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Dragons in Chinese Mythology

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Of all the creatures in Chinese mythology, none is as important as the dragon. In this lesson, we're going to talk about Chinese dragons and see what role they played in traditional Chinese cosmology.

The Chinese Dragon

I was born in 1988. In the Chinese zodiac that's the year of the dragon, which is a big deal. You see, the dragon is amongst the most important of China's mythological creatures. It is powerful, intelligent, strong, and wields a wide array of supernatural and spiritual powers. People born under this zodiac sign were believed to be able to represent the character of a dragon with intelligence, courage, and ambition. Just sayin'. Okay, so maybe I don't fit all the characteristics of a dragon, but we should get to know this creature a little better. Like I said, it's amongst the most important figures in Chinese mythology and who knows, you may encounter a dragon someday. Or at least someone born in the year of the dragon.

The dragon is the mightiest of mythical creatures in China
Dragon

Description and Powers

So, what does a Chinese dragon look like? There are actually several varieties of Chinese dragons, but they generally share a few traits. Physically, the dragon has the horns of a deer, the head of a camel, the eyes of a demon/devil, the neck/body of a snake, the abdomen of a cockle, the scales of a carp, the claws of an eagle, the paws of a tiger, and the ears of an ox. Why such a diverse array of features? Each one represents various spiritual elements of the dragon. The tiger, for example often symbolized justice and prowess.

Chinese dragon
Dragon

In terms of its powers, Chinese dragons are a little different than the dragons of European traditions. While European dragons are evil, greedy, or malicious, Chinese dragons are benevolent and wise. They are powerful, dangerous and should be respected, but they are inherently good. Through their willpower and role as the mightiest of spiritual creatures, they can control rain, floods, rainbows and other natural events; they can bring good or bad luck, and are known to transport humans to the afterlife. However, what may most characterize the dragon is its association with transformation. The dragon represents change and adaptability, and in fact can change its physical form. So, trying to identify a dragon purely by its appearance is unwise. Dragons throughout Chinese mythology are more often described by their personality, which does not change regardless of physical form. A dragon is wise, ambitious, and energetic. These qualities, plus an innate divinity and spiritual power, are what really define the dragon.

Role of Dragons in Chinese Mythology

In Chinese mythology, the dragon is most powerful creature. They are believed to be older than time itself, and according to many Chinese legends, the ancestors of the Chinese people. There are formally nine kinds of dragons, each associated with various powers, but all are generally considered to be male. This is especially important in the Chinese cosmological system of yin and yang, the balance of opposites. The dragon, the male figure and ruler of all creatures, is contrasted only by the Chinese phoenix, the most powerful of the mythological birds and a symbol of the female gender.

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