Dragons in the News: Is a Long a Dragon?

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. 1.

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.”2

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.”

Pattberg objects that “Western caricaturists love to depict China as the European-style dragon: huge and red (of course), clumsy and pear-bodied, fierce, with tiny wings and a small flame,” but the truth is that the “Chinese long are majestic, divine creatures, snake-bodied … and embody happiness, wisdom and virtue. In the West, on the other hand, it’s a virtue to slay the dragon for a happy ending.”

From the Han dynasty onward, the dragon naturally came to be the symbol of the Emperor. The mother of the founder of the Han dynasty knew that great things were in store when a dragon appeared over her head and she then became pregnant with him.

But even in China, you’d better not mess with dragons. Dragon spittle was powerful stuff. A girl servant of a Zhou dynasty king was made pregnant by dragon spittle (or at least that’s what she told her father).  This early form of sperm donation produced Baosi, who became the concubine of King You. He doted on her so madly that he would light the beacons which warned of oncoming barbarians and make her laugh when his armies came running. After a few times, the vassals stopped falling for the joke, and when the barbarians then did show up, they overthrew the Western Zhou dynasty.

Another hoary tale is that an artist once painted four flying dragons on the wall of a temple but didn’t put the pupils in their eyes – “they will fly away if I do,” he explained. But the crowd insisted. Of course, he gave in, but when he had finished the eyes on the first two dragons, they came to life, brought down mighty crashes of thunder, and flew off.

Dragons appear in Chinese bathrooms, or at least their heads do: longtou (dragon head) means “faucet.” Don’t get your hopes up if you’re offered a “dragon shrimp,” though, since a longxia is just a lobster.

Things get messy when Westerners use the Chinese dragon. One of the more interesting is Dragon Lady. In the 1930s, a newspaper syndicate commissioned Milton Caniff to produce a topical comic strip about the Orient. He came up with “Terry and the Pirates,” starring a young American adventurer who run up against a number of villains. Caniff recalled that he wanted an “Oriental villain who was not a Fu Manchu.” He came up with the Dragon Lady, a Eurasian temptress, since “putting it into a woman made it ten times more interesting, an irresistible combination, mean and beautiful.”3  Many strong women were called Dragon Ladies, but the most surprising use of the term was for the CIA’s Lockheed U-2 spy-plane, nicknamed the “Dragon Lady.”

I can certainly understand Pattberg’s objection. No self respecting Chinese long would want to hang out with rough, low life Western dragons who go around accosting virgins or let themselves be associated with the “Grand Dragons” of the Ku Klux Klan. But it’s too late. We’re stuck with “Chinese Dragon.”

For a listing of examples showing that “Dragon” has gone native, see the mesmerizing website TVTropes, which catalogues “devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations.” There are pages on “The Dragon” (here) and “Tiger versus Dragon,” (here) which clearly are good Chinese long.

If that doesn’t convince you, ask  yourself if “Dragon Dance” could really work as “Long Dance”  or if “Dragon Boat Festival” would work as “Long Boat Festival.”

UPDATE: The University of Southern California US-China Institute website has its annual collection of Chinese New Year stamps from all over the world, including one fascinating one from Tientsin in 1878.  Well worth a look.

  1. Wolfram Eberhard, A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought (London; New York: Routledge, 1986), pp. 83-86 

  2. Edward Shaugnessy, China: Empire and Civilization (Oxford 2000) p. 6.  

  3. Robert C. Harvey, Milton Caniff: Conversations (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002.)  


  1. It’s interesting that calling “long” a dragon and “fenghuang” a phoenix is still a standard practice in most European countries, while other similar terms – unicorn for “qilin”, chimera for “bixie” – have been almost forgotten. Then of course there is the majestic “ao”, which they still translate as a “giant sea turtle” or some such, although sometimes ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xinwupu-Lenin-School-of-SE-Hubei-0033.jpg ) it is depicted as a fish.

    Also, curiously enough, in Kazakhstan (whose traditional 12-year animal calendar cycle is otherwise very similar to China’s) the coming year is the year of the snail, rather than the year of the dragon! ( http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:E8618-Almaty-Zodiac-Fountain.jpg )

  2. A “bixie” is a “griffin”. The dragon is also the national symbol of Wales (a principality constituting the western part of The United Kingdom).

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