Guest Author - Inci Yilmazli
Whenever we hear the word dragon, the image of a creature with giant wings, two-legged and sometimes two-headed which can breathe fire. We must have seen them in many cartoons, sometimes as the bad, sometimes as the good hero character. We must have seen them in many movies. Dragons are mythical creatures which are told stories or made movies or documentaries about. But their existence in our lives is not restricted with the cartoons or movies. Dragons have their own places in every culture from the past and even though they don’t have significant physical differences, the concepts symbolized show significant differences.
According to the Chinese Calendar, 2012 is considered and celebrated as the Dragon Year. When you hear the word ‘dragon’, you think of a giant, fire-breathing, flying creature symbolizing evil right away, don’t you? So, this image or the concept in your mind is a result of being a Westerner. If you ask someone in the East, the answer would be the same in terms of the physical appearance and characteristics. However, the answer may surprise you in terms of the concepts.
This year is the Dragon Year, we said. So, what’s this dragon myth, how did it start, what kind of intercultural differences are there? Let’s find the answers to these questions together.
Dragon, the leading creature of Chinese mythology, is related to yang and the emperor. Dragons are creatures representing the good in Chinese mythology. It’s said that these creatures related to water are first formed as the rain gods, and then they received their permanent roles in Chinese mythology. The Dragon Dance, which is performed during the New Year’s celebrations in China, is actually a kind of rain prayer or ritual based on its roots. Dragons, which are frequently related to water and sky, were believed to live in water sources like rivers and lakes. They are called for help especially during the drought and they exist in the myths with this theme.
There are different creation myths belonging to different periods in Chinese mythology. The common thing in these myths is that they tell about passing from chaos to order, yin and yang concepts. However, there are myths as well in which the dragons have the lead. In one of the myths from Han Dynasty, the mother goddess Nu Wa has the leading part. This myth tells about how Nu Wa felt alone on Earth and how she created people to share her loneliness. One day, Nu Wa sees her reflection on the lake and decides to make creatures that look like her and keep company to her. So, she makes little creatures from mud. As soon as she puts them on the ground, the little creatures turn into people. After a while, she gets a rope and puts it in mud and spins it in the air. The mud droplets falling all over turn into people on the ground and that’s how the humanity is spread on Earth.
According to this myth, the people created from the mud droplets are considered as poor and not noble people while the very first people made by Nu Wa’s own hands are considered as rich and noble.
In another myth in which Nu Wa and Fu Xi – believed to be Nu Wa’s brother and husband – are described as the children of a farmer. One day, farmer catches the Thunder and locks it in a room. Then, he needs to go out, he warns his children not to give Thunder water, no matter what. However, when the farmer is gone, his daughter gives him water. So, the Thunder pours out of the room and gives the children one tooth and tells them to plant it. When the farmer comes home, he understands what’s going to happen and feels that there is going to be big storm. He starts immediately to build an iron ship. The children plant the tooth as they are told by the Thunder. A calabash tree grows where they planted the tooth. When they opened the clabash, they see that there are plenty of teeth just like the one they planted. As the storm gets closer, they empty the clabash and get on it. And the farmer gets on the ship he built. The storm lasts long, the flood rises up to the heaven. The farmer knocks on the door of heaven but as he pisses of the ones in heaven, they maket he flood go away immediately. Thus, the two ships falls on the ground. When the farmer’s ship hits the ground, it comes apart and the farmer dies. But the clabash which the kids are in, lands softly. From now on, they are the only ones living on Earth. After this incident, they are called the “Fu Xi siblings”. Fu Xi means clabash in Chinese. He marries his sister and she gives birth to a piece of meat. They cut the meat into pieces and wrap it. But when the wind blows, these pieces of meat spread around. And humans are created from the meat spread around.
That’s why the Chinese are accepted as the “Descendents of the Dragon”. Nu Wa is considered as the mother and Fu Xi as the father of humanity.
Western Dragons vs Eastern Dragons
Even though the western and eastern dragons have similar physical appearances, in the East, they are thought to be a combination of many animals such as snake and eagle while in the West, they are thought to be fire breathing, dinasaour-like creatures. Eastern dragons are four-legged and five-toed while the Western dragons are four-legged and have a muscled tail. Another difference is that the Eastern dragons are believed to fly even though they don’t have wings.
Symbolic Differences of West and East
In the East, the dragons are the creatures representing divinity, power, immortality, fertility, activity and good luck which have powers to control natural events like rain and flood as well as protecting the people from evil spirits.
The mythical figures like Nu Wa and Fu Xi are illustrated with human face but snake or dragon body.
The dragons belonging to Japanese and Korean cultures share similar symbolic meanings as they are derived from the dragons belonging to Chinese culture.
When it comes to the Western dragons, they are seen as the symbol of evil and accepted as aggressive, cold-blooded creatures. The dragon as the symbol of Devil, is used as a figure representing the enemies of the Western world. The representation of devil with dragon is not a modern day situation. The dragon having the shape of devil is described many times in the Book of Revelation in the Bible.
Dragons Representing Authority
In the ancient times, the dragon was the most sacred animal. It’s used as the emperor’s symbol in many Chinese Dynasties because the emperors believed that they were real dragons themselves and the sons of heaven. That’s the reason why we see dragon figures in Emperor Palaces and their tombs.
Dragon architecture, motifs and the color yellow belong only to the royalty. The dragon figure was accepted as the national flag in Manchurian Dynasty.
Despite the Western World’s acceptance of dragons as the evil, there are some exceptions. For instance, the symbol of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, is a dragon. Again, the Red Dragon of Wales is seen in the national flag and in Royal Crest.
Another interesting conflict of concepts of West and East is the term used “Dragon Lady”. In the West, this term is used for describing the mean, powerful or dominant woman while in the East, it’s used fort he women of purity and privacy.