Dragons in Western and Eastern Cultures

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Mysterious Kings of the Food Chain
Although the history of dragons differ between specific Chinese and Medieval legends, dragons have remained as one of the most recognized creatures from past civilizations to the present day! Dragons hold a special place in the ancient history, mythology and folklore of planet earth. If dragons have appeared throughout nearly every time period and culture isolated across distant lands surrounding the globe throughout the history of man then how could they not exist? These enchanted creatures seem to sit at the very top of the food chain and have inspired many myths, and even entire mythologies, for so long. Dragons appear in uncounted as well as documented historical information sources found worldwide. Strangely enough, the English word for dragon originates from the Greek word: draconta – which means “to watch.” So who knows, maybe dragons have been watching us all along?

Contrasting Dragon Tales of the Chinese and Europeans
The Medieval and Chinese dragon, as far as mythological creatures go, is typically depicted as a large and powerful serpent, or other reptile-like animal, with magical and often unique spiritual qualities. There is simply no creature alive that can match the physical majesty of the dragon. For centuries dragons have been a powerful symbol of mystery itself. All through ancient history dragons are mentioned in the numerous legends of both Medieval and Chinese cultures with dragons provoking man to live in fear of them, and worship them simultaneously. In Medieval Europe, the dragon is considered a vicious fire-breathing character with both a malevolence and fierceness that caused terror in nearly all people of the Middle Ages. On the other hand, Chinese dragons are regarded as supreme beings that protect the weak and are worshiped, not out of fear, but out of love by the local Asian and Chinese people of the past, and even the present.

Chinese Dgragon

Chinese Dgragon

Understanding the Regionality of Dragon Beliefs
When most people from Western Civilization [North America, Canada and Europe] think “dragon” they are most likely thinking of a Medieval dragon, and not a Chinese dragon. Medieval dragons, also known to the world as Western dragons, or European dragons, are usually portrayed as enormous fire breathing, evil, mean-spirited and downright ferocious bloodthirsty beasts. Some individuals have the misconception that Chinese dragons are a symbol of evil as well. This is an erroneous belief which probably stems from the Western world mythology where Medieval dragons were thought to be in the business of abducting maidens, wreaking havoc on the populace, stealing gold, meanwhile they destroyed the brave of knights and their castles. In a Medieval context, the Western dragon is often confused with the symbol of Satan incarnate. Remarkably, this association is not carried over for the dragons of the Orient. Interestingly enough, the Asian cultural has it just the opposite! The dragons of China and Japan are almost exclusively benevolent mythological creatures. So different in nature from Western Dragons, Chinese dragons may be more reasonably considered as a different dragon sub-species entirely, rather than as the same dragon species interpreted differently.

European Dragon

European Dragon

 

Guardians or Monsters?
As guardians of the basic Elements: Earth, Fire, Water, and Air… plus spirit, Chinese dragons exemplify mastery over the full powers of nature and were considered to be powerful wise guardians as opposed to Medieval dragons which were, in general, considered evil monsters. Common to Eastern and Western mythologies, dragons were enemies of the sun and the moon, and whenever eclipses occurred it was believed that dragons were responsible, that they had somehow caused it with their vast wings.

Oriental Chinese Dragon and Western Dragon Differences
The legends of Medieval dragons and Western dragons describe the mythological dragon species as being akin to large lizard-like creatures that breathed fire, had large powerful pterodactyl-like wings and a long scaly tail. In Europe, there are many dragon tales, myths and legends. Traditionally, dragons represent all that is evil and fought against by human beings, and are portrayed as ferocious beasts because of this conflict and inner battle. In Asia, especially for China and Japan, the dragon is generally considered a friendly creature that almost guarantees you good luck and wealth if you are fortunate enough to have a dragon cross your path. The Oriental, or Chinese dragon, is a graceful, flowing beast that seems to glide effortlessly through the air at will. Also, in complete contrast to Medieval dragons, Chinese dragons are represented as long serpent-like creatures with no wings, and simultaneously they are seen as ancient and highly intelligent creatures.

Are Dragons a Fable or a Fact?
The dragon is truly something else. It is an admirable, intelligent and educated creature, who leads a most interesting life. Even in the realm of the most fantastic animals, the dragon is quite unique. No other highly intelligent creature has appeared in such a rich variety of forms. It is as though there was once a whole family of different dragon species that really existed, until they mysteriously became extinct, like a dragon tale. Indeed, even as recently as the seventeenth century scholars wrote of dragons as though they were a scientific fact, with their anatomy and natural history being recorded in painstaking detail. Is there something the Smithsonian Museum is hiding from us or where they all wrong?

Dragons Stories as Old as Written Language Itself!
Six thousand years ago in ancient Mesopotamia near present day Iraq, the early Sumerians developed the first writing systems and amazingly enough humankind’s very first writings were about dragons! They wrote that dragons created both the earth and humanity. Maybe dragons really have been around since the dawn of civilization. Especially since dragons are still, to this day, the best known creature that ever existed! If dragons have appeared in almost every time period and culture in isolated regions and across distant lands throughout the entire history of humankind, then how could they not exist?

Dragons as Imagination Fodder
Why dragons? Is it their magical presence? Are they still watching us without us being able watch them? Some people think so. Until dragons want themselves to be known to the masses again one day, they will continue to present themselves to only those who truly believe! Dragon stories and myths, in both Chinese and Western Medieval cultures, have been around for thousands of years, the memory of dragons isn’t going away anytime soon. It is almost certain that even more new fascinating dragon myths, dragon legends, and dragon movies will continue to fascinate children and adults alike with wonder. Artists and film makers alike will continue to draw, paint, sculpt and otherwise create dragons of all sorts, with their imaginations returning us to the mysterious realm of the dragon.

The Chinese Dragon
Most of us are all to familiar with the classic western concept of the dragon, but not all have a great insight into probably one of the most recognized dragons, the Chinese dragon.
In Chinese mythology there are five types of dragon:-

  1. Those guarding the gods and emperors
  2. Those controlling the wind and rain
  3. Earthly dragons which deepened the rivers and seas
  4. Guardians of hidden treasure
  5. The first dragon

The First dragon appeared to the mythical emperor Fu-hsi, and filled the hole in the sky made by the monster Kung Kung. Its waking, sleeping and breathing determined day and night. Season and weather.
There are many differences between the classical dragon and the Chinese dragon, these include the ability to fly even without wings, shape-shifting abilities, and of course the general benevolent behaviour to the populace.

The Chinese dragon is made up of nine entities. The head of camel, the eyes of a demon, the ears of a cow, the horns of a stag, the neck of a snake, it’s belly a clam’s, it’s claws that of an eagle, while the soles of his feet are that of a tiger, and the 117 scales that cover it’s body are that of a carp.

The Chinese dragon has four claws as standard, but the Imperial dragon has five, this is to identify it above the lesser classes. Anyone other than the emperor using the 5 claw motif was put to death.

The Chinese dragon (Lung) was a divine bringer of rain, necessary for the good of the people. Throughout Chinese history the dragon has been equated with weather. It is said that some of the worst floodings were caused when a mortal has upset a dragon. The dragon was also a symbol of the emperor whose wisdom and divine power assured the well-being of his subjects. Many legends draw connections between the dragon and the emperor. Some emperors claimed to have descended from the dragon.

Chinese dragons of myth could make themselves as large as the universe or as small as a silkworm. They could also change color and disappear in a flash. They rise to the skies in the spring and plunge into the waters in the autumn.

Ancient China Dragon occupies a very important position in Chinese mythology. It shows up in arts, literature, poetry, architecture, songs, and many aspects of the Chinese conscience. The origin of Chinese dragons is unknown, but certainly pre-dates the written history.

Nine Dragon Wall A very popular tourist site in Beijing is this Nine-Dragon Wall in BaiHai Park. After hundreds of years, the colours of the ceramic tiles are just as brilliant. The wall was built in 1756. It is 21m long, about 15m high and i.2m thick. It is faced with 424 7-colour ceramic tiles. At the centre of the wall, there is a giant dragon, flanged by four dragons on each side. In addition to these nine large dragons, the wall is covered from edge to edge with many smaller dragons. In all, there are 635 dragons.
According to legend the Dragon had nine sons, and each had a strong personality. There is no general agreement as to what the Dragon’s sons are called. However, to most people, they are:
1.Haoxian A reckless and adventurous dragon whose image can be found decorating the eaves of palaces. 2.Yazi Valiant and bellicose; his image is seen on sword-hilts and knife hilts. 3.Chiwen Chiwen likes to gaze into the distance and his appearance is often carved on pinnacles. 4.Baxia Baxia is a good swimmer and his image decorates many bridge piers and archways. 5.Pulao Pulao is fond of roaring and his figure is carved on bells. 6.Bixi Bixi is an excellent pack-animal whose image appears on panniers. 7.Qiuniu Qiuniu loves music and his figure is a common decoration on the bridge of stringed musical instruments. 8.Suanmi Suanmi is fond of smoke and fire; his likeness can be seen on the legs of incense-burners. 9.Jiaotu Jiaotu is as tight-lipped as a mussel or a snail. His image is carved on doors.

Awakening the Dragon by Shelagh Pierce
The Chinese dragon boat races will always be a symbol of Chinese culture and spirit. As one of the three largest Chinese festivals of the year, this mythical celebration can now be witnessed around the world. To experience a dragon boat race – either watching or participating – is a thrill in itself and can be enjoyed by everyone.

You’ll watch as long, multicoloured boats, with frightening dragons’ heads, long tails, and scaly bodies, splash through the water. You’ll see men, women, and children grunt and sweat as they push themselves harder and faster to be the first to the finish line. You’ll hear the crowds screaming and cheering for their favourite team, while the drummers pound on their drums and yell at the paddlers. The event is not intended to be quiet and peaceful but loud and exciting – a celebration!

To observe the Chinese dragon boat races of today, you can only dream of its meagre beginnings. A time when superstition determined how a person lived. In fact, dragon boat racing began more than 2000 years ago when a group of superstitious people believed that the boat racing would ensure prosperous and bountiful crops. Their celebrations took place on the summer solstice – the time of year typically associated with disease and death and when man felt most helpless against the powers of nature. The race has come to symbolise both man’s struggle against nature and his fight against dangerous enemies.

The tragic tale of Ch’u Yuan further integrated the dragon boat races into the lives of the Chinese. Fourth Century B.C.E. is known as the period of the “warring states” in Chinese history. It was a time when numerous supremacy wars between feudal lords erupted. Many kingdoms had already disappeared, except for Ch’u, which was one of the mightiest kingdoms remaining. Ch’u Yuan was a poet and a minister and councillor to the king of Ch’u – truly a great patriot. He feared for the future of his kingdom and to do the best for his country, he gave advice to the king. To his surprise, the advice was not accepted and he was exiled. At the devastation of the kingdom of Ch’u and his exile, Ch’u Yuan, in desperation and sorrow, threw himself into the Mi Lo river.

The people of Ch’u loved Ch’u Yuan. They grieved over his death and spent much time trying to scare the fish and water dragons away from Ch’u Yuan’s body by rowing around the river in their fishing boats, splashing their oars, and beating their drums. And to ensure that Ch’u Yuan never went hungry, they wrapped rice in leaves and threw them into the river. Rice cakes are still eaten today as part of the dragon boat festival celebration.

The dragon boat festival is typically celebrated “the Fifth of the Fifth” – the fifth day of the fifth month. Red is the prominent colour on the boats because it is the colour of the number five and symbolises heat, summer, and fire. The lengths of the boats can range between 30 and 100 feet but are wide enough to barely fit two people side by side. Some of the original rituals are still practiced today, like the “Awakening of the Dragon” by dotting the eyes of the dragon’s head on each boat. This ceremony is conducted to cleanse and bless the area of the competition, the competitors, and their boats. It also gives the boats and their crew the strength of the Dragon and the blessing of the Goddess of the Sea.

Nevertheless, much has changed in the festival. The crowd no longer throws stones at the rival boats and it is not imperative a boat capsize and at least one person drown – which was considered a special sacrifice to the gods and was, surprisingly, a sign of good luck.

Today the dragon boat races are primarily a form of amusement. It is no longer a necessary ceremony performed to scare away evil and call for a good year but entertainment that teaches people a little about Chinese history and culture. We are not nearly as superstitious as we were in the past but it sure is fun pretending!

The Dragon in Oriental Mythology
In the mythology of various Oriental countries, notably Japan and China, the dragon is the supreme spiritual power, the most ancient emblem in Oriental mythology and the most ubiquitous motif in Oriental art. Dragons represent celestial and terrestrial power, wisdom, and strength. They reside in water and bring wealth and good luck and, in Chinese belief, rainfall for crops. The dragon in traditional Chinese New Year’s Day parades is believed to repel evil spirits that would spoil the new year. The five-clawed dragon became the Chinese Imperial emblem (the four-clawed being the common dragon). The three-clawed dragon is the Japanese dragon. In Hindu mythology, Indra, god of the sky and giver of rain, slays Vitra, Dragon of the Waters, to release rainfall.

2 Comments

  1. Dragonchampion
    Aug 15, 2011

    I believe that if dragons aren’t real now, they once were. There’s so much evidence, as you have pointed out here, that points to their existence at some point. I wager these fantastic and wondrous beasts went the way of the dodo bird simply because mankind was jealous of them and wished to have them as trophies, to use their parts for herbal means and so forth. Hunting down these creatures, gentle or not, into extinction. Perhaps there may yet some day be some tell-tale remains that will once and for all finish this debate of their existence and prove it. Until then, all we have left of them now are tales to which we tell our children and dreams of these fantastic creatures that may well have once been guardians to us.

  2. zack lyman
    Oct 19, 2011

    this is a good imformation about dragons and their cultures

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