The Year of the Dragon is upon us – should we be afraid?
Around the English speaking world, magazine covers and editorial writers rely on the dragon as a colorful shorthand for “China”: “the dragon is coming,” the “dragon is waking,” or “the eagle and the dragon.” In the PRC, Xinhua, the official news agency, reports “Year of Dragon Stamp Arouses Debate among Public.” One writer complained: “The moment I saw the design of the dragon stamp on newspaper, I was almost scared to death.”
Relax. We will not need a St. George the Dragon Slayer to come to our rescue. The Chinese long is a different creature from a dragon.
Wolfram Eberhard reassures us that in “sharp contrast to Western ideas on this subject, the Chinese dragon is a good natured and benign creature: a symbol of natural male vigor and fertility,” a primordial representative of the yang side of things. .
Eberhard warns that “combining as it does all sorts of mythological and cosmological notions, the dragon is one of China’s most complex and multi-tiered symbols.” In the cosmology which was systematized under the Han dynasty, the dragon stood in the east, which came pretty naturally, since the east was the region of sunrise and rain, as opposed to the west, land of the cold, dry yin, where the white tiger ruled over death. A “tiger and dragon” fight, whether in martial arts or in Ang Lee’s 2000 movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” is the clash of opposite styles.
In the Book of Changes (Yijing), says Edward Shaugnessy, University of Chicago specialist on early China, the “Heavenly Dragon” is an “organizing image.” As the creature associated with spring and dawn, “first hidden in watery depths beneath the horizon, the dragon then appears in the fields before suddenly jumping up to fly through the summer sky. However, even the dragon cannot fly forever. When it gets too high – and too arrogant – it is cut off at the neck to descend once more into the watery depths.”
Dragons come in all shapes and sizes, and they have the handy ability to expand to fill up all space or shrink as small as a silkworm. For starters there are “heavenly dragons (tian long),” “spirit dragons (shen long),” earth-dragons (di long),” “dragons which guard treasure (fu-cang long),” and Flying Dragons (feilong). And this is before we even get to the other dragon-like creatures, such as the qilin, fenghuang, and pixie. (If you want to know what a qilin looks like, you’ll find one on a bottle of Kirin Beer, since “kirin” is the Japanese pronunciation of qilin).
So “dragon” isn’t a great translation for the Chinese long. “A long is a long,” says Thorsten Pattberg, a scholar at Peking University’s Institute of World Literature, in a good humored column with a serious point in China Daily (January 16, 2012) (here). He says it’s “maybe even a tianlong, but please, please do not use ‘dragon.’ That kind of linguistic imperialism happened to your unique Sichuan xiongmao once, remember? Now it’s a Western ‘panda.’” If Westerners used the correct word, long, it would remind them that they are facing something culturally new,” not a “dragon.”