When you think of a mythological beast, it is almost inevitable that your mind will wander to the serpentine form and the chilly scales of the dragon. Dragons have long been portrayed in the West as ruthless and evil creatures from the Earth, often referred to as the personification of Satan himself.
Lewis Carroll’s fearsome Jabberwock is described as having “jaws that bite,” “claws that catch” and “eyes of flame” in his poem “The Jabberwocky.” J.R.R. Tolkein’s Smaug from “The Hobbit” is a loathsome monster, symbolizing greed as he guards his expansive, treasure-filled cave. Eustace Scrubb from C.S. Lewis’s “The Voyage of the Dawn Treader” is magically turned into a dragon for his misbehavior, and everyone trembles at the thought of the Hungarian Horntail that Harry so bravely defeats in “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.” Throughout the tapestry of storytelling, courageous knights have boldly turned up at the dens of dragons, demanding the release of fair maidens (who all seem to coincidentally be single). Confrontations with dragons have always tested the worthiness of heroes.
But in Asian folklore and mythology, the dragon rises far above evil and malice. The dragon is a sign from the gods, a benevolent spirit who advises those in the darkest of times and lost in the darkest of places. Dragons pull the chariots of the gods, control the winds and waters and guard treasure underneath the Earth’s surface. A volcanic eruption is an awesome event – it means that an underworld dragon (a fucanglong) has surged forth from the realms below to report to the gods in the sky. Underworld dragons look wizened and old; they are sages that rule the natural world. They are full to bursting with magical powers, but they have full control over how and when these powers are used. They are truly amazing creatures, and it is almost impossible to believe they are the cousins of the Western malevolent and carnivorous brutes that attack villages and eat poor damsels.
The dragon is also one of the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. If you are a dragon, you are bold and ambitious, willing to take risks and very passionate. To be born in the year of the dragon is an auspicious occurrence and surely worthy of honor, and as such, many Chinese parents will try to have “children of the dragon.” As a symbol of ethnic identity, the Chinese consider themselves long de chuan ren (“descendents of the dragon”). To wang zi cheng long (“hope one’s child turns into a dragon”) actually means to hope that your child grows up to lead an auspicious and prestigious life. Chinese parents proudly name their child xiao long (“little dragon”), whereas the nickname “dragon” is more appropriate in the West for a mother in law. In Germany, gifts to appease one’s wife after a late night out with the guys are known as drachenfutter (literally “dragon-fodder”).
The Chinese dragon and the Western dragon are clearly different in their ambitions and folkloric representation. However, they have something striking in common – they are both symbols of the natural world. The Western dragon, a cave-dwelling, monstrous beast, is born from the metals and fire of the deep Earth, whereas the Chinese dragon is the harbinger of wind and water. Thus, the treatment of dragons in their respective mythological stories is an indication of how each respective culture views the natural world.
Compare the classic bloody tales of dragons in the West to this well-known story from China:
Long ago, there were four dragons that lived in the Eastern Sea. The land was suffering from a drought and people were starving, so the four dragons begged the Jade Emperor (the ruler of Heaven, Hell and the realm of man) to send down rain to save the people. The Jade Emperor, preoccupied with the pleasures of court life, promised emptily to do so. After 10 days of still no rain, the dragons decided to take matters into their own claws. They took water from the Eastern Sea, held it in their mouths and flew over the land, spraying everything with water and thus saving the people from mass starvation. The Jade Emperor, furious that the dragons had brought rain without his permission, ordered them to be crushed and trapped beneath four large mountains. The dragons did not regret their actions, so they created a kingdom out of which flowed four rivers that would forever bring water to the people. According to folklore, these are the four rivers of China – the Heilongjiang (the Amur River, directly translated as “black dragon river”), the Huanghe (the Yellow River), the Changjiang (the Yangtze River) and the Zhujiang (the Pearl River).
In Western folklore, if a dragon flew over a village like that, he would not be bringing water – he would be bringing death and destruction.
Dragons in Western mythology were forces of nature that needed to be overcome for goodness and harmony to reign. They destroyed crops, ruined lives and obliterated villages with one fiery roar. They needed to be defeated for man to reign supreme. They were foes to man, foes that needed to be slaughtered. In many cases, this was how natural land was also perceived. A lush landscape was there for man to conquer. That which was uncultivated was a wild and dangerous enemy capable of killing a man with its inhabitants and sheer forces of nature.
On the other hand, Emperors sought advice from the all-knowing and ever-wise Eastern dragons and wore robes delicately yet profoundly embroidered with dragons – a symbol of power and eminence. According to the legend, dragons prevented mass starvation and saved hundreds of people. Their self-sacrifice was forever carved into the land in the form of life-giving rivers so that the myth would be passed down generation to generation. The environmental view that arises from this concept is not one of antagonism but one of gratitude and recognition of human dependence on nature. Strands of this concept persist today; dragons primarily controlled the winds and water, and the concept of fengshui (literally “wind-water”) is a central part of Chinese life that advises how one can attain harmony with the surrounding environment.
While the dragons of the West breathe fire, the dragons of the East bring wind and water. Legendary cousins, they represent two divergent views of the natural world. Yet at the same time, just like fire and water, the two views interact in a perfect yin-yang balance that seems to define the very interaction of East and West.
Are you, too, tired of stereotypes about our fire-breathing friends? Let Aysha know at [email protected].