Chinese Dragon: what exactly is it?
A dragon, in China, is a rather particular being: its looks can vary a lot, just like its behavior. In general, though, a Chinese dragon is a powerful and important being, worthy of respect.
Compared with European dragons, the Chinese one is long, serpent-like. It has big horns and claws, it is wingless but still able to fly, and normally lives in water. It cannot spit fire, but it is very clever, and has magical powers, often related to the water. Indeed, while the European dragon represents conflict and fire, the Chinese one represents harmony and water. A dragon takes from many animals: it has the head of a horse, the tail of a snake and so on. In different historical periods (and in different areas) the animals chosen changed, as the design of the dragon did.
There are many types of dragons.
While they may look all the same at first sight, they have their own functions, looks and even behavior. A dragon found in the roof of an ancient building will often be different from the dragon drawn on a vase.
A dragon in China means…
Power without aggressiveness, intelligence and authority that deserve respect are all characteristics of the Chinese dragon. In China, the most important kind of dragon (represented with five claws) represented the emperor. Four claws dragons represented instead the royal house. Everywhere else there were three claws and twin claws dragons.
During Qing dynasty the five claws dragon was part of the Chinese flag. The red pearl above it represents wealth and prosperity. Often, in paintings or sculptures, the pearl is in the middle of two dragons which contend it.
The dragon controls water and the weather, by choosing where to bless people with rain, or curse them with floods or droughts. In a country like China, which has been traditionally based on farming, rain could be considered even more important than the sun itself.
Ancient Chinese believed that an angry dragon could lead to a bad farming season. For this reason, they respected them and tried in different ways to regain their favor in case they lost it. Interestingly, the dragons have their own society, which means they even have their own Dragon Kings. Of course, even dragons have bureaucracy and rules to follow – many of which resemble the traditional Chinese law.
Although, as a country, China no longer uses the dragon as a symbol (the panda is much more widespread, since it has no royal meaning behind it), many private businesses still rely on it, and it has a huge influence in the entire East and South-East Asia. A person can also be referred to as a dragon. While in the past it was used to refer to emperors, or future emperors, it also has the meaning of “outstanding”.
Why you should NOT call your company “dragon something”
Many companies, Chinese and foreign, integrate the symbol of the Chinese dragon in their own name or brand. At a first glance, it would look a clever idea: but too many use it already as a good symbol of luck and fortune. Dragons are so common that they became too mainstream to have any more value – at least for Chinese. It is much more valuable to use a different symbol of Chinese culture, instead of one already easily recognizable in the West as well.
Of course, there can be exceptions, for example a hydroelectric factory could benefit from the word dragon in their name, since dragons, according to ancient Chinese culture, control and live within the very source of their business.
Chinese Dragon influence in other countries
All the countries in East Asia and South-East Asia have a form of dragon which comes from the Chinese dragon. Since the wildlife varies from country to country, and since the dragon is a chimera-like creature (a mix of real animals), in each country the dragon will take its features from local animals, bringing to different results. Nevertheless, the meaning behind them is not that different.
The Dragon is also present in the Chinese horoscope, which influences many other countries as well.