Of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac, the dragon has by far the highest status, a fact emphasized by the predication, reported in the Liberty Times earlier this month, that there will likely be a 5 percent increase in the birthrate because of parents eager to have “dragon” babies. Chinese dragons, as mythical beasts, have had many varied qualities ascribed to them (mostly positive ones), and it will be noted immediately that the dragon in Asia is a very different beast to the one that inhabits the Western imagination.
In Europe, the dragon, while undoubtedly a symbol of power, is fatally tarred with the brush of evil. In the Book of Revelations, Satan takes the form of a “red dragon with seven heads and 10 horns,” and ever since then, from the iconography of St George and the Dragon to the character of Smaug, the vicious dragon that is outwitted by Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, not much good has been ascribed to dragons in the West. If not outright evil, then they are at least bestial, greedy, selfish and generally not very good company.
In Asia on the other hand, the dragon is a creature that may well be feared, but is also looked upon as the king of beasts, and is the symbol that China’s emperor took unto himself, a representation of his divine status, his heavenly wisdom and the almost infinite reach of his power. Many of the mythical emperors of China, including Fuxi (伏羲) and Nuwa (女媧), the founders of the human race, are depicted as dragons in some incarnations. All subsequent emperors have sought to establish a link with this divine imperial beast.
In modern times, the dragon’s importance as an ethnic Chinese icon was consolidated by a ballad by Richard Hou (侯德健), a Taiwanese lyricist. The song, Descendants of the Dragon (龍的傳人), is a tremendous piece of nationalistic propaganda. Written in the late 1970s, it is filled with a passionate sense of despair informed by a disastrous century for the Chinese people, and its massive aspirations for the future. The lyrics, “The sound of guns and cannons split the silent night, we fight surrounded on all sides by Western swords” (槍砲聲敲碎了寧靜的夜/四面楚歌是洋人的劍), give an impression of the Asian dragon brought to bay (the reference to “Western swords” has been altered to a more neutral phrasing in later renditions).
More recently, dragons have been seen as symbols of economic hope, as with the four Asian dragons — Hong Kong, Singapore, South Korea and Taiwan — which led the rise of Asia as an economic force to be reckoned with in the late 20th century. These four Asian dragons have hit the same hard times as most of the rest of the world in the early 21st century, but the belief that the descendants of the dragon will rise up and dominate the world is still very much part of the popular imagination in Asia. Whether this is for better or for worse remains to be seen.
It is, after all, well known that while the dragon is a prodigious beast, he is not altogether dependable, and his actions are not always comprehensible to mere morals. There is a phrase in common use: “The dragon is a mystical creature; when its head is revealed, its tail is hidden” (神龍見首不見尾). This phrase, originally used to describe poetry by Qing Dynasty commentator Zhao Zhixin (趙執信), is now most commonly used to describe inscrutable personalities who cannot be easily pigeonholed.