Unraveling the Mystique: Exploring the Fortune Behind the Year of the Dragon

Unraveling the Mystique: Exploring the Fortune Behind the Year of the Dragon

Why Is the Year of the Dragon Considered So Lucky?

A fusion of diverse traits forms the illustrious dragon: a camel’s head, a deer’s horns, and a demon’s eyes. With a bull’s ears, a snake’s neck, and a clam’s belly, it sports a carp’s scales, an eagle’s claws, and a tiger’s paws. These features assemble into a legendary creature central to Chinese folklore.

As a deity reigning over nature's elements, the dragon navigates both waters and heavens, pivotal in ancient creation narratives. Its presence orchestrates the seasons, emerging from ocean depths with the sun and descending with the mist. Once a nebulous motif, the dragon now embodies benevolent divinity, imperial authority, and unifying force, reflecting millennia of Chinese heritage. Within the Chinese zodiac, it stands as the sole mythological entity, adding depth to its symbolism.

A Zhou dynasty wine vessel featuring a depiction of a dragon Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A jade Chinese dragon Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Chinese zodiac, a cycle of 12 animals from the rat to the pig, rotates with each Lunar New Year, typically falling between January 21 and February 20. As the new zodiac animal takes the helm, its character shapes the year's trajectory. Among them, the dragon, positioned fifth, stands as the pinnacle symbol, embodying the combined powers of nine animals. Richard E. Strassberg, an authority on Chinese culture, describes the dragon as "very supreme," evoking a blend of respect and hope in its invocation.

In the Year of the Dragon, a surge in birth rates echoes throughout China, fueled by auspicious beliefs. Parents anticipate a golden future for their dragon-born children, often investing extra resources in their upbringing. The dragon's symbolism intertwines with intelligence, authority, and the promise of good fortune, shaping societal perceptions and aspirations.

This year, on February 10, the dragon will succeed the rabbit, heralding a period of heightened expectations and longed-for prosperity. Its arrival signifies not only a change in the zodiac calendar but also a cultural phenomenon deeply ingrained in the collective consciousness of Chinese society.

A 16th-century Ming dragon medallion Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The birth of the zodiac

The 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle has ancient origins, but exactly when it became associated with specific animal symbols is subject to debate. Zodiac creatures are represented in artifacts and depicted in Chinese literature as early as the Warring States period, which spanned 475 to 221 B.C.E., and some scholars assert that a Chinese zodiac system has existed since the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first Qin emperor, who ruled immediately after that period. But the classification scheme was only widely adopted during the Han dynasty, which presided over China from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. “The system that included these 12 animals continues to be developed and represented, and [it] evolved in connection with folklore from then on,” says Strassberg.

The accompanying zodiac legend varies across Buddhist and Taoist belief systems, but the overarching narrative remains relatively consistent. In it, a deity often identified as the Jade Emperor calls upon all animals to participate in a race. The first 12 animals to complete the course will be included in the zodiac calendar, with their position in the cycle determined by the order in which they arrive at the finish line.

The dragon is the only mythological creature in the Chinese zodiac system. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Each zodiac animal’s competition strategy is indicative of that sign’s traits. The rat, for instance, finishes in first place by convincing the ox to carry it across the river; it represents cunning and tenacity. The dragon, expected to easily prevail due to its powers of flight, stops halfway through the race to provide water to a drought-ridden village, immortalizing the animal as a symbol of selfless benevolence.

The zodiac also alternates between the five fundamental elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. This year, the dragon inhabits the wood element, which represents development and achievement.

Early forms in art

Long before it was imbued with symbolic meaning in the zodiac and beyond, the dragon was an ambiguous silhouette adorning art forms—a sheer convention of imagination, says J. Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. The Chinese word for dragon has been in use since the Bronze Age, and “a creature called the dragon has been in the Chinese art vocabulary for thousands of years,” says Wilson.

Representations of dragons are etched into divination inscriptions and reflected in the shape of ritual bronze vessels unearthed in Anyang, the capital of the Shang dynasty. (An ongoing exhibition at the museum, “Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings,” examines the city’s archaeological riches through a display of more than 200 artifacts.) “For more than a thousand years before the advent of symbolic designs—roughly the length of the Chinese Bronze Age—the dragon flourished in art without a set of specific associations,” wrote Wilson in a 1990 journal article.

A group of ritual wine-pouring vessels decorated with masks, dragons and animals from the middle and late Anyang period, circa 1150 to 1100 B.C.E. National Museum of Asian Art

The commanding version of the dragon seen today only emerged during the Han dynasty, when “this notion of mythological creatures being composite [creations] with aspects of different living forms” gained popularity, says Wilson. The amalgamation “results from contact between China and Central and Western Asia,” he adds. This increased exposure “helps us understand why dragons before the Han dynasty look very different from dragons after the Han dynasty.”

Creatures of cosmology

The composite dragon wields extensive powers, says Strassberg, controlling rainfall, thunder, wind, tornadoes and storms. Though the creature’s influence lies mainly in the realm of water and weather, hundreds of iterations exist within Chinese culture, each with its own distinct mythology.

Historical texts offer a sense of this rich lore. Compiled between the fourth and first centuries B.C.E., the Shan Hai Jing features a dragon-headed deity that sends booms of thunder rollicking across the skies by using his stomach as a drum. (Strassberg’s Chinese Bestiary translates the Shan Hai Jing and provides additional cultural context on this collection of mythic geography.)

A mural depicting the Azure Dragon Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Shan Hai Jing presents the dragon as one of the "Four Symbols" in Chinese astrology, assigning protectors to cardinal directions. The Azure Dragon, ruler of the east, symbolizes the rising sun, akin to dragons ascending from water. These guardians, deemed benign, adorn palaces and public edifices.

In the Huainanzi, Prince Liu An recounts dragons' emergence at the universe's dawn and their role in precipitation. He also introduces the Yellow Dragon, emblematic of the world's center. Dragons often pair ritually with phoenixes, combining yang's active principle with yin's passive nature for optimal auspice.

Chinese folklore abounds with dragon variations: from bloodthirsty Ya Zi to Pu Lao atop bells. Other types include the Celestial Dragon, Spiritual Dragon, Dragon of Hidden Treasures, and more. The Dragon King, a Hindu deity assimilated into Buddhism, also features prominently.

One of the nine dragons depicted on a wall relief in China Richard Fisher via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0 DEED

A spiritual neighbor

Though the dragon was viewed as the “superior force in [the] cosmos,” it wasn’t just a vague allegorical deity, Strassberg says. Believed to dwell deep within oceans, lakes and rivers, the dragon was considered a neighbor, part of the larger spiritual population. “No one claimed to have directly captured or seen the dragons,” the scholar adds, “but they were believed to exist everywhere, and people could represent and depict them because they knew what animals came together to form their bodies.”

The dragon’s cultural significance was inextricably tied to China’s agricultural society. Farmers prayed to the creatures for good weather, erecting temples during droughts to implore the dragon to grant rain and fruitful harvests. “On a folklore level, there is a general view that dragons bring benefits and are inherently good,” Strassberg says.

In stark contrast to the fire-breathing, gold-hoarding dragons of medieval Europe, Chinese dragons were perceived as benevolent creatures. Though they lived peacefully among the population, they were still thought to be “very mysterious and unpredictable, [just] as the weather is,” says Strassberg. “Human beings would feel very minuscule in relation to the dragon’s power, and in general, there would not be a feeling of intimacy toward this powerful creature. They wouldn’t welcome an encounter.”

The emblem of the emperor

Beyond its enduring role in Chinese culture, the dragon played a crucial part in the consolidation of the Chinese imperial state.

Shiji, a monumental history compiled around 85 B.C.E. by Han dynasty court scribe and historian Sima Qian, states that the birth of the first Han emperor, Gaozu, was blessed by a dragon.

A Qing dynasty dragon robe featuring a five-clawed dragon Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Sima Qian recounts the event in mystical fashion, writing:

Before he was born, [Gaozu’s mother] Dame Liu was one day resting on the bank of a large pond when she dreamed that she encountered a god. At this time, the sky grew dark and was filled with thunder and lightning. When Gaozu’s father went to look for her, he saw a scaly dragon over the place where she was lying. After this, she became pregnant and gave birth to Gaozu.

Gaozu is largely credited with laying the foundation of imperial China’s ruling structure, and he is often said “to be descended in some way biologically [from] the dragon,” Strassberg notes. In chronicles of Gaozu’s rule such as Sima Qian’s, the dragon became inseparable from imperial authority and ascendancy. It also emerged as a unifying agent for ethnically Han Chinese people, many of whom now consider themselves “descendants of the dragon.”

The supremely powerful dragon became “the emblem of the emperor,” says Strassberg. It was taboo to refer to this supreme leader directly, so dragons became a vehicle for honoring the emperor from a respectful distance.

Under later Chinese dynasties, among them the Yuan, Qing and Ming, only the emperor and other senior royals could wear garments depicting a dragon with five claws, representing ultimate authority over all five elements. Lower-ranking individuals were expected to wear robes featuring four-clawed dragons.

Chinese Dragon Dance  maxresdefault.jpg

"The dragon's associations with mutability, water, storms, and male energy evolve over time," notes Wilson. Early on, it becomes a symbol of the imperial institution, solidified by its use on imperial attire, signifying power.

From loose artistic depictions in the Bronze Age, the Chinese dragon transforms into a symbol of prosperity and authority. It influences creation myths, religious rites, and adorns the clothing of influential figures in imperial history. Its dynamic presence pervades Chinese culture, epitomized by Lunar New Year dragon dances, believed to bring luck. The upcoming Year of the Dragon embodies this historic symbolism, carrying millennia of significance.

"In the end, the invisible dragon of nature is ironically the most real and tangible," Wilson reflects. It awakens from winter slumber, symbolizing renewal and vitality, pulsating as the world's activating force.

In conclusion, the dragon symbolizes more than just a mythical creature in Chinese culture; it embodies power, prosperity, and renewal. Its evolution reflects the dynamic nature of Chinese society and its enduring significance in various aspects of life.

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