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Diametrically Different: Dragons East & West
by Valerie Sartor
2008-04-30 08:35:08
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To begin to grasp the extreme differences in culture and thought between China and the western world one of the most startling distinctions can be found by examining the universal dragon motif. This ancient symbol has no single point of origin, having entered spontaneously into human consciousness, perhaps when early man observed large snakes and/or fossilized dinosaur remains.

In any case dragons have appeared in diverse forms since the beginning of man’s recorded history. Often they were winged beings associated with gods who came from the heavens to either create or help mankind. For all peoples the earliest dragons were either associated with the Great Mother, the Sun and/or water gods. Archaeologists note that ancient Egyptians had a serpent and dragon-worshipping cult, which spread throughout Babylon, India, the Orient, the Pacific Islands and finally even to North America. This religion peaked during the Roman Empire but Christianity gradually replaced it, along with other pagan cults and superstition. Today some psychologists assert that dragons are part of our primal consciousness, while others state that dragons, along with snakes and pearls, are archetypes symbolizing human DNA.

Significantly, the western world decisively adopted dragon imagery as a negative symbol: dragons represented evil enemies of mankind, horrible beasts that created chaos and destruction. Over time, as Christianity became more and more powerful, dragons evolved into a kind of intermediary between a demon and the devil for western cultures. But for Asian cultures, especially the Chinese, a dragon is essentially benevolent, symbolizing a son or daughter from heaven, who benignly controls the earth, especially the waters on earth. In contrast Western people traditionally view a dragon as the natural enemy of man. In Occidental dragon lore endless battles are fought between gods and dragons, saints and dragons. In the medieval world knights courageously faced and slayed dragons, rescuing beautiful princesses and gaining great treasures. Renaissance stories even portrayed misers after death as dragons because they were selfish and constantly gloated over their treasure.

But in China the dragon has always been revered as a blessed, even considered as a royal creature. Ancient Taoists in China believed in four magical animals that were said to guard the four corners of the world: the Green Dragon, The Red Phoenix, the White Tiger and the Black Tortoise. Of these four creatures the dragon was the most revered. In fact, the Chinese people still call themselves “Descendants of the Dragon: - “long de chuan ren” -龙的传人. The original Han Emperor worshipped the dragon; over time he was said to be the son of the dragon, causing the symbol to link with imperial power. Specific dragon designs and motifs were designated for the emperor’s use only, with violators put to death. In old China staircases carved with dragons were meant only for the Emperor’s feet and dragon emblems were embroidered or woven solely for the emperor’s clothes. Moreover, the Chinese Imperial Dragon was special – he had five toes, while other ordinary dragons only had three or four. This imperial creature still symbolizes excellence, heroism, perseverance and divinity and the royal dragon is often cited for his optimism, energy, intelligence and ambition.

Actually, Chinese lore has many dragons; some schools claim five, while others claim nine. Most of them are beautiful, friendly and wise; a few, mostly younger and smaller, are capricious, fickle and irresponsible.

The five categories of Chinese dragons are: dragons guarding gods and emperors; dragons controlling the wind and rain; dragons on earth living in rivers and seas; dragons who guard hidden treasure hoards; and the first dragon, who helped create the world, who is also the Emperor’s divine ancestor.

Additionally, Chinese folklore catalogues nine dragons with distinct personalities: #1 is Hao Xian, a reckless adventure lover who often decorates the roofs of palaces; #2 is Yazi, he’s brave and warlike and often carved on knives and weapons; #3 is Chiwen, who is a dreamy fellow who loves Buddha so he is carved high up on buildings and temples; #4 is Baxia, a great swimmer so he’s found on bridges and boats; #5 is Pulao, he likes to roar and make noise so he’s on bells; #6 is Bixi, is homeless and carries things so he’s on panniers and packs; #7 is Qiuniu, he loves to sing so he’s on musical instruments; #8 is Suanmi, he likes smoke and fire so he’s often found on incense burners; and finally, #9, Jiaotu, who is known to be as tightlipped as a snail so his image is often carved on doorways to maintain privacy.

These nine types of dragons all have different appearances but each signifies abundance and good fortune. Confusion reigns in their exact form, as dragons can change their size and shape in the blink of an eye. The horned dragon is said to be deaf and perhaps the most powerful; a winged dragon, the celestial dragon – evolved from Taoist feng shui precepts and he protects homes; the spiritual dragon – he gives farmers rain and wind; the hidden dragon – he guards treasures underground; the coiled dragon – he’s very old and lives in the water; the yellow dragon – who gave the Chinese emperor the gift of writing; and finally, the dragon king – who really is four in one dragons because he guards the four seas and the four directions. But in all his manifestations the dragon is seen as a symbol of heavenly protection and for ancient Chinese the Dragon served as the kindly King of the Beasts. As a shape-shifter he could fly up in the air or frolic in the sea or reside deep inside a mountain. Dragons ward away evil influences, protect the innocent and provide safety to all that ask for help.

In color dragons vary: some are striped green and yellow with crimson bellies, other are dark as night or red as blood. Some have whiskers, even manes; a few have spines and terribly sharp teeth, while others have wings and lizard tails. Generally speaking a dragon is a composite of nine different animals: the head of a camel, the red eyes of a demon (or rabbit), the ears of a cow, a snake’s or lizard’s neck, the horns of a stag, the belly of a clam or frog (very soft and vulnerable), the claws of an eagle, the soles of his feet are like a tiger’s and the dragon’s body is covered with 117 scales that resemble the carp’s. Some legends state that dragons have the canine teeth of large, fierce dogs and a few that live in the water have shaggy whiskers like a catfish to help them feel their way through muddy waters.

Chinese dragons are divine but vain. Like the Greek and Roman gods they can also be capricious. Some are easily insulted and they get angry when emperors and farmers fail to follow their advice. In displeasure they cause a ruckus, making rain and storms, or causing fires. Since ancient times the Chinese have set off firecrackers in the belief that these loud noises will drive away mischief making dragons along with any other evil doers. Long ago in south China farmers designed large papier mâché dragons, which they paraded around to solicit rain when needed. The Dragon Boat Festival, held on the fifth day of the fifth month, also commemorates the dragon’s divine affiliation with water.

Indeed, Chinese dragons represent the essence of life. In Taoist feng shui the dragon’s breath, or sheng qi生气 – translates as the breath of life because he wields the power of life by controlling the four seasons, the weather: rain and wind, and the seas, sunshine and soils. Omnipotent, he embodies Mother Nature, the supreme force on earth.

Dragons are also the most ubiquitous symbol in Oriental art. For thousands of years dragons have lived in Chinese consciousness. These ancient emblems are carved, painted, sewn, drawn, and made, they are found in literature, architecture, songs and the fine arts. Unlike Western images that denote dragons as destructive Chinese dragons are benevolent, friendly and wise. In China they are still loved and respected. Temples and shrines have been built to revere them, incense burned for them, and boat races and parades are held to honor them. Indeed, to understand China one must first get acquainted with Chinese dragons. Everything connected with China’s dragons is positive, a concept diametrically opposed to the western thinking, another reason to strive for objectivity when trying to understand China and her people.

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Dr. W. M. Liebenberg2008-05-05 12:35:04
What a well-research article this is. I hope we will have more of these from the author. Well done!

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