Chinese New Year arrives January 23, heralding the Year of the Dragon. Dragon years occur every 12 years.
The 15-day New Year festival will feature feasts, dragon dancing in the streets, even some taboos. For example, never wash clothes on New Year’s Day because this day is the birthday of the god of water — the dragon. Interestingly, this taboo applies whether or not it’s a dragon year.
In Chinese belief, the dragon is a sacred beast representing happiness, immortality, procreation and fertility. Worshiped as god of lakes, rivers and seas, he brings rain to nourish crops. In fact, the dragon dance is a prayer for plentiful rain. The dance is also thought to bring good luck.
Most importantly, the dragon symbolizes the Chinese people who refer to themselves as “descendants of the dragon.” This belief arises from the Chinese creation story wherein the first people made were made by the goddess Nü Kua, who was part-dragon. But dragons as well as humans also descended from Nü Kua, and sometimes these dragons assumed human form.
All this dragonology is ancient and can be traced back to the 16th Century BC. In the Pan Ts’ao Kang Mu, a 16th century BC medical treatise, dragons are described in detail. The author, Wang Fu, writes: “Its head is like a camel’s, its horns like a deer’s, its eyes like a horse’s, its ears like a bull’s, its neck like a snake’s, its belly like a clam’s, its scales like a carp’s, its claws like an eagle’s, and its paws like a tiger’s” (Man, Myth & Magic). Although the Chinese dragon is usually portrayed as a serpent without wings, this wingless serpent can fly.
Everything used by the emperor in the Manchu (Qing) Dynasty (AD 1644-1912) was seen in terms of dragons — the dragon throne, dragon bed, dragon boat, etc. The emperors were even called “dragons,” and it was said they did indeed have dragon blood.
The belief lingers that the Chinese dragon also incorporates the opposite forces of Yang and Yin — positive and negative — and, since this is so, he represents balance. That is, he is both a preserver and a destroyer. He brings rain but also causes drought.
Legend said dragons lived beneath the earth, sometimes at the bottom of a well and looked nothing like that dragon slain by England’s St. George.
Storytellers said that every spring in Honan Province, thousands of carp swam up the Yellow River into wild rapids called the Dragon Gate. The few that survived the waterfall, encountered a terrible mixture of rain, wind and fire. If they emerged at all, they emerged as dragons.
The Chinese drew a lesson from this story and created a metaphor still heard today. Scholars who pass the difficult civil service exams are said to “leap through the Dragon’s Gate.”
The most usual Chinese word for dragon is lung which evidently refers to horns, but Chinese etymologists are inconsistent re this meaning. Several other words for dragon often refer to “twisting,” “curving” or “winding.”