An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History, Literature and Art

long 龍, dragons

Aug 20, 2012 © Ulrich Theobald
Figure 1. Two types of dragons
Illustration of dragons from the Qing period encylcopaedia Gujin tushu jicheng 古今圖書集成. To the right a "common" dragon (long 龍), to the left a dragon with wings (yinglong 應龍). Click to enlarge.

The dragon (long 龍) is an auspicious animal in Chinese mythology. It is, although in appearance similar to the occidental dragon, a good animal and not a symbol of evils. The dragon is a scaly animal that can have different colours or sizes. In Spring it ascends to Heaven and hides itself in deep wells in Autumn.

Sages, mythological rulers or immortals are often said to ride on a dragon in their travels through the sky. It was also possible to breed dragons, like Master Dong 董, a servant of Emperor Shun 舜 who fed a lot of dragons. He was therefore given the family name Huanlong 豢龍.

Figure 2. Rabbit, toad and dragon
Rubbing of a relief stone from the Han period, showing a rabitt and a toad in the moon (see the story of Chang E 嫦娥), and a green dragon (canglong 蒼龍) flying through the night sky. Many stars are seen in the background and can be identified as starry constellations by lines joining certain groups of them (see calendar). One of these constellations is called "Green Dragon". 95 × 135 cm. Excavated in Pushan 蒲山 in Nanyang 南陽, Henan, and kept in the Nanyang Painting Museum of the Han Dynasty (Nanyang Hanhua Guan 南陽漢畫館). Source: Zhongguo meishu quanji bianji weiyuanhui 《中國美術全集》編輯委員會, ed. (1993). Zhongguo meishu quanji 中國美術全集, Huihua bian 繪畫編, Vol. 18, Huaxiangshi huaxiangzhuan 畫像石畫像磚 (Shanghai: Shanghai renmin meishu chubanshe), no. 111.

The Song period 宋 (960-1279) book Nanbu xinshu 南部新書 says that dragons feared candles and loved jade, and that they liked to eat the meat of swallows.

The book Guangya 廣雅 says that dragons with scales were called jiaolong 蛟龍, dragons with wings yinglong 應龍, dragons with horns qiulong 虬龍, and such without horn chilong 螭龍.

The Green Dragon qinglong 青龍 or canglong 蒼龍 is the symbol of the east, spring and lush vegetation.

Other auspicious animals are phoenix (fenghuang 鳳凰), turtle (gui 龜) and unicorn (qilin 麒麟).

Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 117, 184.