome and Chinese bestiary penned between the 4th and 1st century BCE, the dragon appeared as a nature deity known as the God of Thunder, who uses his own belly to drum up echoing booms.
There were even so-called “Dragon cults,” religious groups that worshipped dragons and gave offerings to appease them.
As aquatic, semi-divine beings dragons control rainstorms, hail, wind, tornados, floods, and all bodies of water.
Dragons helped explain the rain cycle during the Song dynasties and were thus also said to bring thunder and lightning.
This was an important development because if humans could summon dragons, then they had a semblance of control over rain as well.
During this same period, paintings of dragons dramatically increased.
In Ancient Chinese cosmology there are four kinds of dragons: the Celestial Dragon, Dragon of Hidden Treasure, the underground or underworld dragon and spiritual Dragon who control rain and winds.
But in other traditions, the taxonomy expands to nine, an auspicious number in Chinese numerology—and, interestingly, the same number of animals the dragon borrows its features from.
Joining the classification system are the Winged Dragon , the Horned Dragon, the Coiling Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, and the Dragon King.
The Dragon King concept was only introduced after the arrival of Buddhism in China.
When Buddhism came to the area, dragons were adopted as a symbol of enlightenment as well as royalty.
Buddhism was then imported from China to Japan around the 7th century, and dragons came along with it.
Dragons were later incorporated into Shintoism as well.
The Shinto god Susanoo was believed to have killed an eight-headed dragon—which certainly seems like a monster-slayer story to me.
In Chinese mythology, when the four poles that held up the sky collapsed one of the disastrous consequences was great flooding brought on by the Black Dragon, a malevolent creature who could only be stopped by the mother goddess Nüwa.
But other dragons are not so monstrous; after all, one of those world-building pillars was constructed by the Green Dragon, one of the deities of creation.
In yet another creation story from the Bai peoples, when the world was created, a great golden dragon lay in slumber under the sea.
When one of two warring suns dropped into the ocean, the sea began to boil.
Awoken and enraged by this, the golden dragon swallowed the sun.
It began to burn him, eventually bursting from his chest and becoming clouds, trees, flowers, grass, and animals of all kinds.
So to sum it up, not all Chinese dragons are the same, they serve different purposes.
Some are celestial, others belong to the river, some protect treasure, act as deities, or serve as a connection to the spiritual.
Oh, and they can have human offspring–or more specifically, emperors.
This is one reason why Chinese dragons are intimately linked to imperial history.
During the Han dynasty to Qing dynasty period, the great and powerful dragon became associated with emperors as a way to show the rulers had been divinely chosen.
The first Han emperor, known as the Yellow Emperor, was said to be the offspring of a human mother and a divine Dragon.
This supposed heritage trickled down to all elements of the emperor’s authority, from their robes to their beds.
Yellow or golden dragons were particularly revered by imperial powers.
And the five-clawed dragon became an official imperial symbol in the 14th century.
Their claws represent the emperor’s power over the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.
Eventually, everyone else was banned from wearing any clothing that pictured a five-clawed dragon.
That’s not to say that all stories of dragons were based on mythology, animism, or legend.
Ancient animals likely played a role as well.
Yep, we’re talking dragons and fossils.
As early as China’s Jin Dynasty, which lasted from 265 to 317 CE, we find a text mentioning the discovery of what were believed to be dragon bones in what’s now Sichuan Province.
A lot of the sediment in this area dates back to the middle and late Jurassic period, and the area is full of fossils.
Remains of dinosaurs like the predatory theropods were found there, as well as a massive sauropod with an extremely long neck that could grow up to 25 meters long.
Dragons inhabit exotic spaces: mysterious watery depths, expansive skies, and heavenly realms.
Their powers are frightening but inspirational, and they’re beautiful in their strength and otherworldliness.
Luck, power, wisdom, bravery, strength—Chinese dragons inspired everything from religious practices to the national emblem, countless astounding artworks and architectural marvels to the globally famous dragon dance.
The creature is inseparable from the history of the Chinese people.
To embrace the Chinese dragon is to celebrate Chinese culture.