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The values of Chinese dragon culture

Author  :  HE XINGLIANG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2018-01-18

The Nine Dragon Screen inside the Forbidden City

The origins of Chinese dragon mythology are a fascinating mystery. The image of the Chinese dragon contains elements of several animals. Focusing on particular characteristics of these creatures leads to different theories about their origins. 

The most influential one is the snake theory. Eminent scholar Wen Yiduo (1899-1946) concluded that the major part of the dragon resembles a snake. Other theories believe that a crocodile, lizard, horse, bolt of lightning or rainbow represent the original form of the Chinese dragon.

Chinese dragon culture evolved through four stages. First, during the phase of totem worship, some tribes took the dragon as the ancestor and symbol of their tribes. According to historical literature and legends, the dragon was originally the totem of the Fuxi tribe. It later became the totem of the Taihao tribe. 

Totem worship of dragons later evolved into worshipping the dragon as a deity and this in turn led to polytheism when agriculture began to play an increasing role in daily life. The dragon was worshiped as the god of rain and rainbows.

After the unification of China in the Qin and Han dynasties, a belief that unified all peoples in all regions was urgently needed. Hence, dragon worship became integrated with emperor worship. Ancient emperors claimed themselves to be the mortal embodiment or sons of the dragon. As a result, the dragon gained eminent status in Chinese culture. 

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, when Buddhism gained great popularity, the worship of the dragon as king in Buddhism was introduced to China. The ideas of kings, palaces of dragons as well as daughters of dragon kings became popular among the people.

Chinese dragon culture can be divided into three major categories—religious, political and artistic. In terms of religion, dragons are divine creatures or gods. They are gods of rain or protection. Politically, by manipulating the mass psychology of dragon worship, the ruling group came up with the theory that the emperors were the mortal embodiment of dragons. Artistically crafted dragons are expressions of the admiration and worship of dragons through artistic forms including sculpture, painting, dancing and athletic activities. 

Dragon culture shows the Chinese spirit of innovation. The dragon culture experienced several key stages of development. The image of dragons, which evolved from being hornless to being horned, wingless to having wings and footless to having feet, gradually came into being through constant innovations.

Dragon culture also shows the spirit of integration. Ancient Chinese created the dragon image by integrating the advantages of the beasts, birds, aquatic animals and reptiles. In addition, during its evolution, elements of foreign cultures were also added to the image of the dragon. 

The pluralistic dragon culture in China benefited from the inclusive spirit of ancient Chinese. For example, when Indian belief in the dragon king encountered Chinese dragon culture, ancient Chinese took an inclusive attitude and integrated it into local dragon culture.

Dragon culture also embodies the Chinese spirit of enterprise. Chinese dragons go up highest in the heavens and down in the deepest of oceans. The dragon images in most artistic representations are flying, rising or hurtling dragons, demonstrating vitality, enterprise and power. The dragons in Chinese legends press forward with indomitable will, advance irresistibly and fearlessly. 

Dragon culture in China also shows independence. Although the Chinese dragon image has close connections to Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, it maintains its independence and is not affiliated with any kind of religion.


He Xingliang is a Member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) and a research fellow from the Institute of Ethnology and Anthropology under CASS.

Editor: Yu Hui

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