As a Chinese student studying abroad in the US, I was surprised to learn about the differences between Chinese and Western depictions of dragons. While reading the Hobbit, I was shocked to find that it was depicted as a vicious and dangerous creature. This was in stark contrast to the revered Chinese dragons I had grown up learning about, which were symbols of power, strength, and good luck. As I continued reading, I realized that the physical appearance and cultural significance of Chinese and Western dragons were vastly different.
Chinese dragons were typically depicted as long and serpentine, with bright colors and intricate patterns, and associated with good fortune and prosperity. Meanwhile, Western dragons were often portrayed as large, scaly beasts with wings and fiery breath and were often viewed as villains to be defeated. This realization was shocking to me, as I had never considered the possibility of such a stark difference between two creatures that shared the same name. Despite sharing a name, the Chinese and Western dragons are fundamentally different entities, reflecting the unique cultural, historical, and philosophical contexts from which they emerge. These differences underscore the importance of understanding cultural context when interpreting symbols or mythological creatures.
Chinese dragons are typically serpentine, long and slender, embodying characteristics of several animals. They have the body of a snake, scales of a carp, head of a camel, eyes of a rabbit, ears of a cow, claws of an eagle, and paws of a tiger. Unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese dragons do not have wings but are still capable of flight. They are often depicted amidst clouds or with a pearl, symbolizing their control over water and weather.
Western dragons are often depicted as large, winged, four-legged creatures, somewhat dinosaur-like in appearance. They are typically covered in scales, have sharp claws, a spiked tail, and a pair of bat-like wings, giving them the power of flight. Western dragons are often shown breathing fire, a trait rarely seen in Chinese dragons.
Origins and Historical Context
The history of the Chinese dragon dates back thousands of years, with early depictions found in artifacts such as pottery, bronze ware, and jade carvings from the Neolithic period and various Chinese dynasties. These early dragon depictions were likely inspired by the animals that the people of the time were familiar with or revered. For instance, the serpentine shape of the dragon could have been derived from snakes, which were common and held symbolic significance in many ancient cultures. The association of dragons with water and the weather might have been influenced by crocodiles, powerful creatures that lived in and around water. Furthermore, these early Chinese dragons often bear the characteristics of several animals combined. They might have the scales of a carp, the claws of an eagle, and the eyes of a rabbit, among other features. This amalgamation suggests a symbolic blending of these animals' perceived qualities, such as the carp’s perseverance, the eagle’s power, and the rabbit’s watchfulness.
The dragon’s significance in Chinese culture is deeply rooted in ancient beliefs and religions, including Taoism and Confucianism. It was considered a divine creature, symbolizing power, wisdom, and authority, and was often associated with the emperor and celestial forces. Over time, the Chinese dragon myth evolved and absorbed elements from various Chinese myths, legends, and cultural beliefs, coming to represent aspects of Chinese culture such as water, agriculture, and imperial power.
This image is a portrait of an ancient emperor in Chinese. The symbol of dragon is everywhere from the clothes to the chair.
Given that the dragon was a symbol of the emperor and imperial power, it’s not surprising that dragon motifs are prominently featured in imperial palaces. The Forbidden City in Beijing, for instance, is filled with dragon imagery - from dragon statues and carvings to dragon-themed frescoes and ornaments.
The concept of the Western dragon can be traced back to ancient Mesopotamia, where creatures like the Sumerian dragon and the Akkadian Mushussu were depicted. These early dragon-like beings influenced the myths and legends of Greece and Rome, where they took on more recognizable forms, such as the Hydra and the Chimera. The dragon myth in the West was further shaped by the spread of Christianity and European folklore, which imbued the dragon with a more sinister connotation. As a result, Western dragons became symbols of evil, fear, and malevolence, often appearing as formidable adversaries in stories and legends.
The figure is a portrait of Sumerian Dragon, which has a more than passing resemblance with a dinosaur.
Roles in Mythology and Folklore
One of the famous folklore is called “鲤鱼跃龙门”, “Carp Leaping over the Dragon Gate”. The Dragon Gate is a mythical waterfall located on the Yellow River. It was said that if a carp could swim upstream and leap over the Dragon Gate, it would transform into a dragon. This task was considered extremely difficult due to the swift currents and the height of the waterfall. Every year, many carps would try to leap over the Dragon Gate, but very few could succeed. Those that did were instantly transformed into dragons, gaining the ability to fly and control the weather. The phrase “鲤鱼跃龙门” has become a Chinese idiom, symbolizing perseverance and the ability to overcome obstacles to achieve success. It’s often used in the context of students studying for exams, individuals striving for career advancement, or any situation requiring significant effort to overcome challenges.
The dragon in J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” is named Smaug. Smaug is a fearsome, intelligent, and extremely powerful creature, and he is one of the last great dragons in Middle Earth. Smaug is known for his love of treasure. He resides in the Lonely Mountain (Erebor), where he guards the vast wealth that was once the property of the dwarves. Smaug stole this treasure and drove the dwarves from their home, and the quest to reclaim the Lonely Mountain from Smaug forms the central plot of “The Hobbit.” Physically, Smaug is described as being of enormous size, with red-golden scales and eyes that glow in the dark. He can fly and breathe fire, as is typical for Western dragons. His underbelly is covered with gem-encrusted scales that serve as a protective armor, except for one small spot where a scale is missing. Smaug’s portrayal in “The Hobbit” aligns with the Western concept of dragons as fearsome, treasure-hoarding creatures, a contrast to the more benevolent symbolism of dragons in Chinese culture.
Chinese dragons - facts, culture, origins, and art. Chinese Dragon: Meaning, Colors Symbolism, Mythology, Types. (n.d.). https://www.chinahighlights.com/travelguide/article-chinese-dragons.htm
Learn about Chinese dragons: Chinese Language Institute. CLI. (2022, March 31). https://studycli.org/chinese-culture/chinese-dragons/