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ART & LEISURE: Dragons among Us
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By Nadia N.

BT 201705 ART 01Dragon has always been an ultimate symbol of Chinese culture. And Chinese horoscope, superstitions, architecture, fashion, jewelry and even tattoos (basically everything) remind us about this every day. But why is this mystical creature so important and why is Chinese people's idea of them being "the descendants of the dragon" is deeply embedded in their culture? These questions are not easily answered even by Chinese for the simple reason that Chinese civilization goes back hundreds and hundreds of years and therefore many modern people don't pay that much attention to the dragon round-up.

First, and probably the most puzzling belief about Chinese dragons is why Chinese people believe that they are somehow related. This belief appeared with the legend of Yangdi (one of the legendary tribe leaders in ancient times), who was believed to have been born through his mother's telepathy with an actual dragon. With the help of his mighty "father" Yangdi allied with Huangdi (another legendary tribe leader) and their alliance is considered to be a starting point of the entire Chinese civilization. People of China that are descendants of Yangdi and Huangdi are related to dragons as well.

In the Western world, dragon is usually associated with malevolence or evil. Half the fairy tales tell us a story about a princess that is guarded by a big bad dragon. In Chinese culture, dragon represents dignity and goodness. From the ancient times when tribes united under one banner, dragon was chosen as a national icon. During those primitive times, dragon was regarded as a god of rain, storm, stars and rainbow. As a society whose survival depended on agriculture and stock-raising, good weather and climate were keys to wellbeing and, therefore, the dragon was worshiped as the source of all goodness. As China developed and changed, in feudal society dragon "gained" another characteristic - the almighty - and became a symbol of people in power. Various rulers had the dragon embodied on their clothes as a sign of highest power and influence and anyone who didn't have a certain status and dared to wear dragon-decorated clothes was punished by death.

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As China slipped into the era of dynasties and the emperor became the one and only ruler of the whole empire, dragon became the symbol of the emperor of China. Emperors traditionally wore yellow robes luxuriously decorated with golden patterns and nine dragons as symbols of dignity (number 9 means "everlasting" according to the Chinese tradition): on the front and on the back, before and behind knees, on the shoulders and one lining the chest. There are several other patterns that were traditionally embodied on the emperor's robe and each had a special meaning: mountains (stability), sun or moon (light of the throne), auspicious bird (beauty) and water reeds (purity). The grand symbolism of the emperor robe was meant to protect the ruler and guide him in his uneasy craft. However, dragons were not only keeping the emperor safe and protected by decorating his clothes. Forbidden city, the palace of many emperors of China, except for the statues, has dragons appearing on the walls or staircases, looking down from curvy roofs, wreathing on the door handles and, of course, enlacing the throne of the emperor. In total, emperor palace has 12,654 dragons of different styles.

With the eras changing one after another, the image of the dragon transformed as well. While people worshiped the dragon as a god of storm and rain, the auspicious creature was pictured as atrocious and mysterious. In the early Han Dynasty (206BC-220BC), dragons were seen as magnificent and irrepressible. Further on, during the entire Tang Dynasty (618-907) dragon was transformed into being elegant, graceful and pliant. And later on (960-1270), these mystical creatures were pictured as being delicate.

300px The Imperial Portrait of Emperor Jiaqing2While emperors and people in power were definitely dragon's chosen ones, Chinese society in general was influenced by the dragon symbolism in a little different way. A legend of the dragon and its 9 sons has greatly impacted Chinese art and philosophy. According to the legend, dragon had nine sons - tortoise, tiger, lizard, spiral shell, small yellow dragon, cetacean, wolf and lion. Each of the sons had different supernatural powers and represented different aspects of human personality: justice, bravery, greed, desire, etc. So,for instance, if you call someone "Tao Tie" (the name of the wolf, 7th Dragon Son), you state that the person is very greedy.

s l1000Cultural value is not the only difference that exists when it comes to dragons in Western and Chinese outlook. Basically fire-breathing winged monster that guards the treasures or princesses no less has nothing to do with dragons that are pictured in Chinese culture. Firstly, Chinese dragons don't breathe fire: on the contrary, they live at the bottom of rivers or ponds and can summon rain. Scary bat-like wings are also out of fashion for Chinese dragon: they are pictured without wings, yet can fly. All this differences can make us wonder: are Chinese dragons and their Western counterparts actually related?

All in all, China has carried the love and appreciation for their dragons for centuries and even now it plays a significant role in many aspects of culture - folk religion, architecture, fashion and so on. And even names! Jackie Chan (成龙) and Bruce Lee (李小龙) both have the Chinese character dragon "龙" in their names.


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