Here Be Dragons: LRP Turns 100

And this year, of course, is the Year of the Dragon. Chinese state media have been going all out trying to rebrand the Chinese dragon as loong (龙), even in the English language, arguing that the loong and the dragon are completely different kinds of creature.

Graeme Smith  00:11

Welcome to the Little Red Podcast which brings you China from beyond the Beijing beltway. I’m Graeme Smith from the Australian National University’s Department of Pacific Affairs. And I’m joined by my co-host, Louisa Lim, former China correspondent for the BBC and NPR, now with the Center for Advancing Journalism at Melbourne University. We’re on air thanks to support from the Australian Centre on China in the World. And this is a very special show. It is our 100th episode, which is almost impossible to believe. We’ve been going since 2016. We just talked to our man in the studio, he’s now got children, I’ve got children. But we’re all looking wonderful and glamorous. In that time, we’ve done all kinds of things. We won the Australian Podcast Awards back in 2017. We’ve had some incredible episodes. We were among the first to talk to Uyghur communities in Australia about their families in concentration camps. We have been accused of undermining the sovereignty of the Solomon Islands. And we even had an absolutely tragic Chinese food competition that went pear shaped in so many ways… so we won’t be doing that again. But it’s been such a fun ride. And I’d like to take the chance to thank all of our amazing guests, our long-suffering families and everyone who’s listened to our show. We’re really grateful because without you guys listening, we would not be doing this. And there’ll be mugs, by the way for the 100th episode for all the lucky people in the studio here today. But we had a big problem. We didn’t know what this episode was going to be about. And then the subject presented itself.

Clip  01:51

Yaoyuan de dong fang you yi tiao jiang, tade mingzi jiu jiao chang jiang. Yaoyuan de… (遥远的东方有一条江,它的名字就叫长江。遥远的 …)


That’s the Taiwanese popstar Li Jianfu singing Hou Dejian’s “Descendants of the Dragon.” And in this episode, we’ll be delving deep into the debate about dragons, that most symbolic of all 12 zodiac animals. So, we decided to devote an entire episode to the study of the dragon or loong-ology. We have three dracontine experts to help us out: the Australian sinologist Linda Jaivin, who wrote the Monkey and the Dragon about this very song, James Carter, who’s a professor of history at St. Joseph’s University, and Annie Ren, a postdoctoral fellow of Chinese literature at ANU.

Graeme Smith  02:45

And this year, of course, is the Year of the Dragon. Chinese state media have been going all out trying to rebrand the Chinese dragon as loong (龙), even in the English language, arguing that the loong and the dragon are completely different kinds of creature. One argument that’s been run is that Western dragons are bad agents of chaos, breathing fire, hoarding gold, that kind of thing, whereas Chinese dragons are noble and good. So quick two sentence summary from the guests. Should we agree with Chinese state media and start calling Chinese dragons loong or not? James, you first.

James Carter  03:21

I’ll check the box that says “no”. I think there we should stick with dragons, and I don’t agree with either of their premises about either the Western dragons or the Chinese one. So, I’m firmly in the “no” camp.

Linda Jaivin  03:33

I’m firmly in the ‘no’ camp as well, because of two reasons. One is you can’t dictate how language works in other countries. That’s one thing. Otherwise we’d all be calling Basque Country Euskadi, you know. But the other thing is that Chinese dragons have been agents of chaos. What about the King of the Eastern Sea and so on, the dragons that withhold rain and cause droughts? Or cause floods when people don’t worship them correctly?

Annie Ren  04:00

Yes, and I would also agree with James and Linda. I think it is more logically speaking, you know, dragon came from the ancient Greek, meaning “large serpent”. And definitely in, you know, early Chinese writings, for instance, the oracle bones inscriptions, writings from about 3000 years ago, found on ox bones and turtle’s shells. There’s definitely a way of writing the character loong that resembles a large serpent. So, in that way the translation is, you know, very accurate.


And let’s, let’s go back to that beginning, the oracle bones 6000 years ago. Annie, can you tell us a bit about those first representation of the dragon and what we can tell from them?

Annie Ren  04:43

Well, I think just intuitively speaking, it’s very likely that you know, the ancient ancestors observed some natural phenomenon such as the lightning. And they were just thinking, oh my god, there must be some terrifying beast in the skies, causing this sort of commotion. And from these early oracle bone inscriptions, you can see that the dragon is being represented as either a “L” in the shape of a snake or an alligator. And based on the fact that, you know, dragons from very early on have become associated with rainmaking rituals. Personally, I think it’s more likely that they’re inspired by alligators because the ancient Chinese raised alligators as pets and also for food, and they use skins of the alligators for war drums, etc.

Graeme Smith  05:35

And Linda, how different do you think Chinese dragons are from Western ones?

Linda Jaivin  05:40

Well, the Chinese don’t battle dragons except Ne Zha 呢咋 did the, another mythological figure. It feels kind of funny to be talking about two imaginary beasts, of course. But how different is this exactly?

Graeme Smith  05:57

It’s all we do at universities, surely?

Linda Jaivin  05:59

And also doesn’t Wales have a dragon on its flag? You know, which symbolises some kind of, which signifies some kind of pride in the beasts. But I think one of the differences, so far as I know, is that the dragon has a female counterpart, which is the fenghuang 凤凰, or the phoenix. And it’s quite interesting the Chinese government doesn’t really like they’re coming after our phoenixes now, they don’t really like that translation. But because the West also has a Phoenix and the Western Phoenix behaves in a different way, again, as the Chinese Phoenix. So they might want all Westerners to start calling the phoenix the fenghuang.


James, you said that you were against the kind of good dragon, bad dragon dichotomy. Tell us why?

James Carter  06:49

The idea that the dragons are, you know, in the Chinese sense, are munificent and wise and virtuous. I mean, there certainly are dragons that are that way. But there’s plenty of episodes and even in the official histories and from in the Yuan, the Ming, the Qing and back earlier, dragons appear, and occasionally they’re good portents, but oftentimes, they’re very destructive. People die when dragons get involved. People starve to death when a drought is caused by a dragon, or a flood is caused by a dragon, or a lightning storm is caused by a dragon. And there’s examples of dragons appearing as waterspouts that might pick boats up into the air and hurl them across the marsh. And once in a while they set the boats down gently and everybody lives to tell the tale. But other times they’re just left in a, in a wreckage on the fields. So, I think that the idea that they’re good and orderly is a little bit over overblown, doesn’t match up with the examples you see from the past. And then in the western side, I also think that’s kind of overdrawn. I mean, yes, there are certainly lots of dragons that are up to no good. But I think dragons are also revered and sort of feared as examples of power. But if that power can be harnessed properly, they’re shown to be real agents or forces who are trying to impose their will on the territory, there can use dragons in order to do that. I think it was George RR Martin with the Game of Thrones. He made the analogy that he saw dragons as nuclear weapons, that they’re the source of power that were a threat to all of humanity, because they were so powerful. But they’re not either intrinsically good or bad. They’re just things that people are able to control or not control. So in that way, I actually think they line up with the with the Chinese dragon. Which is they’re not necessarily good, they’re not necessarily bad, but depending on how people interact with them, they can be either one.

Graeme Smith  08:40

And contrary to Hou Dejian’s song, Annie, not all Chinese people have always been the ancestors of the dragon. The official historian Sima Qian, way back in 91 BCE, referred to Qin Shihuang 秦始皇, the first emperor as the “ancestral dragon”. How has this sort of imperial association played out over the years?

Annie Ren  09:00

Well, I think just adding to James’ point, you know, the image that we have the dragon as sort of the most powerful creature and Chinese mythology isn’t always like this, you know. Dragon has always been, you know, in the past was just one of the many mythical figures and the ascent of the dragon for me really corresponds with the concentration of power into the hands of one person, that is the Emperor. You know, the heavenly-chosen executor of the mandate. And this we see happening in the Han Dynasty, that’s second century BCE. That’s the first time when we see the China’s first emperor Qin Shihuang being referred to as you know, the ancestral dragon. And the association between the dragon and also the imperial despot comes really to give the founder of the Han Dynasty a legitimacy to rule. So unlike China’s first Emperor, who came from a very noble background, the, you know, the founder of the Han Dynasty Liu Bang 刘邦 came from very humble origins. And that’s why then in those historical accounts, his mother must have been impregnated by a dragon for him, for Liu Bang to have this sort of, you know, legitimacy.

Graeme Smith  10:16

Linda, I can see you wanting to jump in there.

Linda Jaivin  10:18

No, it’s very interesting because the whole point that both of you in raising about Qin Shihuang reminds me about something in the song “Heirs of the Dragon.” I prefer heirs because it’s more of a spiritual descendency. But anyway, in Hou Dejian’s song, he has a line which is “under the dragon’s claws” or “under the dragon’s feet I have” you know, “I’ve grown up under the dragon’s feet.” And Hou Dejian told me that people sing that line with great pride, like, “I have grown up.” And he said, he meant it as a sense of oppression. And that kind of chimes with the idea of Qin Shihuang who was such a despot. It’s the idea of this dragon representing something very big, very powerful, very overwhelming that is China. And it’s not a comfortable feeling to grow up under the claws of a dragon.

Annie Ren  11:10

It’s this, I really want to ask Hou Dejian whether it’s the four-claw dragon or the five-claw dragon. Because in the Ming Dynasty, you know, they officially decided that only the five-claw dragon can represent the, you know, the Emperor. And, you know, if you’re a senior minister, you can still wear clothing with dragons on it. But the dragon only has four claws.

Linda Jaivin  11:32

I think it’s a good question. But I think he actually means it. It’s such, he means the dragon to represent China, which I think is is really interesting. Because for the West, if you look at the number of book titles that have dragon in the title to represent China, including one from 1956 and the Cold War, which I love so much, because we all know red, we all know Edgar Snow’s Red Star over China. So, in 1956, somebody wrote a book Red Dragon Over China. And you know, in Australia, somebody wrote a history of Chinese in Australia, Chinese and Australians or Chinese Australians called I think it’s called The Dragon and the Kangaroo. So, it doesn’t necessarily represent power to the popular imagination.

Graeme Smith  12:22

We don’t want to get into dragon titles. My favorite one is “Milking the Dragon.” That’s an actual title of a book chapter that I saw at a conference… Anyway… Louisa, I can see you jumping in.


Yeah, talking about dragons over China. James, you’ve written about these kinds of spate of dragon sightings, where people said they saw actual dragons. And in 1517 on July the 7th, there are no fewer than nine dragon sightings in the skies over Nanjing. I mean, what’s going on?

James Carter  12:54

I guess I would want to take a step back to from, from where we moderns sit. And so, we had, you know, we started at the beginning of the discussion about how odd it is, to work on, you know, what are the specific details of these two, obviously, mythical creatures. And I guess, I guess I’m enough of a romantic to step back and want to say like, well, are they mythical creatures? Like? Yeah, I think they are. But I think we need to, we need to reserve judgment, at least in this sense. Did the people who thought that they saw those dragons, did they really think that they saw something that was not that, could not be otherwise explained by natural phenomenon of one sort or another? And actually, I’m not sure the answer to that question matters very much. So, I think that what’s going on is there’s something that’s inexplicable and it gets assigned a supernatural explanation. I think, whether or not it’s real, I think, what real means can be, can be subject to interpretation. So, is it real in the sense that it really caused a cataclysm, you know, that resulted in the deaths of people or destruction of property? And if a dragon is held responsible for that, was the dragon real? Well, maybe not in the sense that we can have a specimen that we want to put in a museum somewhere or maybe in a zoo. But was it real in the sense that people assigned agency to this creature, and they had respect for it, and they had, it was important to their worldview? And one thing that that comes up with oftentimes we associate with climatological or meteorological phenomenon, and I think it’s useful to think about dragons. And when I was writing about that, I was borrowing  from Timothy Brook, who had written about the Ming and the Ming Dynasty in this way. But talking about, you know, it’s at least as important to try to understand how weather and climate influenced everyone’s daily lives as opposed to emperors and ministers. And yet we spend a lot more time focusing on ideology and much less on meteorology. So, there would be these official sightings of dragons that would happen every so often. Sometimes there are a few decades, sometimes every couple of years, all during the late imperial period. But as far as, in terms of official records, the last, the last official dragon sighting was in November of 1905. So not that long before the Qing Dynasty fell. So I think this this correlation of the dragon with China’s imperial passing with China’s past kind of lines up neatly then when you’re talking about Wen Yiduo 闻一多 in the May 4th movement looking back to the dragon as being the symbol of something that came and maybe something we should move on from.


I’m really curious about what makes it official? Is it that an official has seen it? Or is it kind of there’s more than one witness? Or how did they decide?

James Carter  15:39

That’s a good question. I don’t know the answer. I think it becomes official in the fact that it gets into the official histories. But clearly, I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that there are more sightings reported than actually make it into those final records. So yeah, what the vetting process, I’m sure that one of one of your listeners will be able to tell us what the vetting process is for evaluating a dragon sighting? The folks from Guinness probably go out there and assess it.

Graeme Smith  16:04

And my guess is it probably popped up in a county gazetteer because you find all kinds of crazy things in these county gazetteers, including stuff about sorcery and witchcraft. So, it wouldn’t have been out of place there.


I just love the idea that the imperial ledgers had a column for official dragon sightings.

Graeme Smith  16:21

Every county gazetteer has a column for witchcraft. It’s there. Like you know, we burned this many witches back in the 40s kind of thing. It’s in pretty well all of them.


I wanted to ask Linda about that other big moment when Chinese intellectuals were undergoing tumult, and the dragon was huge. And that was of course 1989. When Hou Dejian’s song became a kind of unofficial anthem in Tiananmen Square and for the movement. Did he change the song for that?

Linda Jaivin  16:53

He did. He didn’t change the dragon claw bit. But it did have a part, originally, there was a lyric and since then it’s been sung, still sung that way. And it’s basically black hair. It’s black eyes, black hair, yellow skin, forever and ever the heir of the dragon. And he said after meeting Wu’er Kaixi and some other Uighurs, he realized that, you know, that he had been very racialist in writing that, very kind of essentialist, Han essentialist. And he thought that China and the heirs of the dragon really should be all of the people who live under the dragon. And that would include the Uighurs and others who don’t conform to that, who don’t necessarily have black hair and black eyes and yellow skin. So, he changed that. But he still kept the dragon-y bit.


So just tell us a bit about that change?

Linda Jaivin  17:52

So, after he realized this was a bit racialist, he changed it to whether or not you are willing forever and ever, you are an heir of the dragon, and that’s even more kind of oppressive. It really, it doesn’t have much positive energy does it?

Annie Ren  18:10

That sentiment, I think, really echoes with Wen Yiduo’s original totem, dragon totem theory. And again, Wen Yiduo’s use of totem is highly idiosyncratic, to, to say the least. But, you know, his theory is that, you know, the dragon totem started with a tribe, the Huaxia 华夏 tribe, which is the prototype of the modern day Han, Han Chinese race. And that tribe has a snake as its totem, and when the snake tribe conquered all the other tribes, it assimilated their totem. Therefore, the snake got to have a stag’s horn or sculpt some scales. So, you know, that’s exactly what, Linda, you were talking about with Hou Dejian’s lyrics. It doesn’t make it any better.

Linda Jaivin  18:58

It’s also interesting, how did the dragon conquer the phoenix? Because wasn’t the phoenix more of a totem of the South? Also, the Phoenix is quite interesting. It has something over the dragon which is it originally came from a male and a female element put together. And the dragon is just, you know, it’s just a boy.

Graeme Smith  19:16

And Linda, in the lead up for the show. We had this generational chasm with our producer, who was saying oh, you have to use the Wang Lee Hom version because there’s of course a much more well known version now which has been a remake of the same song and done by the nephew of Li Jianfu for the first, the person who first performed it. We’ll just have a quick listen to this song which is a lot more high octane.

Clip  19:34

Yao yuan de dong fang you yi tiao jiang, ta de mingzi jiu jiao chang jiang. Yao yuan de …

Graeme Smith  19:47

So Linda, is this a re-imagining of the original and if so, in what way?

Linda Jaivin  19:51

Every version except for Hou Dejian’s own has been a reimagining. Hou Dejian sung it originally in coffee shops and music venues in Taiwan. He was part of the campus folk music of the 70s and early 80s. And when he sang it, he sang it in a way that conveyed a kind of, a kind of a thoughtful mournfulness, you know. And then Li Jianfu bought the rights and Hou Dejian was a poor student. He had no money, he sold the world rights forever and ever for something like 120 US dollars. And it sold like, I don’t know, billions, you know, of copies in the end. But he didn’t own the rights anymore. So that was, it’s probably the worst deal ever done in an industry that’s known for very bad deals for composers and creators. But it was kind of his fault. He turned it over. Li Jianfu sang it a lot more heroically. I would describe his version as more heroic. And then the version that we just heard, is a bit more like hip. And, you know, there’s rap versions, there’s all these different people who have tried to reimagine it. But what always interested me and interested Hou Dejian as well, was when it was taken up in demonstrations. I remember in Hong Kong, I was living there and the Japanese revised their textbooks with regard to how they wrote about the invasion of China, which wasn’t an invasion. “I think the Chinese invited them” or something like that, you know, it was, it was a bit of a fudging of the reality. And people all over the Chinese world were, you know, demonstrating. And there were these huge demonstrations in Victoria Park in Hong Kong, and people would belt out “Heirs of the Dragon” as if it was, you know, it was an anthem, it was pride. It was sung in such a kind of, you know, again, a heroic way, a marching song. It was very, it was really interesting to see all these different variations. And Hou Dejian was fascinated by them as well.

Graeme Smith  21:56

James, I mean, Xi Jinping has been talking an awful lot about dragons, particularly this year, and in the speech of Chinese New Year, he branded them, quote, “The totem of the Chinese nation” calling them “strong, fearless, and benevolent, and embodying…” And I’m going to quote here because he really can’t improve on the original quote, “the Chinese nation’s spirit of ceaselessly pursuing self-improvement, hard work and enterprise for 5000 years. But it also encapsulates the determination and aspiration of hundreds of millions of Chinese people to build China into a strong country and realize national rejuvenation,” end quote. So, what next, James, we’re going to see Xi, haha, trying to piggyback on imagery, do you think, of the Chinese dragon?

James Carter  22:37

I think that for dragons, they’ve got lots of different powers, like we’ve talked about. They can breathe fire, and they can fly, and they’ve got terrible claws, and they’ve got lots of other powers. But maybe their most important power here is as a cliche, it’s extremely potent. So, I think that when Xi Jinping is leaning into this imagery, he’s really trying to distract in some ways from what China is grappling with, which is contemporary challenges at home. When I mean, to restate what’s been said many times, dealing with the economic slowdown, they’re dealing with, you know, political challenges that were exacerbated by the COVID pandemic, trying to deal with an increasingly complex world and their place in it. Dragon is a dragon, simple. A dragon is powerful. Everybody can identify with a dragon. I just had an event not that long ago, where I met with some officials from the Chinese Consulate, and I was indeed gifted with a with a dragon. So I mean, this is a potent image that I think absolutely, I mean, any politician would be foolish not to embrace an image quite so photogenic and easy to relate to as a dragon. So absolutely. And I think that the, the rebranding of it as loong I mean, I think that’s a bit of a… I don’t, I’m a little puzzled by it. It seems, I don’t think that people in the West have a negative association with the dragon. I really don’t and so I think it was kind of an odd way for Xi Jinping to spend some political capital in the West. But domestically, the dragon is a potent symbol and they’d be, would be foolish not to embrace it and, and indeed, they are embracing it.


I was just gonna ask Linda how successful the dragon is, really, as a distraction from all those problems?

Linda Jaivin  24:16

I don’t imagine it’s terribly good as a distraction. With you know, we don’t know how high youth unemployment is. But the last we heard it was, what, over 20%? I don’t know how many young Chinese people are gonna go well, we’ve got the dragon who needs a job? You know?

Annie Ren  24:36

This year’s theme for the annual Spring Gala is long xing dada guojia xin xin 龙行龘龘 国家欣欣so “the dragon takes flight and the nation prospers”. And the character they used for taking flight is just one character of a dragon on top of, you know, two smaller dragons. And people were taking that as sort of as this sort of reference to the state of China now. This like one dragon of other you know, heirs of the dragon, and I found that to be quite an interesting reading of the theme.

Linda Jaivin  25:05

Or perhaps it’s the three-dragon policy now?

Annie Ren  25:08

You mean the three-children policy? Yes.

Linda Jaivin  25:11

As opposed to the three-dragon problem coming to you on Netflix soon.


I suppose it’s time for me to come clean and say the I’m kind of a massive dragon fan. And I actually spent the last weekend in Bendigo, which is, for James’s benefit, it’s a sort of rural town about two hours from Melbourne, where they have the world’s longest imperial dragon. And they have this massive Easter Parade because the dragon came with the gold miners, the Chinese gold miners in the 19th century. And they have this big Easter parade where all the dragon dancers and lion dancers from around the country congregate. And it’s literally two full days of massive dragon dances. I’ll play you a little bit of sound from that. Bendigo, this rural town in Australia, commissioned this brand-new dragon to be made in Hong Kong. It’s 175 meters long, that’s like five swimming pools. When you’re standing there, it took two full minutes to go past. And I just kind of really was struck by the fact, perhaps this is a question for all of you. Maybe Linda you start. By the fact that with Chinese traditions like that being eroded in China, could there be an argument to be made that the real custodians of the dragon dance, and these Chinese traditions may not actually even be in China anymore?

Linda Jaivin  26:48

Well, that’s a really interesting proposition. I don’t know if you ever read, I think was Lynn Pan’s book on Chinatowns. She talks about Chinatowns as this place where tradition becomes ossified. And so, you have, you know, generations who move to a place whether it’s Australia, or Canada, or the US or wherever, and they bring with them, their culture, their traditions, and so on. And culture and tradition is a living thing. But they’re stopped there. Back in China, things are always evolving. And the Chinatowns become this sort of frozen moment in time, keeping and preserving traditions in the moment when the particular generations came. It’s a really interesting way to look at how these things are preserved, because you can’t preserve culture, culture is a living thing. And obviously, in Bendigo, they’re also improving and, and revising this culture by commissioning the world’s longest dragon. So that’s an innovation, but it is an interesting thing to think about.


And then another innovation they have for the Bendigo dragon is for the new dragon, the massive one, women are allowed to carry it as well. And in previous dragons, all the dragon carriers had to be male, but now you see this whole, you know, mix of people carrying the dragons. And yeah, I think you have thought about the relationship between women and dragons and dragon ladies a bit?

Annie Ren  28:24

Oh, yes. Just very briefly, I’ve been going through, you know, pre-modern Chinese literature to see how dragon women or you know, dragon princesses, were being depicted. But unfortunately, they still represent male fantasy of an ideal woman. So and those sort of, starting from the Tang Dynasty, for instance, you find sort of encounters between a poor scholar and a dragon princess with, you know, all the wealth of a father and a very devoted wife. And sometimes would, you know, just hand over custody of their children. So, despite that, there’s some, you know, beautiful illustrations or depictions of dragon princess. Unfortunately, they still represent the male gaze.

Graeme Smith  29:12

And Louisa, wasn’t there a Falun Gong dragon there as well? I’m kind of curious as to how, did they try and muddy the waters a bit about who owns the dragon?


Well, there was a massive Falun Gong contingent, not just a dragon, there was a marching band, which was about two or three hundred people. And then there were Falun Gong people wearing you know, women wearing traditional uniforms with women wearing traditional dress with dragons, with fans, doing fan dancing. And then there was the Falun Gong dragon. So although the Falun Gong dragon, I have to say was not as athletic as some of the other dragons.

Graeme Smith  29:49

That’s very disappointing. All those exercises and qi gong, you’d think they’d be bounding out.


But I mean, you know, I would say they weren’t just trying to claim ownership to the dragon, but also to everything else as well, you know, the whole sort of cultural heritage of China.

Linda Jaivin  30:07

Actually of a piece with the Falun Gong thing. Once an Aboriginal friend of mine said, “Hey, I’ve got a ticket to something in Chinatown.”

Graeme Smith  30:15

Shen Yun?

Linda Jaivin  30.17

Yeah, I didn’t know this is like, a long time ago, I had no idea. And she said, Have you ever heard of this thing and she couldn’t, she couldn’t pronounce it. She didn’t know what it was called. Anyway, we go off to Chinatown. And we left it at the interval because it was so bad. But the funny thing about it was I was looking at it and going, Oh, my God, just like we’re talking about Chinatown’s in this preservation, this freezing of culture. I loved how you, the Freudian slip of the uniform. Because that’s basically how the approach to the costume is in these things. And it was, it was so weird. It’s like they’ve, like the Communist Party, they’re so much a reflection, one of the other. They each claim ownership of the culture, of the tradition. And in the end, they kind of converge in their, you know, this is like this positive thing. And everybody dances with fans in this way. And they, they wear, you know, the men who were presenting the show, wear lipstick and rouge, you know. Oh, this, this sort of thing, it was very interesting, because the aesthetic is still that sort of top-down aesthetic. Whereas if you look at things like in folk art, and you look at the dragons that are created in folk art, they’re so interesting and quirky, and they vary from place to place. It’s, it’s wonderful, you know, there’s this kind of living culture, and then there’s the top-down culture, whether it comes from the top-down of the Falun Gong people or the top-down of, you know, Xi Jinping. Have you noticed that a lot of the Chinese propaganda at the moment has the has a cartoon dragon that’s really cute? It’s a funny thing, you know, this kind of flattening out of interesting, vibrant, imaginary creatures.


And, James, what about in in the US? What kind of, are you seeing these kinds of new era dragon dances in Chinese communities there?

James Carter  32:10

I don’t know, I haven’t, I haven’t seen any with this new year. So I just haven’t had the opportunity. But um, but what struck me one of the things that Linda was talking about when she talked earlier about the about how the party is making use of some of these symbols. But the top-down aspect of it. So one of the things that makes all these cultural traditions so alive and so and so influential is that they are organic and they change and they develop and they move. And that is really problematic for any sort of political structure that’s trying to control them. It makes for this very brittle approach to cultural production. I think that that really is that is at odds with what, with what the Party is trying to accomplish. So I’m kind of torn by how to answer the question. Rather, I do think these these Chinatowns are, you know, are they ossifying some of these traditions so that they become sort of moments out of time, and they preserve a culture that’s not changing and evolving. Or are they places that where this culture is evolving and changing? Because it’s free of some of the political restrictions or political directives that are that are present in other places? But I’d be curious to see how it develops. Probably both, yeah. Oh, that would make that would make sense. And that’s part of the that’s part of the challenge, right? The party doesn’t want it to be both wants it to be one, whatever, that one thing. They don’t want it to be both.

Linda Jaivin  33:27

And that one thing has to have a lot of positive energy.


I mean, I’m wondering what you foresee for the future? Will we have subversive dragons or will the end of the year of the dragon mean the kind of end of the… or the downplaying as a dragon as this as this sort of distraction, this symbol?

Linda Jaivin  33:48

Well, it’s quite interesting. The Year of the Dragon, there’s a sort of a simplistic understanding, oh, you should have a child during this year, blah, blah, blah. But as Geremie Barmé has written about, they can be quite dangerous years. And 1988, which was a year of incredible social and ferment and economic insecurity and all sorts of things were going on in 1988. That was a year of the dragon. And that led to 1989.

Annie Ren  34:19

And don’t forget 1976, the year Mao died and that, you know, destructive Tangshan earthquake.

Linda Jaivin  34:26

And of course the Pacification of Tibet and the Korean War. Great dragon years, you know.

Graeme Smith  34:34

Landlord purges in 1952, let’s keep going. James, do you want to add something about where you where you see the dragon going?

James Carter  34:43

For anybody who takes a even a passing interest in astrology whether it’s Western or Chinese know you can you can almost always fit whatever you need to fit into the astrological sign. So I think that the party is going to try to make the most of Year of the Dragon they’ll take their swing. And if things work out, well then they’ll take credit for it and the dragon will get some legs, so to speak. And if it doesn’t, I think we’ll move on to, we’ll move on to the next animal. And I think it’ll just be another attempt. So, I think it really it, it is it’s purely secondary, we don’t want to let the we don’t want to let the tail wag the dog or the dragon. I think when we talk about what the party is going to do with, it’ll really just depend on what happens. Because just despite what I said earlier, dragons don’t actually have a lot of power. Which if I’m struck down leaving the studio, then we’ll know that I shouldn’t have said that.

Annie Ren  35:32

I think I’ll be fine with a dragon that’s more inclusive and you know, less of a national, ethno-nationalistic symbol, dragon that you know, symbolises, you know, female empowerment, you know, gives give us some more imagination. It doesn’t always have to be, you know, connected to either Xi Jinping or you know, emperors of the past. If we can have, reinvent the dragon that way, then you know, I’ll be more comfortable with it as a symbol.


I would like to add that at the Bendigo parade there was actually a trans LGBTQIA+ dragon.

Annie Ren  36:11

That’s great.

Graeme Smith  36:12

Was it a rainbow dragon?


It had the trans colors on its head, and the body was was rainbow, LGBTQIA. And it was, you know, carried by the community. So again, I think not an ossification of the tradition, but definitely an evolution. And again, like the Falun Gong dragon, I mean surely an evolution in a way that the Chinese state would definitely not approve.

James Carter  36:39

You know, and one thing, one thing I would add on the symbolism too, is that I mean. For whatever Xi Jinping and some of the Party newspapers are saying about how the Western dragon is, is, is all about terror, destruction and chaos and bad and the Chinese dragon is benevolent and wise and good and peaceful. I think they’re pretty satisfied to have a symbol that is such a, so potent and powerful. I mean, that’s, they wouldn’t be picking a symbol that they, at this particular time, that they thought it was going to be, could be pushed around, for instance. And dragons can’t be pushed around, I think they’re, they’re pretty happy to have that understood.

Linda Jaivin  36:44

And just think back for a moment to the whole idea of everybody now has to say, loong, nobody can say, dragon. It’s just such a strange concept of how language works, you know, that you can say, to people in other cultures, you can’t use the word you’ve been using, you have to use this word from now on, you know. And you have to spell it this way.

Annie Ren  37:36

Can I just add to that, for me, I think it’s just a form of political control. It’s something that Confucius or George Orwell would immediately recognize, because, you know, Confucius famously said that, you know, the proper way to govern, is to rectify the name, to zheng ming 正名. And for George Orwell, of course, you know, controlling the language is a form of thought control. And we’ve definitely been seeing a lot of that, you know. Also, with the state media’s insistence of using terms, like, replacing terms like Tibet or Inner Mongolia with the Chinese transliteration, Xizang 西藏 or Neimeng 内蒙. It’s just the same, same thing, you know, part of cultural confidence, wenhua zixin 文化自信.

Linda Jaivin  38:15

And part of discourse power, or their attempts to exercise discourse power.


I could absolutely talk about dragons for a full other hour. But I know, but I very much enjoyed this conversation. I just wanted to check if anybody else has anything that we didn’t talk about dragons that we should have.

James Carter  38:35

I don’t think, I think we’ve touched on it. But somehow I’ve circled around, I haven’t quite been able to put my finger on it exactly. But the Chinese, the Chinese state, the Party in particular, has been striving after a soft power win, you know, forever. I mean, they’re driven to distraction when like k-pop takes off, or when anime is so influential. It’s like, what, where do we get our k-pop? Where do we get our anime, which makes them crazy. And so it’s interesting that the dragon has a lot of cultural valence in the West. I mean, look at and look at Game of Thrones and with House of the Dragon, right, as the prequel. And so dragons have a lot of traction there. So it’s kind of an own goal, I think to then say, well, you have this, this image that’s very powerful, is associated with China. It’s really popular now. But we’re going to take away the word and we’re gonna change it into something that is invariably going to be unpronounceable by most of the people who are trying to say it. So I think it just kind of proves the point.

Graeme Smith  39:32

James, Annie, and Linda, thanks for joining us.

Linda Jaivin  39:34

Thank you.

Annie Ren  39:36


Graeme Smith  39:37

Louisa, thanks for putting up with me for 100 episodes. May we do 100 more.


Here’s to the next 100.

Graeme Smith  39:45

You’ve been listening to the Little Red Podcast, bringing you China from beyond the Beijing beltway. many thanks to our guests, James Carter, Annie Ren and Linda Jaivin and my co-host Louisa Lim. Our editing is by Andy Hazel. Background research by Wing Kuang, our social media and transcripts are by Juliette Baxter. Our theme tune is by Suzy Wilkins and our cartoons and gifs are courtesy of Seb Danta. Bye for now.