The Dragon and the Fate of China

In 1988, a year of the dragon, China’s Central Television aired a six-part documentary entitled River Elegy 河殤 that caused heated debates among Chinese intellectuals and within the Communist Party. The show’s creators presented a damning critique of Chinese culture, which they saw as agriculture-based and inward-looking compared to the ‘ocean-based’ civilisations of the West. In the very first episode, they fired their criticisms at the dragon:

You could say that [the dragon] is the symbol of our nation. But has anyone ever considered why the Chinese adore this terrifying monster?

As the only mythical creature among the twelve Chinese zodiac signs, the dragon occupies a unique position in the Chinese imagination. To this day, scholars cannot agree on whether the dragon was based on any real-life creature. Both pictographic evidence and archaeological discoveries seem to suggest that if the dragon was inspired by any real-life animal, it would have been either snakes or alligators. Though the Yangtze alligator is extremely endangered now (300 in the wild as of 2017), they once populated a region extending far beyond the lower Yangtze area, after which they’re named, to parts of present-day north and central China.[1]

Figure 1 (source:

In ancient writings found on tortoise shells or cattle scapula, known as oracle bone inscriptions, the dragon sometimes resembles a python, with a powerful jaw and sharp fangs (see figure 1). At other times, it has the look of an alligator with a long snout, muscular tail, and webbed feet (see figure 2).

In an ancient burial site in Erlitou, Henan province, dating back to 1900-1500 BC, archaeologists have unearthed a magnificent dragon-like artefact over 70 cm long and made up of 2,000-odd pieces of turquoise, coiled up like a python between the shoulder and the hipbone of a male body, who was believed to have been a nobleman (see figure 3).

Figure 2 (source:

Erlitou, located on the central plains of the Yellow River, was a large Bronze Age settlement covering approximately 300 hectares. At its peak, it was home to an estimated 18,000-30,000 people.[2] Remains of clustered tombs, pottery workshops, paved roads and what some archaeologists take to be palatial compounds, have led to the hypothesis that this site might have been a later capital of the legendary Xia dynasty. According to the government funded Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project, which was launched in 1996 and mobilised over 200 scholars for five years, the Xia (2070-1600 BCE) was conquered by the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BCE), which in turn gave way to the Zhou dynasty (1046-771 BCE). For Du Jinpeng 杜金鹏, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology in Beijing, the discovery at Erlitou was evidence that the dragon was a ‘symbol of royal rights and social status’, a cultural association that endured for several thousand years thereafter. However, this remains a controversial point. In an interview with Science in 2009, Xu Hong 许宏, who directed excavations at Erlitou for a decade, said that research has been overshadowed for too long by such preoccupations with the dynastic tradition. Xu further criticised the Xia-Shang-Zhou Chronology Project as ‘a kind of political propaganda’.

Figure 3: A large dragon-shaped turquoise artifact discovered at the Erlitou archaeological site in Henan. (Source: Wikemedia)

Figure 4: Tomb 45, excavation view of a skeleton with dragon and tiger mosaic made from clam shells, Xishhuipo. (Source: Wikimedia)

In an even older burial site in Xishuipo, also in Henan, that dates back to 4000-3000 BC, archaeologists found the body of tall adult male, thought to have a tribal chief or shaman, flanked by two elaborately formed shell mosaics (see figure 4). The one to his right depicted a tiger and the one on his left showed a dragon-like figure, which some scholars saw as having the sharp claws and long tail of an alligator.[3] This discovery generated great excitement for not just being one of the oldest representations of the ‘dragon’. The relative positions of the two mosaic animals were also taken by some scholars to be Neolithic origins of ancient Chinese cosmological symbols recorded only some 3,000 years later — with the Azure Dragon 青龍 representing the east and comprising stars from Virgo through Scorpius and the White Tiger 白虎 representing the west, and corresponding to Aries, Taurus and parts of Orion (see figure 5).[4]

Figure 5: Chinese astronomy chart showing four animal symbols 四象 guarding the four directions. (Source:

Though we may never be certain of the animal inspiration behind the creation of the dragon, or whether it was indeed modelled on any real-life creature, one thing we know is that from as early as the Shang dynasty, the creature known as long 龍 — a term first translated into English as ‘dragon’ in the thirteenth century — had become associated with water and rainfall. Even today, we still find remnants of this belief. A faucet is called ‘the dragon’s head’ 龍頭 in Chinese and the dragon dance 舞龍, performed at Lunar New Year celebrations across the world, find its origin in ancient shamanistic rain dances.

In the Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海經, a ‘geographic survey and folkloric compendium’[5] dating back to the third-century BC, we find the following account of sympathetic magic:

The Yinglong 應龍 [often translated as the ‘Winged’ or ‘Responding’ Dragon] dwells in the Southern extremity. After he killed the gods Chiyou 蚩尤 and Father Kua 夸父, he could not return to the heavens. That is why down on earth there are so many droughts. When there is a drought, people make an image of Yinglong to obtain rain.[6]

We have no way of knowing what this Yinglong originally looked like. In an influential article on the religion and magic of the Shang dynasty, Chen Mengjia 陳夢家 (1911-1966), a poet, archaeologist, and foremost authority on oracle bones and bronze inscriptions, inferred that long was simply a ‘divine title’ 神號 for aquatic creatures used in Shang dynasty rainmaking rituals. According to Chen, the ‘Winged-Dragon’ was an elevated name for loaches and the ‘Hook-Dragon’ Goulong 勾龍, another mythical creature in the Classic of Mountains and Seas, referred to toads.[7]

Despite such humble origins, by the first century, the long had already assumed the form we now associate with the Chinese dragon. Wang Fu 王符 (circa. 85-163 AD), a scholar from the Han dynasty, described the dragon as having:

A camel’s head, a stag’s horns, a hare’s eyes, an ox’s ears, a snake’s neck, a clam’s belly, a carp’s scales, an eagle’s claws, and a tiger’s soles… When rain is to be expected, the dragons scream and their voices are like the sound made by striking copper basins…their breath becomes clouds which in turn conceal them…[8]

It was no coincidence that at around the same time, the dragon, the divine maker of rain, had come to symbolise the Son of Heaven 天子, or emperor. (Like the dragon, the sovereign is almost always male.) The Records of the Grand Historian Sima Qian 史記 (circa. 91 BC) referred to China’s first emperor, founder of the Qin dynasty, as the ‘ancestral dragon’ 祖龍. In a famous allegorical essay, the Tang dynasty statesman and exponent of Confucian rectitude Han Yu 韓愈 (768-824), lamented his unrecognised talents by comparing the emperor to the magnificent dragon, who nonetheless, relies on the clouds i.e. diligent officials like Han Yu himself, to exercise his supreme powers:

By roaring out his breath, the dragon forms the clouds. These clouds possess less spiritual power than the dragon. But it is by mounting these manifestations of breath that the dragon journeys to all corners of the empyrean. He presses close to the sun and the moon and obscures their radiance. He gives rise to thunder and lightning and brings about transformations of nature such that water pours down into the earth, submerging the hills and the valleys. How numinous are clouds![9]

By late imperial China, the dragon had become the most recognisable symbol of imperial power. The emperor alone wore the ‘dragon robes’, ruled from his ‘dragon throne’, and slept in his ‘dragon bed’. As a sign of imperial favour, ministers might be presented with the ‘python robe’ 蟒袍 with dragons pictured on them — but those dragons only had four-claws as opposed to the five-clawed dragon reserved exclusively for the emperor. Inside the Forbidden City, dragon motifs can be found on windows and doors, pillars and roofs, screens and walls. Even the drainage system consists of thousands of marble dragon heads that spout water from their mouths on rainy days. One incomplete count found some 14,986 dragons adorning the Hall of Supreme Harmony 太和殿, where emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties hosted their enthronement and wedding ceremonies.

After the fall of China’s last imperial dynasty in 1911, the dragon did not simply fade into history. Instead, it was incorporated into the design of the national emblem of the new Republic of China (see figure 6). This marked the beginning of the dragon’s transformation from an imperial symbol to a national — and ethnonationalist — emblem. In the ensuing decades, patriotic Chinese intellectuals, fearing that their new-found nation may be on the brink of destruction at the hands of imperialist powers, turned to the dragon in their search for a unifying national, cultural, and one may also add, masculine identity.

Figure 6: Designed by the writers Lu Xun, Qian Daosun, and Xu Shoushang, the ROC national emblem featured the 12 Ornaments  十二章, a group of ancient Chinese symbols and designs that are considered highly auspicious. (Source: Wikimedia)

In 1942, five years into the war of resistance against Japanese occupation, Wen Yiduo 闻一多 (1899-1946), a poet and authority on the collection of shamanistic poetry Songs of the South (Chu ci 楚辭), published his influential study on the evolution of the Chinese dragon totem:

The dragon was simply the name of a kind of snake. It used to be the totem of one tribe. When this snake tribe conquered other tribes, it assimilated their totems, thus the snake came to have a horse’s head, a stag’s horns etc. and became what we know as the dragon today… For thousands of years, we have called ourselves the Huaxia; this Huaxia culture is the culture of the dragon tribe. In the past, emperors have described themselves as the embodiment of the dragon and the dragon was therefore the symbol of the state… Now that democracy has replaced the monarchy, the dragon has come to symbolise every citizen of the Chinese nation.

Despite obvious logical flaws in Wen Yiduo’s argument, and lack of proof for his dragon totem theory, the feeling of ethno-nationalistic pride he invested in the dragon at the time of a national crisis galvanised a generation of young readers. In the words of Shi Aidong 施愛東, a renowned scholar on Chinese folklore, ‘In the short span of 150 characters, Wen laid out the four transitions of the dragon, from “tribal totem” to “imperial symbol” to “national emblem” and to “every Chinese citizen”. One cannot help but marvel at the immense power of his poetic language.’

Yet, just two years later, Wen Yiduo launched a surprise attack on the dragon, demoting it to ‘an extremely devious snake’. This change of attitude was prompted by the publication of China’s Destiny 中國之命運 by Chiang Kai-shek 蔣介石, president of the Republic and leader of China’s Nationalist Party (KMT). This book, most likely authored by Chiang’s party theorist, T’ao Hsi-sheng 陶希聖, lamented the erosive effects of Western ideologies, particularly communism and liberalism, on the spirit and mind of China’s citizens, especially the youth, and called for moral regeneration through embracing traditional Confucian ethics.[10] For Wen Yiduo, an intellectual heavily influenced by the May Fourth Movement that denounced Confucianism and advocated for democracy and individual liberty, the book was an assault on the achievements of May Fourth. Concerned that the dragon could never be freed from despot traditions of China’s past, Wen sought to bring down this national totem he had so passionately helped to raise up.

On the morning of 15 July 1946, in the midst of a civil war between Chiang’s Nationalist Party and Mao’s Communist Party, Wen Yiduo delivered a fiery speech criticising the Nationalist Party’s reign of terror at the funeral of his friend Li Gongpu 李公朴, who had been assassinated by KMT secret agents three days earlier. That same afternoon, Wen himself became the victim of a KMT assassination. He was 48 years old.

Wen’s conflicted attitude towards the dragon foreshadowed some of the battles and debates that would play out in the latter half of the twentieth century. During the Cultural Revolution, the dragon was seen as a remnant of country’s feudal past and Red Guards attacked buildings and artefacts carrying dragon motifs; among the monuments they destroyed was a well-preserved Ming dynasty ‘Nine Dragon Wall’ in Anyang, Henan. With Deng Xiaoping’s market reforms, the rise of the dragon became synonymous with the rise of China in both domestic and international headlines. The ‘Heirs of the Dragon’ 龍的傳人, a popular song written by Hou Dejian 侯德健, then a university student in Taiwan, became the soundtrack of the 1980s, sung by those of Chinese descent around the world with a proud feeling that all belonged to the same ‘dragon tribe’.

As Linda Jaivin wrote at length in The Monkey and the Dragon, Hou Dejian, self-confessed ‘third-rate uni student, womaniser and bullshit artist’ had very different intentions when he originally wrote the song in 1979 after the US government severed diplomatic ties with Taipei to establish them with Beijing.[11] Likewise, Geremie Barmé has noted how Hou’s lyrics ‘describe a sense that many people have had of growing up…constricted by this snake-like totem and oppressed by its mighty claws’. Indeed, on Tiananmen Square in 1989, Hou would lead pro-democracy protesters to sing this song as a lament for the state of China and its inability to break away from autocratic traditions of its past.

Hou was not alone in his fight. Su Xiaokang 蘇曉康, one of the chief writers of River Elegy, described the 1980s as an era of ‘slaying the dragon’ 屠龍年代. For Su Xiaokang and his generation of intellectuals who grew up under Mao’s dictatorship, the dragon they were attacking was none other than Mao, who died in 1976, a year of the dragon. They believed that if the leadership under Deng would not thoroughly repudiate Mao’s legacy, there could be no real political reform, let alone democracy. Their fears proved right. Following the June 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy movement, River Elegy was banned and blamed for helping to instigate the movement in the first place. Its creators, including Su Xiaokang, were either hunted down and detained, or forced into exile.

The ancient Chinese believed that in winter, the dragon sleeps curled up at the bottom of the sea. At the beginning of spring, it soars into the sky amidst whirling clouds and brings rainfall. The dragon’s cycles of ascent and descent find resonance in modern intellectuals’ affirmation and rejection as they attempt to create a better China. As we welcome the year of the dragon in 2024, we can expect that the dragon will be officially extoled — narcissistically and chauvinistically — as the unifying symbol of the Chinese state where all those of Chinese descent worldwide as well as all ethnic minorities within China fall under the same common identity of the ‘dragon tribe’. But already, Chinese netizens have begun picking apart this year’s theme for the annual Spring Gala: ‘Dragons take flight and the nation prospers’ 龙行龘龘, 欣欣家国. The character meaning ‘dragon taking flight’, da 龘, features a stack of three dragons 龍. Some thought it was a coded message about the need for everyone to have three children, i.e. little heirs of the dragon, while others saw a China where one dragon stands atop the others.


[1] John Thorbjarnarson and Xiaoming Wang, The Chinese Alligator: Ecology, Behavior, Conservation, and Culture, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010, pp.25-30.

[2] Li Liu, ‘Urbanization in China: Erlitou and its hinterland’, in Glenn R. Storey ed., Urbanism in the Preindustrial World, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2006, p.183.

[3] Thorbjarnarson and Wang, The Chinese Alligator, p.64.

[4] David W. Pankenier, Astrology and Cosmology in Early China: Conforming Earth to Heaven, Cambridge University Press, 2015, p.337.

[5] Richard E. Strassberg, A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures from the Guideways through Mountains and Seas, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002, p.3

[6] Translation modified based on Strassberg, A Chinese Bestiary, p.210

[7] In The Golden Bough: A Study of Magic and Religion, James George Frazer also noted the widespread connection across different cultures between frogs or toads and rainfall.

[8] Translation modified based on Marinus Willem de Visser, The Dragon in China and Japan, Amsterdam: Muller, 1913, pp. 66;70.

[9] Translation slightly modified based on Michael Loewe, ‘The Cult of the Dragon and the Invocation for Rain’ in Charles Le Blanc and Susan Blader eds., Chinese Ideas about Nature and Society: Studies in Honour of Derk Bodde, Hong Kong University Press, 1987, p.196.

[10] As Geremie Barmé observed in his introduction to The China Story Yearbook 2014: ‘the countervailing elements of Confucianism that supported dissent, criticism of excessive power and humanity are quietly passed over’. Online at:

[11] Linda Jaivin, The Monkey and the Dragon, Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2001, p.54.