Chinese people consider 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors (三皇五帝) as their ancestors and consider themselves “Descendants of the Dragon” (龙的传人). The legend of Chinese people’s origin leads to the use of the dragon as a symbol of power, strength of the country and its emperors.
Theme song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C_ODTjkXdtk
1. History of China
China, also known as mainland China to distinguish Taiwan and 2 special administrative region Macau and Hong Kong, is a country located in East Asia. It is the most populous country and has the second largest continental area in the world. China is recognized as one of the 4 great ancient civilizations of the world (along with Egypt, Mesopotamia and India), this is also the only ancient civilization exist continuously until today, proved by archaeological discoveries and continuous historical records.
China emerged as one of the world’s earliest civilizations, in the fertile basin of the Yellow River in the North China Plain. In,221 BC, China was united to become one vast empire for the first time, with its first emperor was Qin Shi Huang – Ying Zheng. Qin Shi Huang commissioned the Great Wall to be built to protect the empire’s borders from the aggressive nomandic Nothern tribes. He also unified the writing system, measurement units and currencies. After that there is the continuation of the Han dynasty (the most glorious dynasty), the Tang dynasty (the Golden Era), the Song (Han people) dynasty, the Yuan dynasty (Mongolian people), the Ming (Han people) and the Qing dynasty (Manchu people).
Over 5000 years, Chinese civilization has grown to become the world’s greatest civilization in Ancient and Middle Ages, characterized by a profound philosophical system (Confucianism, Taoism, Yin Yang, Five Elements therories), 4 Great Inventions (compass, gunpowder, papermaking and printing), the Silk Road across Asia trading with many countries around the world and cities with population scale and architectural level topped the world in the Middle Ages.
In 1911, the Qing dynasty was overthrown by the Nationalist Party in the Xinhai Revolution, ending thousands of years of feudalism. After the defeat of Japan in World War II, the Communist Party defeated the Nationalist Party and established the People’s Republic of China in Beijing and the Nationalist Party moved the Republic of China government to the current capital which is Taipei, Taiwan.
The Qing dynasty’s flag was adopted at the late 19th century, commonly known as “Yellow Dragon Flag” 黄龙旗, considered the first national flag of China. The central image of the flag is a azure dragon reaching out to a jewel of fire, symbolizing China’s dominant authority and power.
In Hong Kong, the dragon was a symbol of this region under the British rule and even today, when the Hong Kong government promoted this city as a Asia’s World City in 2001.
The origin of the Chinese dragon is not certain. The presence of dragons in Chinese culture dates back thousands of years with the discovery of a dragon statue dating back to 5000 BC from the Yangshao culture in Henan in 1987. In 1977, a jade in the form of a C-shaped dragon in Hongshan culture was unearthed, dating back to about 4500 BC. These relics depicted the pig dragon, a dragon whose prototype is the pig.
This is the primitive form of dragon in China, with a coiled and long shape like a snake body and live underwater. The coiled dragon or snake form played an important role in early Chinese culture. The character for “dragon” in the earliest Chinese writing, which is oracle bone script, also has a similar coiled form, as do later jade dragon amulets from the Shang period.
Unlike the Western dragon, a lizard-like creature and often represents evil powers, the image of Chinese dragons is revered as a symbol of strength, power and luck. In the times of feudal society, the Chinese dragon was described with the concept of “3 joints” and “9 resemblances“. The 3 joints includes the head, the body and the tail while the 9 resemblances are take from other real animals in nature: antlers of a stag, head of a crocodile, eyes of a rabbit, neck and body of a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a carp fish, claws of an eagle, palm of a tiger and ears of a bull.
The fact that the image of Chinese dragons was combined from the image of many different animals can be explained that this is a combination of many totems belonging to different tribes, reflecting a historical fact that many tribes came to unite after their wars and became the Huaxia 华夏 people, the main ethnic group of China. An evidence for this is at the tomb of Puyang, Henan province, a dragon image was arranged by mussel shells, taken from the combination of many different animals.
As an imaginative animal synthesized from many different animals and natural phenomenas, the Chinese dragon possesses many different characteristics and abilities such as swimming in the water; flying in the sky and ascending to heaven to become a messenger between earth and heaven; transforming into thousands of forms such as cloud, rain, thunder, rainbow in the sky, tiger, horse, buffalo and bull on the ground, snake, crocodile and waves underwater; the sacredness of the dragon also makes it a mascot that brings good luck and blessings.
4. Dragon in Chinese culture
In Chinese folk beliefs, dragons are originally considered to be a vehicle of deities, because of their abilities to fly and ascend to heaven. In Taoism, the Azure Dragon 青龍 is one of the 4 symbols 四象, which are 4 mythological creatures in the Chinese constellations. Each of these holy creatures governs one direction and represents one season, they have their own characteristics and origins, corresponding to the philosophy of Yin and Yang, and Five Elements concept:
- East: Wood – Spring – the Azure Dragon
- South: Fire – Summer – the Vermilion Bird
- West: Metal – Autumn – the White Tiger
- North: Water – Winter – the Black Turtle & Snake
In this philosophy system, the 4 elements of Wood, Fire, Metal and Water revolve around a central element, which is Earth represented by the Yellow Dragon 黄龙, the symbol of the Chinese emperor, meaning the emperor is Son of Heaven who controls everything in the universe.
Chinese dragons are strongly associated with water and weather in Chinese folk belief. They are believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, seas or rain and storms. When they appear, there will be tornadoes and typhoons on the sea. Dragons also has a destructive aspect, they can devastate by floods, waves, and storms. They can fly in the clouds or hide underwater and spray water to create storms and floods.
By the time Buddhism was introduced to China, the god who was responsible for the governance of water and weather was called the Dragon King 龙王, an anthropomorphic form of the dragon with a human body, dressed in a king’s costume, with a dragon head wearing a king’s headdress and lived in palaces made out of crystal. According to Chinese mythology, there were 4 Dragon Kings, representing each of the 4 Seas:
- Dragon God of the East – Ao Guang, patron of the East China Sea
- Dragon God of the West – Ao Run, patron of Qinghai Lake
- Dragon God of the South – Ao Qin, patron of the South China Sea
- Dragon God of the North – Ao Shun, patron of Lake Baikal
In premodern times, many Chinese villages (especially those close to rivers and seas) had temples dedicated to their local Dragon King. In times of drought or flooding, the local nobles and government officials would lead the community to offer sacrifices and conduct other religious rituals to appease the Dragon King, either to ask for rain or a cessation thereof. The most popular form of rainmaking rituals and actually still exist until today is the dragon dance.
The worship of Dragon Kings continues to this day in many regions in China, and has penetrated into the traditional Chinese culture as on the Chinese New Year. During traditional holidays, the most popular festival is the dragon boat racing festival with the meaning of celebrating important local figures and heroes.
In Chinese history, the king of Wuyue in the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms 五代十国 period, especially Qian Liu was once known as the “Dragon King” because of his extensive hydro-engineering schemes which “tamed” the sea and ensure economic development for the country.
In modern Chinese culture, dragons are often used for the purpose of decorating and deforming dragon shapes is a taboo. Many pictures of Chinese dragons show a flaming pearl under their chin or in their claws. The pearl is associated with spiritual energy, wisdom, prosperity, power, immortality, thunder, or the moon. Chinese art often depicts a pair of dragons chasing or fighting over a flaming pearl.
5. Symbol of the emperor
When Confucianism was introduced, Confucianism did not cease to imperialize the dragon symbol. From an mystical, sacred creature, the Chinese dragon has slowly become a symbol of imperial authority of Chinese emperors in feudal dynasties. Chinese people identify themselves as “descendants of dragons” (龙的传人) because according to the legend of 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors (三皇五帝), the ancestors of Chinese people are closely associated with dragons:
Fuxi ( 伏羲) is a culture hero in Chinese legend and mythology, often considered to be the first of the 3 Sovereigns at the beginning of the Chinese dynastic period. He is a brother and husband of Nuwa. Fuxi is a very significant and important figure because he is believed to be the creator of Chinese civilization, he invented the first writing system, fishing, hunting, domestication, and cooking. He was also very well-known of his books about I Ching (易經). Fuxi as well as Nuwa were often depicted to have dragon body and human head, or snake body and human head, and were called the Grand Dragon (龍祖).
Shennong (神农), also known as Agriculture God, was a mythological Chinese god of Southern tribes that were influenced by Chinese culture, one of the 3 Sovereigns and also considered to be a culture hero. According to mythology, Shennong lived 5000 years ago, taught the ancient Chinese practices of agriculture and the use of herbal drugs. Shennong was born by his mother’s telepathy with a mythical dragon.
Yellow Emperor (黃帝) was a mythical king and culture hero of China, he was considered to be the ancestor of all Chinese people, one of 5 Emperors. According to legend, he ruled between 2698 – 2599 BC and one those who created the Chinese civilization. When Yellow Emperor defeated Xi You at the battle of Zhuolu was the milestone of Han Chinese nation’s establishment. At the end of his reign, the Yellow Emperor was said to have been immortalized into a dragon that resembled his emblem, and ascended to heaven.
Since the Chinese people view 3 Sovereigns and 5 Emperors as their ancestors as in the idiom Yan Huang Zisun (炎黃子孫) which means descendants of Shennong and Yellow Emperor, they also identify themselves as “descendants of dragons“. This legend also contributed to the use of Chinese dragon symbol as the imperial power and authority. And the first Chinese emperor who created this new use was Emperor Gaozu of Han – Liu Bang (劉邦), who claimed that he was conceived after his mother dreamt of a dragon. Ever since, the concept of “true dragon heaven’s son” (真龙天子) was sown in the hearts of Chinese people, the dragon from a mystical, supernatural creature has become a mighty symbol of Chinese imperial power and authority.
Since then, the dragon is the symbol of Chinese emperors until the time of Qin dynasty, with the “dragon” character was linked with other nouns such as “dragon body”, “dragon robe”, “dragon throne” etc. In some Chinese legends, an emperor might be born with a birthmark in the shape of a dragon. By the Yuan dynasty, the 5-clawed dragons became reserved for use by the emperor only the 4-clawed dragon would become typically for imperial nobility and certain high-ranking officials. The 3-clawed dragon was used by lower ranks and the general public.
Howard Giskin & Bettye S. Walsh. (2001). An introduction to Chinese culture through the family. State University of New York Press
Nguyễn Ngọc Thơ. (2016). Hình tượng rồng trong văn hóa phương Đông (Dragon symbol in Eastern culture). Ho Chi Minh city: Chinh tri quoc gia