The Dragon in Chinese Culture

The dragon has played an important part in Chinese culture for thousands of years and is central to many myths, legends and traditions. This article briefly looks at how the dragon evolved to become such an essential part of Chinese culture.

Dragon and armed warrior design. From the Chinese Western Han Dynasty – Public Domain

Dragons in Chinese legend

In China from the earliest of times the dragon has been regarded as a lucky creature, bestowing fortune and blessing upon the lives people.   There is an ancient tradition that the Chinese people are descended from the dragon and it is a belief that still found deeply rooted in Chinese culture and the thinking.   Unlike western societies where dragons are often seen as evil, the Chinese people revere the dragon for its majesty and gravity and for its beneficial properties

A national symbol

Over the centuries as different tribes strove and often went to war for control of China before finally unifying the country it became accepted as a unifying national symbol.    As such, great powers were bestowed upon it making it the god of thunder, rain, rainbow and the stars.

Ancient Chinese society was heavily dependent on agriculture and farm animals making it heavily dependent on getting not just rain, but the right amount of rain.   In some areas too much rain could be as detrimental as too little causing floods and crop failures.  As such the dragon became regarded as the basis for all that was favorable and positive for Chinese society

The Imperial dragon

Over thousands of years the dragon received increasing exaltation’s becoming regarded as the source of joy, prophecy and the miraculous. With the development of a feudal society, emperors equated themselves along side the dragon and expected their servants to do the same which made the dragon the restricted symbol of imperial power and magnificence.   It became that no one else could intentionally or otherwise use the dragon as a symbol on pain of death.

Metamorphosis of the dragon

In China, the visual form of the dragon has also undergone considerable metamorphosis over the ages gaining in power and beauty.   Ancient portrayals on bronze ware depict it as a mysterious creature of wild ferocity.  Later during the Han Dynasty (206-220 BC) it is depicted as something glorious though wild and untamed.  During the Tang Dynasty it was portrayed as being of a creature of mild disposition and controlled elegance.   During the Song Dynasty, and after, the dragon designs became finer with greater intricacy.

The colors of dragons

According to Chinese tradition dragons were different colors which signified their status.  Dragons could be blue black, white, red or yellow and it was the yellow dragon that was most sacred.   Chinese emperors would wear a gown with displaying a yellow dragon design.

Features of the dragon

Even though there are many different appearances of dragons that were depicted they all contain the same common features.  This is because the features are representing physical characteristics taken from other animals that are in turn representative of a desirable quality for humans.

For example, wisdom is represented in a dragon by giving it a  protruding forehead, while antlers are a sign of longevity.   Giving it the eyes of a tiger signifies it is powerful, while giving the claws of an eagle shows its bravery.    For flexibility the dragon is given the tail of a fish and for diligence it is given horse’s teeth.  In this way the dragon takes on numerous qualities that can be recognized in its form by humans.

The dragon today

Today the dragon is still an important part of Chinese culture with many myths and legends attached to it.   Public holidays to honor it are still enthusiastically observed such as Dragon Heads-raising Day, along with events such as the Dragon Boat Festival. The dragon dance is also still an important activity performed from the Spring Festival through to the Lantern Festival.

© 03/12/2012 zteve t evans

References and Attributions

This article was originally published on Triond titled The Dragon in Chinese Culture by zteve t evans – Copyright Dec 3, 2012 zteve t evans


Legends behind the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

Dragon boat racing is a spectacular and exciting event and the highlight of the Dragon Boat Festival. In China and many other countries in south-east Asia, the Dragon Boat Festival, or more correctly the Duanwu Festival, is a traditional and national folk festival originating in China over 2000 years ago. It is one of the most popular and widespread of Chinese festivals and officially recognized. The festival is held on the fifth day of the fifth month by the Chinese lunar calendar and the last one was held on 5th May 2009, by western calendars.

Qu Yuan – Public Domain

The Legend of Qu Yuan

Its origins are shrouded in history and there are different theories on how it began. The most popular account is that it was derived from the remembrance of Qu Yuan, the great Chinese poet and patriot.

Qu Yuan was a loyal minister to Emperor Huai, in the state of Chu, between 475 BC and 221 BC, which was known as the Warring States period. He was much respected for his patriotism, wisdom and integrity.  Read more

Festivals: The tradition of eating zongzi at the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival

The Dragon Boat Festival, or more correctly the Duanwu Festival, as well as being identified with dragon boat racing, is also strongly associated with other traditional Chinese customs and practices. Probably the most widespread and participated in is preparing and eating a customary rice dish called zongzi. It should be noted there are various ways to spell this and may vary with region.

The Legend of Qu Yuan

Qu Yuan – Painting by Chen Hongshou – Public Domain

The tradition of making and eating zongzi is strongly associated with the death of the great and much loved poet and patriot Qu Yuan. His suicide by drowning in a river was seen as a selfless act of patriotism by the people who loved him and who paid tribute to him by throwing rice balls into the river for his soul to eat. According to legend, his soul materialized before fishermen and began wailing that he was starving because the dragon in the river was eating the rice they threw to him. He told them to wrap the rice balls with lily leaves and asked them to seal it by tying it with silk thread. Eventually zongzi became wrapped in bamboo, or other kinds of leaves depending on region and availability.

Traditional Zongzi

Zongzi is a glutinous, or sticky, rice dumpling, with a filling. It is traditionally wrapped in bamboo leaves, though other leaves may be used depending on availability and region of China. The rice is usually formed around the filling into pyramid shapes, though cylinder and cone shapes can be used.  The leaves are then wrapped around the shape and tied with string with a unique knot used to identify the type of filling. There are many different fillings such as pickled egg, peanuts beans, yam, melon seeds, dates, fruits, walnuts, or yam. The leaves can be palm, banana, wild rice, or bamboo.

Yellow Zongzi by Benjwong – Public Domain

Different regions have their own speciality zongzi. In Beijing the filling is sweet and made from a bean paste. In Guangdong there are two favourites. One has a sweet filling of date, walnut, or bean filling and the other is salty with meats such as chicken, ham duck and eggs, mushrooms, or chestnuts.  An increasing number of shops and stalls sell zongzi on festival days and its popularity grows. Mostly in China the of making zongzi for eating and the giving as a gift is still practiced widely and often regarded as a family activity.

Zongzi Worldwide

Along with the Dragon Boat Festival, the popularity of eating zongzi is now growing around the world with Dragon Boat Festivals being held regularly in South East Asia and many western countries including the UK, USA, Canada, and Europe. Undoubtedly, each country will add something to the tradition and bring new flavours to the dish to be enjoyed.

References and attributions

Copyright July 31, 2009 zteve t evans