East or West: Where Do Real Dragons Live

the dragon king in the hit animated film Nezha (source: Douban)

In the hit film Nezha, Ao Bing, the son of the chained dragon king had to shoulder the responsibility of rejuvenating the whole dragon race. It is surprising to see dragons, who are meant to be divine creatures, be so demeaned. Chained and confined in the deep end of the ocean, the old dragon put all his hope in his son. However, as soon as Ao Bing reveals himself from under the cloak he was wearing, the crowd’s response turns immediately from appreciation to terror and aversion.

For ordinary villagers in the film, he might not be a beloved creature. But in traditional Chinese culture, dragons have been worshipped and loved for the past several thousand years.

Origins

In the far ancient times, dragons used to be totems of the most noble tribes, with their features inspired by different animals like lions, elephants, snakes, fish, horses, eagles, tigers and so on. It’s a symbol that unified totems of different tribes scattered across the boundless Chinese territory. Yellow Emperor, an ancient tribal leader believed that the animal was incomparable. “There is one and only Loong, one that can travel through the clouds and dive deep into the sea,” said one of his hands according to legends.

Chinese dragon (source: parody.fandom.com)

Chinese emperors were seen as “the real dragons and sons of heaven”, everything about them, from their residences to all sorts of possessions were dragon related. For instance, the throne an emperor would sit on was called “the dragon throne”, his embroidered clothing was referred to as the “dragon robe”. The birth or rising of emperors were often thought of as supernatural events and associated with visions, lightning, or five-colored auspicious clouds. For instance, the founding emperor of Han dynasty, was born after his mother’s encounter with a deity in her dreams, and on the eve of his birth, through thunder and lightning, some say a dragon shaped spirit was seen crawling upon her body.

Dragons In Other Parts Of Asia

Ever since the beginning of times, Chinese people have believed that they are the descendants of dragons. Just like the pop song by famous ChineseAmerican singer Leehom Wang goes, “in the ancient East there was a dragon; its name was Zhong Guo (China), In the ancient East there was a group of people; they were all descendants of the dragon.”

This dragon worshipping went beyond China’s borders to other Asian countries. In Vietnam, whose culture is strongly influenced by the Chinese one, a lot of toponyms include the word “dragon”. A thousand years ago, Vietnam’s emperor moved the country’s capital to Thang Long, the old name of Hanoi. Thang Long means rising dragon, and the emperor wanted his empire to rise up high like a dragon in the sky. There is also Ha Long Bay, a world renowned cultural sight, north of Hanoi. The name can be translated as “dragon coming down from the sky”.

During the northern Han dynasty, dragon worship was picked up from China by Japan. Other than auspicious and holy, Japanese dragons tend to be milder and tenderer towards humans. In the classic animation Spirited Away, the little white dragon, who saved the protagonist was reincarnation of a handsome young man. In one of the most famous boys’ manga Saint Seiya, Dragon Shiryu (「ドラゴン」literally meaning “Purple Dragon”),the dragon, is also the most composed and mature fighter. During fights when his cosmo is rising, a tattoo-like image of a green and white dragon on his back appears. It is shaped like a Chinese dragon.

Dragon Shiryu from Saint Seiya (itsfun.com)

Evil Western Dragons

However, in the west dragons are not at all the embodiment of amicability. In early Anglo-Saxon mythology, dragons were evil and cunning and often slaughtered by knights. In Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, a work strongly affected by medieval culture, the dragon Smaug is a greedy and resentful underground creature guarding a vault.

Smaug from The Hobbit (source: Warner Bros. Pictures)

Revelation 12:9-10 says, “This great dragon — the ancient serpent called the devil, or Satan, the one deceiving the whole world—was thrown down to the earth with all his angels.” In this section of the Bible, the great dragon relates to the serpent who tricked Eve. However, western dragons are more like giant lizards, totally different from what Chinese people have been worshipping. In the middle ages, many Christian saints were believed to have fought evil dragons, among whom the most famous one is Saint George, the guardian of England and Orthodox countries like Russia and Georgia.

Saint George slaying the dragon (source: kknews)

Powers And Abilities

“The peasants have been suffering from extreme droughts, so they went to pray before dragon kings at the temples,” is written in Chinese historical documents. As we mentioned, Chinese dragons could travel through the clouds and dive deep into the sea. In ancient times, people connected natural phenomena to the order of heavens and flying dragons. In classics like Journey to the West, or The Investiture of the Gods, the dragon king is often depicted as a deity with a dragon head and a human body, who is in charge of rain and lightening under the order of the jade emperor. There are also different rankings of dragon kings managing different sections of the ocean.

However in western classics, dragons are more associated with fire. The Hungarian Horntail, the one who almost burnt Harry Potter in a Triwizard Tournament , breathes fire with the same fierceness as Daenerys Targaryen’s Drogon. Apparently, J.K. Rowling took inspiration from oriental dragons, in that the body features of Chinese fireballs (presented in the fourth novel of the series) clearly resemble those of traditional Chinese dragons.

As written in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, the Chinese fireball is a brilliant red and gold dragon, named after the rounded balls of flame that shoot from its nostrils. “…a red one with an odd fringe of fine gold spikes around its face, which was shooting mushroom-shaped fire clouds into the air…” Considering its appearance and power, the Chinese fireball is more like a mixture of western and Chinese dragons created by the author.

Chinese fireball (source: Harry Potter Fandom)

In the fantasy role-playing game (RPG) Dungeons and Dragons, dragons are monsters classified according to the color of their scales. They can even cast spells just like sorcerers do.

If a western dragon and a Chinese dragon got into a fight, who knows who would come out on top.