(As always, the pictures in this article were taken by me unless otherwise stated. Most of these were taken in Chicago’s Chinatown, or in Beijing in the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven. For permission to use them, please email me.)
Chinese dragons (龙 lóng): kids, teens, and adults love them and they appear everywhere from books to tattoos to Chinese New Year Parades. Unlike European dragons, who breathe fire and must be defeated, Chinese dragons are well-meaning mystical beasts who breathe clouds, often appear in human form, and are frequent characters in ancient stories.
I love the anatomy of a Chinese dragon:
the head of a camel,
the horns of a stag (male deer),
the eyes of a demon,
the ears of a cow,
the neck of a snake,
the belly of a clam,
the scales of a carp,
the claws of an eagle,
the paws of a tiger.
Dragons symbolize importance, power and strength, represent all things male, and were the symbol of the Emperor of China (who was said to sit on the dragon throne). The imperial dragon is shown with 5 claws instead of the usual 4, to distinguish him from lesser beasts.
Dragons are essential in agricultural life, since they are seen to control the seasons and the weather. Although they have no wings, the fiery pearl sometimes displayed in their mouths gives them the power to fly to heaven. The male air and weather dragons would bring rains and winds to help the harvest, while the female earth dragons would preserve the waters in rivers and underground wells.
Farmers would make offerings to the dragons to ensure a good harvest at specially created Dragon King temples. When areas were suffering from a drought, the dragons were thought to be sleeping underground, or in ponds. When the spring rain would come, people thought the dragons were waking up to create the rain, and that dragons could divert floodwater away from towns.
Dragons also are included in two popular festivals. First, Chinese New Year begins with a dragon dance, performed in public with men holding sections of the Golden Dragon, made of bamboo, paper and linen. Learn to tell the difference between the lion dance and the dragon dance (the dragon’s long and skinny body is held up by many men while the dragon is furry and usually is 2-3 men.) Store owners near the procession let off fireworks (invented in China long ago) to attract the dragon’s attention and hopefully have a prosperous business in the new year.
The second holiday, the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated in China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia by racing long, dragon-shaped boats, powered by rowers, rowing to the beat of a drummer at the head. Although the origins came about in honor of patriotic poet Chu Yuan who drowned in 277 BC, later people celebrated the Dragon Boat Festival to assure a rich harvest and seek good health from the dragon gods.
According to the Chinese Zodiac (astrology), every 12 years is the year of the dragon; years of the dragon are especially prosperous and dynamic years. People born in the following dates are said to be born in the year of the dragon:
23 January 1928 – 9 February 1929
8 February 1940 – 26 January 1941
27 January 1952 – 13 February 1953
13 February 1964 – 1 February 1965
31 January 1976 – 17 February 1977
17 February 1988 – 5 February 1989
5 February 2000 – 23 January 2001
23 January 2012 – 9 February 2013
10 February 2024 – 28 January 2025
People born in the year of the dragon are confident and impulsive, strong and decisive. They don’t listen to the advice of others easily, nor will they ask for help. They refuse to deceive, prefer to be in power, and are natural leaders.
Read this wonderful Chinese folktale about a little boy named Nie Lang, and how he became a dragon. This is a well-known, traditional tale that is originally from Szechuan province, but now is known throughout China.