Dance of the Mystical Dragon
By Melia McClure
Origin of the Dragon in China
The dragon holds an iconic place in the collective imagination. Woven into the mythic lore of both East and West, fascination with this majestic beast has persisted for millennia.
In China the dragon is deeply rooted in culture and art, and has more recorded history than dragon mythology in any other part of the world. Considered symbolic of auspicious fortune, nobility, royalty, the natural world and supernatural power, and known as “sons of Heaven” and the lords of rain, dragons were believed real by the ancient Chinese. Though the exact origin of this creature remains shrouded in mystery, it first appeared as tribal totems painted on turtle shields thousands of years ago. One theory posits that the dragon began as a tribe’s serpent totem, and when that tribe began conquering numerous others, it added characteristics of the totems of the vanquished peoples to its own, eventually resulting in the amalgam of animals that is the Chinese dragon. Ancient scholar Wang Fu (Han Dynasty, 206 – 220 A.D.) was the first to record in meticulous detail the anatomy of the Chinese dragon. A creative blend of nine other creatures, it features a camel’s head, a snake’s neck and tail, a deer’s horns, an ox’s ears, a rat’s whiskers, a tiger’s paws, an eagle’s claws and 117 carp scales, with some variation of attributes depending on the historical source. Of their many scales, 81 are considered to be of the yang persuasion, while 36 are of the yin essence. According to ancient mythology, Chinese dragons do not breathe fire. Thousands of years are required for a dragon to evolve from hatchling to fully formed maturation.
Another theory suggests that the dragon could be a dramatization of an ancient crocodile-like animal.
Though mostly considered benevolent and wise beings, revered as mystical givers of life in the form of their breath (called sheng qi, “Divine energy”), the ancients did ascribe the dragon powers of destruction. Since they were thought to be the governors of rain and bodies of water, at times storms, tidal waves and floods were blamed on a dragon’s ire, and legends purport that dragons could cause droughts by eclipsing the sun. Particularly catastrophic floods were believed to have been prompted by a dragon’s displeasure with a mortal. Worshipers paid respect to dragons at shrines and temples in the hope that these mighty beasts would bestow the faithful with desirable weather and plentiful harvests.
Many images of Eastern dragons feature a peal, often tucked beneath the creature’s chin. Known as the “pearl of wisdom,” it contains a dragon’s awe-inspiring knowledge and suggests a perfect balance of yin and yang. It also emblematizes the ability to ascend to Heaven. An image of a dragon on a cloud or ascending into the sky is symbolic of success in life.
Symbol of the Emperor
Legendary emperor Huangdi (known as “yellow Emperor”) is widely considered to have founded Chinese civilization approximately 4,000 years ago, and as such is believed to have coined the association between emperors and dragons. As legend has it, when Huangdi was 118 years old, a Yellow Dragon appeared in the sky to call him home to Heaven, and the beloved emperor rode on its back to the celestial realms. And because, in historic mythological terms, Huangdi is regarded as the first ancestor of all Chinese, it is not uncommon to hear China’s people refer to themselves as “descendants of the dragon.” Throughout the annals of Chinese history, emperors were considered exclusively entitled to possess the dragon’s divinely powerful qualities, and the emperor’s clothes were referred loos “dragon gowns,” his throne as the “dragon throne,” his boot as the “dragon boat” and so forth. To cull on emperor “dragon face” was to pay him a great compliment. In some Chinese legends, an emperor is depicted as being born with a dragon-shaped birthmark.
To this day, it remains taboo to deface or disrespect any image of a dragon in China. In steadfast tribute to their long-held place of high esteem, dragons adorn the steps to many ancient tombs and palaces, and have been featured prominently in visual art, fables and songs for millennia.
Classical Chinese Dragon Types
There are nine types of classical Chinese dragons, categorized in accordance with their cosmic duties by Chinese scholars of old:
1. Ruler of all other types, the Celestial Dragons are charged with guarding the heavenly realms and the homes of the deities.
2. Spirit Dragons are responsible for weather and had to be placated to ensure pleasant conditions. Imperial Dragons are a special rank of this type and feature five toes instead of the usual four: they were depicted on imperial insignias only.
3. The Underworld Dragons guard precious jewels and metals embedded in the earth. As the lore goes, when they burst from the ground to report to Heaven, volcanoes erupt.
4. Dwelling in Heaven in springtime and the sea during autumn, Earth Dragons are the caretakers and governors of rivers.
5. Many dragons are depicted without horns, but those that have them, the Honed Dragons, are regarded as particularly fearsome.
6. Coiling Dragons dwell only in the ocean.
7. Yellow Dragons are known for being erudite and possessing blistering intelligence.
8. Winged Dragons are the only dragons in possession of wings. They are devoted and mighty servants of Huangdi. A dragon of this ilk is reported, in legend, to have stopped the Yellow River from flooding by using its tail to dig long trenches.
9. The Dragon King is four dragons, each ruling a sea to the north, south, east and west. In the absence of rain, it was to these dragons that people would plead.
The Art of the Traditional Dragon Dance
The highlight of Lunar New Year festivities around the world, the dragon dance is a traditional Chinese art most often seen at Important celebrations. A giant, elaborate likeness Of a dragon is held daft on poles by a team of dancers. The head sometimes sports expressive features that are animated by a lead dancer, and the team lifts, thrusts, dips and sweeps the formidable countenance. The undulating body. comprised of fabric over a frame of bamboo, aluminum or plastics, can be tens of meters long. Longer dancing dragons correlate with greater auspiciousness. Traditional drums, gongs and cymbals provide musical accompaniment.
The Han Dynasty (206 – 220 AD.) gave birth to the dragon dance. Originally a seasonal rite performed to ensure sufficient rainfall, heal and prevent disease, and please ancestors. this joyous spectacle has been ubiquitous at major cultural celebrations since the Tang Dynasty (618 – 906 A.D.). It combines art and athleticism, demanding stagecraft, dramatic flair, agility and the discipline of a sports team from its performers.
The favored length fora dancing dragon is 34 meters (112 feet), with the body divided into 9 sections. Yellow is the supreme color, signifying imperial power and the Earth’s center. Festival dragons are sometimes predominantly green, as this color denotes good health, good fortune and on abundant harvest. Golden dragons bring kindness, wealth, wisdom and the ability to surmount challenges. Silver, too, symbolizes prosperity, while red stimulates excitement and blessings. After each performance. the fabric is removed and its paint retouched.
Spiral formations are a major element of the performance, with the dragon’s body twisting and turning dramatically. Performers often jump over or through the various body Sections. or, more acrobatically, they stand on each other to raise the height of the dragon’s display. Many different formations are possible, and a troupe’s creativity determines the originality and ingenuity of any given dance. An oft-seen part of the performance is the “dragon chasing the pearl” maneuver, in which the “pearl of wisdom” is dangled before the dragon on a stick and the dragon’s pursuit Illustrates its pursuit of wisdom. Although the basic skills required of a dragon dancer are simple to cultivate, intense training Is necessary to render a proficient performer. The troupe must keep time with the drumming while making sure that the head movements cooperate with the body and the tail keeps time with the head. Even seemingly minor mistakes on the part of any performer con ruin the spectacle. The dragon dance is a tremendous display of unity.
Dragons that appear in parades or ceremonies can sometimes exceed 70 meters in length and have up to 46 sections, with a head that weighs in excess of 14 kilograms (approximately 32 pounds). However, dragon dance competitions and events requiring a striking stage show use a lighter head and shorter body in order to showcase agility and maximize the difficulty and therefore Impressiveness of maneuvers. Competitions enforce strict rules about the size of the dragon and the routine performed.
Rarely seen in Western exhibitions is the double dragon dance, which involves two teams of performers interlacing the dragons to great dramatic effect. The dance of nine dragons, a truly grand celebratory display of artistic and athletic prowess, highlights the auspicious symbolism of the number nine; the largest possible single digit is considered perfect and indicative of longevity and eternality. However, due to the tremendous resources and preparation required to perform a dance of nine dragons, it is extremely rare.
In 1987 a dragon statue was discovered in China that was determined to be a product of the Yangshao culture (circa 5000 – 3000 B.C.) that had once flourished along the Yellow River. Numerous dragon-themed archaeological finds dating to the Neolithic period have been revealed throughout China and in Inner Mongolia; the earliest were products of the Xinglongwa culture (6200 – 5400 B.C.). Although the precise origins of this grand mystical creature remain unclear, what is beyond argument Is the dragon’s enduring Importance to Chinese culture. For centuries people in China have unearthed dinosaur bones and referred to them as dragon bones, using them in traditional medicines; fourth-century historian Chang Qu classified a discovery of fossils in 300 B.C. in Sichuan as “dragon bones.” The totem theory, suggesting as it does the intermixing and unification of diverse tribes, offers a subtle message about the power of variance within the context of oneness: Various animal totems came together to form a stronger, wiser, kinder, more mystical creature that continues to generate collective reverence.
Chinese literature throughout the ages is rife with dragons. More than a hundred different dragon names appear in classical texts, both variations of and departures from the nine primary types. During the Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644 A.D.), multiple texts appeared containing the names of the “nine offspring of the dragon.” and those offspring went on to feature In countless stories and were commemorated on coins by the Shanghai Mint in 2012, a Year of the Dragon.
Many common Chinese idioms contain a dragon reference, and it is still typical for a highly achieved person to be referred to as a dragon. Eastern dragons have transitioned easily from classical literature and visual art to modern media, appearing in manga (Japanese comics), Japanese anime television shows and films, novels (including works by Westerners), and as an embodiment of China in Western political cartoons.
But one of the most colorful, joyous ways to experience the enduring legacy of the Chinese dragon continues to be the traditional dragon dance. Witnessing a troupe of skilled performers work in precise harmony to animate a powerful, Divinely connected creature is an exciting reminder of the blessings created by diversity within unity.
May the dancing dragon remain an inspiring incarnation of mystical energy for centuries to come.