In this article:
- Though both are associated with wealth, the dragon in Europe is often a symbol of gluttony and greed, while the Eastern dragon symbolizes security, wisdom, and prosperity.
- Eastern dragon lore dates back to ancient Chinese creation myths involving Nuwa, a half-dragon, half-woman goddess who helped repopulate the earth after a flood decimated humanity.
- Evidence suggests that the early discovery of dinosaur bones in China may have inspired these early myths of dragons. Divination rituals involving “dragon bones” have guided Chinese emperors’ decision-making and wars for centuries.
- While the Western dragon’s flames bring destruction, the waters of the Eastern dragon provide life and agricultural prosperity.
This might come as a surprise but have you ever considered that the way you think of dragons says a lot about your background? Though the mythological beast is shared by different cultures, the interpretations of what a dragon symbolizes vary between folkloric traditions and religions.
For people raised exclusively in Western cultures, the dragon is the embodiment of evil, a representative of what happens when the love of wealth festers into greed for greed’s sake. But the Eastern dragon is a different beast altogether.
Portrayed as a noble being that provides guidance, prosperity, and protection, the Eastern dragon is acknowledged throughout Asia as a bringer of good luck.
This association with wealth gives the dragon a special place in the lives of many Asians. The Eastern dragon can be found everywhere the Chinese diaspora has gone or traded with. Its influence stretches from the Korean peninsula to Burma, and even to the Philippines, where the majority of citizens aren’t even Buddhists.
The powerful symbolism of the Eastern dragon transcends national borders and differences in belief. No matter how big the country, symbols this influential aren’t made in a day. The prestige of the Eastern dragon has been developed carefully over the centuries through close associations with faith and political power.
The Divine Origins of the Eastern Dragon
The Eastern dragon makes one of its first appearances in Chinese creation myths. There are two of them: the story of Pan Gu, who hatched from a cosmic egg, and that of the goddess Nuwa, written in Chinese as 女媧.
Images of Nuwa depict her as a woman with the lower half of an Eastern dragon, featuring a muscular torso that ends in a feathery tail. Less popular versions of the Chinese creation myth tell the story of how Nuwa and her brother, Fuxi, survived a flood that erased all life from the face of the planet. Being sole survivors, they now had to repopulate the earth.
Before you say “Sweet Home Alabama,” you should know that they were pretty freaked out about the idea of marrying each other, too.
That’s why they performed a divination ritual using two lit fires. If the smoke goes straight up, the human race dies with them. If it intermingled, they would do the deed and fill the earth with their descendants.
It was this intermingling that led to depictions of the siblings with serpentine bodies looped around each other.
The 龍 (read: loong) would go on to have several associations with the divine in Chinese belief. Chinese legend says that the dragon god had nine dragons, each representing a different virtue.
The Eastern dragon Ba Xia embodied strength hence the use of his image in stone pillars and other load-bearing objects. The next son, Chi Wen, was said to swallow up floodwaters in order to protect humanity. Ancient Chinese architects then used him as a sort of mythical fire hydrant, carving his image into buildings to protect them from fires.
Most notable of the dragon god’s sons is Bi An, a dragon with tiger-like features. His great gift was the ability to bring the truth to light, seeing good and evil in the hearts of men with but a glance.
His associations with truth and justice led to him being a sort of patron spirit depicted in the facades of courthouses, as if to invite Bi An to help mortal judges determine the truthfulness of witnesses and criminals.
But as with any myth, there’s reason to believe that the Eastern dragon served as a way for ancient people to understand the world around them.
The “Dragon Bones” That Guided Policy and Shaped History
Dinosaurs make an appearance in Chinese records as far back as 300 AD thanks to the scholar Chang Qu. In one of his writings, he tells the story of how a dragon’s bones were found in Wucheng, an area that would become modern-day Sichuan, China.
While writing is solid proof of events that transpired in the past, it’s entirely possible that the discovery of “dragon bones” had been occurring in China before Chang Qu was even born. The myth of the Eastern dragon is certainly older than he is as the first depictions of the divine creature begin in the Neolithic period.
The jade dragons of the Hongshan culture dominated the pre-historic Neolithic world from Inner Mongolia to Hebei province, serving as immortal proof of a once flourishing people.
The Eastern dragon, now having outlived a civilization, continued its legacy in the dragon bones of the Shang Dynasty. These dragon bones weren’t real dragon bones nor were they even dinosaur bones. The bones came from oxen or turtle shells and were carved with symbols for use in divination.
The way the bones cracked under heat would be interpreted as divine guidance. In this manner, the dragon descended from its celestial domain, bestowing mortals with its wisdom.
The Eastern dragon would influence daily life and crucial decisions. Its divine counsel was a factor in whether emperors, who identified themselves with the divinity and power of the loong, made war.
The Eastern Dragon vs. The Western Dragon
While the Eastern dragon guided humans even in times of war, the Western dragon is mainly depicted as a monster to wage war against.
The most obvious difference between the two creatures is morphology. Morphology is the study of the anatomical features of animals, insects, and plants in order to determine whether they’re related. So, how do Eastern dragons and Western dragons compare in this department? It’s almost as if they’re completely distinct species from each other.
The Western dragon has the same scaly, reptilian looks of the Eastern dragon but that’s about as far as the similarities go.
Western dragons are shown to have four legs and two bat-like wings, a physical feature that lets them fly. Meanwhile, the Eastern dragon has no wings as its ability to fly is attributed to its divinity and mystical powers, not to any physical adaptations.
The differences become even greater when we begin to look at the differences in their abilities. The Western dragon’s might is tied to its sharp talons, huge size, and ability to breathe fire.
By contrast, the Eastern dragon is an elegant creature that controls all of the elements, particularly water. While the Western dragon’s flames bring destruction, the waters of the Eastern dragon provide life and agricultural prosperity. They are celestial providers with dominion over lakes, rivers, and rain.
That being said, the two dragons of the world serve as a reminder of the two sides of power and wealth.
The Eastern Dragon as a Symbol
Dragons are the bane of heroes and kings of the Western world. One of the earliest examples of this is Beowulf, an epic poem about the battle between good and evil as embodied by the titular Beowulf and his enemy, a dragon.
Other dragons in pop culture like Smaug from Lord of the Rings would solidify the dragon as a symbol of greed and abuse of power. What would a dragon ever do with mountains of gold or kidnapped princesses?
In fiction, the Western dragon hoards rather than provides. Its wealth is stagnant, gathering dust while everyone else is left wanting. It uses its power to raze villages, burning people alive rather than providing life-giving rain.
But for Chinese emperors, the Eastern dragon was an embodiment of Imperial power and the ability to enforce order and law on their subjects. It certainly didn’t hurt that the dragon symbolized wealth, helping emperors keep their nation and themselves in comfort by keeping the imperial coffers full.
The Eastern dragon was a divine being of the skies and the emperors of ancient China were the sons of heaven. Since the dragon was his official symbol, the emperor’s family and officers could use the image in varying degrees of prominence in their clothing, depending on how close they are to the center of power.
The Eastern dragon is just half of the imperial couple, however. Though the empress would wear the dragon’s image as well, she had closer associations with the fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix.
If the loong is a symbol of the emperor’s divine authority and masculinity, the fenghuang was that same symbol for the empress, in addition to having connotations of feminine grace and elegance.
The fenghuang and loong are such potent symbols of masculine and feminine ideals that there is a Chinese saying: “Wang zi cheng long, wang nu cheng feng 望子成龙，望女成.” It means: “Expect a son to be a dragon, a daughter to be a phoenix.”
But what if a woman becomes the emperor?
Empress Dowager Cixi started her political career as a lowly concubine. Though Cixi was intelligent and regarded by her father as equal to a son, the young girl was still a woman and an ethnic minority at that, belonging to the Manchu people.
The sharp-witted Cixi entered the Forbidden City as one of Emperor Xianfeng’s consorts and quickly made friends with Empress Zhen. Cixi’s biggest window to power was her son, the emperor’s only surviving heir.
Her political cunning made her the true ruler of Qing dynasty China after the death of Emperor Xianfeng. Though she would later be known as the “Dragon Lady,” Cixi made a point of the fact that she was a woman ruling in an era where women were seen as little more than chattel.
In life, the empress wore the dragon robe that had previously been reserved for emperors.
When the controversial empress finally kicked the bucket, she broke tradition by having a tomb that depicted the fenghuang flying above the Eastern dragon that symbolized the emperor. It was her final symbolic middle finger, a way of saying she had conquered the men of the imperial court and the restrictive role assigned to women in her time.
Empress Dowager Cixi may be dead but the Eastern dragon is still kicking and nowhere else is its presence felt more strongly than the skyline of Hong Kong.
The Eastern Dragon in Today’s World
If you’ve been to Hong Kong, you’ve likely noticed the strange holes in Hong Kong skyscrapers. These bizarre and seemingly random additions, or rather, removals, in the buildings aren’t just a quirky design choice.
They’re called dragon holes and they let the mystical dragons of Hong Kong descend from the mountains and into the waters of Victoria Harbor. The dragon holes in skyscrapers like the Repulse Bay and Central Government Complex allow the Eastern dragon to pass through without having to take a detour.
I know what you’re thinking: If they’re so magical, why can’t they just fly over the buildings? This is because locals actually want the dragons to pass through the buildings bringing with them the positive energy and prosperity that the Eastern dragon has long been known for.
Besides, do you really want to piss off a divine being by getting it stuck in traffic on its way to the beach?
Though the two share the Eastern dragon, mainland China doesn’t have the same conspicuous holes in its skyline that Hong Kong does. Does this mean mainland China has forgotten the legacy of the Eastern dragon?
The Shanghai-based developer and animation studio miHoYo is bringing the Eastern dragon back into mainstream pop culture through a medium that’s more popular than architecture and folklore: video games.
Genshin Impact, miHoYo’s hit 2020 open-world gacha game, rakes in anywhere from $5.8 million to $12 million everyday. The secret of one of its highest-grossing banners? An Eastern dragon.
On December 1, 2020, the limited-time release of Zhongli, one of the most anticipated characters of the game, earned miHoYo a sweet $15.5 million, soaring above many of the other characters.
But what does Zhongli have to do with the Eastern dragon? The soft-spoken tea-lover floored players when he revealed himself to be the dragon god the main character has been looking for the entire time.
Morax, aka Rex Lapis, is the god of contracts, commerce, and the embodiment of the element of Earth that rules over Liyue, the game’s fantasy version of China.
The god was designed to be exactly like the ideal image of the Eastern dragon. Many of the tidbits of myths the player collects about him tell of a benevolent yet powerful ruler that teaches the people of Liyue to be industrious and protects them fiercely.
Like the dragon bones of the Shang dynasty, Rex Lapis descends once a year to share his visions of the future in the form of cryptic poetry.
The game’s showcasing of the Eastern dragon and Chinese culture has generated interest in its player base regarding the topic if any of its threads are to go by. Of course, you can’t have the loong shown without the fenghuang, a role that’s filled in the game by the character of Ningguang who also has a popular in-depth lore thread dedicated to her in the official subreddit.
Want to tour another world that’s been shaped by the Eastern dragon? Grab your flight ticket over at The Real Places of Teyvat: An IRL Guide to the World of Genshin Impact.