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A Brief Account of Life with Dragons

Updated: Dec 31, 2023

(Dragons in the Eastern World)

While the Eastern dragon shares a name with its Western counterpart, the two types of dragon are in fact so dissimilar they can be thought of as two separate creatures. It is likely that it was only the superficial similarities between the two that has led to them sharing a name. Both are flying, reptilian creatures – and this is where the similarities end.

Eastern dragons are typically depicted as serpentine, with a long snaking body, four legs and no wings. While they are capable of flight, this flight is powered by their magic and they are most commonly depicted among clouds to reflect this. They are also chimerical creatures, said to be made of many composite parts. They are often thought to have the body of a snake, that antlers of a deer, the head of a camel, the belly of a clam, the scales of a carp, the claws of an eagle, the paws of a tiger and the ears of an ox. Some other descriptions also give them the beard of a goat, and the eyes of a demon. In some countries, dragons are described as having the composite parts of the other creatures of the Zodiac – rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig.

Most of them are said to have 117 scales in total, with 81 of their scales being made of Yang essence and 36 being made of Yin essence, Yang being active and masculine in nature, and Yin being passive and feminine. Unlike Western dragons, which may vary greatly in terms of appearance, the Eastern dragon remains very similar across different mythologies and beliefs. One this that does change is the number of toes that the dragon has. In China, dragons have five toes, in Korea they have four and in Japan they have three.

According to Chinese belief, all Eastern dragons originated from China. As they flew away from their homeland, they lost toes, which is why they have one less toe in Korea and two less toes in Japan. The Japanese tell the opposite story – that dragons originated in Japan and gained toes as they flew away. Korea also has its own variation of this same myth. Theirs states that the dragons which flew towards China gained toes, while the dragons which flew towards Japan lost them.

Dragons were thought to be heavenly, celestial beings and at some points in history, it was forbidden to depict dragons as facing the ground, or in any manner that might prevent their flight. Some species of dragons are associated with the heavens as guards, and accolades for example, the Tianlong are said to guard the palaces of the gods and pull their chariots, while the Fucanglong live underground, guarding hidden treasures. Dragons were thought to have been there at the start of creation, and the Chinese people are said to be descended from these dragons. They have several significant legends in which historical or mythical figures are either born of dragons or become them. One legendary deified Emperor, Huangdi, or The Yellow Emperor, is said to have been reborn as a dragon after his death. Because of this, the Chinese are sometimes referred to as descendants of dragons.

Many ancient empires and monarchies purported that their monarch or emperor ruled by divine right. This was the same with the Imperial Empire of China. While all of China were said to be descended from dragons, it was the Emperor who was most closely associated with this connection, with their line being directly descended from the dragons that were there at the creation of the world. The Emperor’s throne (both literal and metaphorical) was called the Dragon Throne and was their seat of the Emperor’s power. There were also very strict rules about who was and was not allowed to wear dragons on their clothes – and even stricter rules about the types of dragon that they were allowed to depict. Only the Emperor was allowed to wear the two-horned, five toed dragon, while princes and nobles were permitted to wear images of a dragon with four toes.

Unlike the malevolent dragons, of Western mythology, eastern dragons are benevolent beings. They were associated with water, clouds and rainfall, and so the sight of a dragon was a good thing – and indication that it may soon rain, and that the crop would prosper. There are several ponds and lakes that are thought to be home to dragons, and they are often depicted as holding a flaming pearl. This pearl is thought to be the source of their power – and the thing that gives them their ability to fly despite their lack of wings.

Dragons have also been seen as an example of hard work and dedication. In one popular legend, a carp was capable of becoming a dragon if it swam upriver and located a mythical dragon gate, at the top of a waterfall. By swimming up the waterfall, and leaping the gate, the carp was capable of transforming into a dragon. This myth formed the basis for the characters ‘Magicarp’ and ‘Gyarados’ in Pokémon. The carp-like Magicarp evolves into the powerful, water dragon, Gyarados, capable of causing typhoons and floods.

The idea of dragons being dangerous and not merely benevolent was introduced with Buddhism. The idea was that, as forces of nature, dragons were capable of bringing destruction, as well as bringing good fortune. Just as water can come as rain, or flooding. When flooding or winds where particularly severe, people would sometimes burn incense or offer sacrifices to appease the dragon’s anger. An important thing about cases where dragons are thought to attack humans, or cause chaos, is that this is usually done in retaliation to some insult or misstep on behalf of a human. A human would do something that insulted or angered a dragon, and the dragon would send flooding or tornados in response, until restitution was paid. In the East, it was the vengeful dragons and not the benevolent ones that were thought to be associated with fire. Fire breathing dragons were thought to be sent from the heavens as a punishment for human wrongdoing.

The Eastern dragon is still culturally significant across China, Korea and Japan, today. It appears as one of twelve animals in the Chinese Zodiac. Legend states that twelve animals competed to see the order in which the years would fall. The dragon placed fifth, and people born under this sign are said to be energetic, stubborn, honest and brave. Dragons also appear in Eastern astronomy, as one of the four cardinal directions. The Azure Dragon appears alongside the White Tiger, Black Tiger and Vermillion Bird. The Azure Dragon represents the eastern point on the compass, and the season of spring.

In Japan, the Azure Dragon is called Seiryu and is thought to protect eastern Kyoto. A statue of the dragon stands guard at Kyoto’s Kiyomizu Temple, at the base of the stairs. The dragon was thought to have visited the temple to drink from the waterfall within the complex and it is this waterfall that gave the temple its name, Kiyomizu, meaning clear water. A ceremony called Seiryū-e is held yearly to honour the dragon and to invite good fortune onto the temple and the local neighbourhood. This is not the only dragon festival to continue to this day.

One of the most famous festivals is, of course, Chinese New Year which has become celebrated around the world. One of the most important and well-known aspects of the celebration is, of course, The Dragon Dance. Experienced dancers form part of a chain, puppeteering a large facsimile of a dragon which they make dance through the streets. The dragon is controlled by poles, placed at intervals along the dragon’s body, allowing the dancers to move the dragon up and down in a sinuous coiling movement evocative of a river or stream. The dance is thought to originate from rain dances, performed to encourage the return of rain following a period of drought.

Another festival that celebrates dragons is the annual Dragon Boat Festival, held on the fifth day of the fifth month. It is celebrated across East Asia, from Mongolia to Singapore. In Korea, the festival is named The Dano Festival, in China it is called Duanwu, in Japan it is called Tango, and in Vietnam it is called the Tet Doan Ngo. The specifics vary depending on location, but significant aspects of the festival include scattering offerings of rice in the water and racing dragon boats. The fifth month was considered unlucky, and the fifth day particularly so, so parts of the festival were aimed at bringing good fortune and protecting people from bad luck.

While belief in dragons is no longer so prevalent to this day, there are still places that are thought to be home to dragons. Often rivers and lakes nearby Buddhist temples. In addition to this the continuing significance of festivals and ceremonies dedicated to, or influenced by, dragons shows that they continue to be extremely culturally significant across East Asia today.


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