Dragons of the East & West
It is important to bear in mind the differences in the appearance, concept and associations of dragons within their respective cultures. Partly this post has been prompted by a article appearing in an English newspaper. The article made brief mention of the story in China where they have decided to release a new stamp design to commemorate the Year of the Dragon. There have been many complaints that the image is too fierce…
The article then went on to give seven examples of dragons… Seven examples of dragons in Western mythology and literature. Reading this I was quite frustrated as the examples were irrelevant to the original story as there was no attempt to compare or contrast the Eastern and Western dragon image.
So what are the differences?
The dragon is seen as fire breathing, winged, a lizard like serpent, belligerent, destructive, evil, hoarder of treasure, devourer of maidens and in dire need of a good vanquishing.
A common image is that of St. George slaying the Dragon, thus saving the land and peoples thereabouts and converting them to Christianity to boot. St. George is variously depicted as wielding either a spear, lance or sword. The coiling and twisting of the dragon represents the corruptive and destructive nature of evil that will continually attack humanity in myriad forms.
The dragon is strongly associated with water, thunder and lightning, it is wingless, horse headed, bearded, long and snake like, wise and benevolent.
In appearance the dragon is long and sinuous, a coiled snake like serpent, able to fly without the need for wings. The head is usually a mix of equine and canine features, bearded with long moustaches and a set of horns. In Japan dragons typically have three claws on each of their four limbs as opposed to their Chinese neighbours that commonly have four or five. Dragons are able to assume human form (a common trait for supernatural beings) to move unnoticed or interact with human society.
As a symbol of wisdom and authority the dragon is tied to imperial power, the divine right of the emperor to rule. The second meaning of the dragon kanji 龍 is ‘imperial’.
Water and Air – the association with water and air (or wind) may better be seen as the energy and nature of the water cycle – falling as rain, flowing down river to the sea to be evaporated into the sky to form clouds. Air and water together in Japanese is fūsui 風水 the natural flow of energy in nature, commonly referred to by the Chinese name feng shui in the West. With the interaction of water and air you have the connection with weather and storms, a tornado is seen as a dragon twisting as in the word tatsumaki 竜巻 lit. dragon-roll. On the one hand dragons play in the skies and clouds to produce rain, a natural blessing to sustain life, on the other they can produce more powerful energy in the form of thunder and lightning.
Dragons are associated with mountains as water that falls as rain with flow down their sides or will bubble up from springs within. Shrines to dragons are found at pools, lakes or in mountains near the sources of water – caves, springs and waterfalls. Dragons live in their hidden palaces at the back of caves or in the depths of ponds. Visiting Japan you will commonly see dragon statues as water spouts at temples for visitors to cleanse themselves.
A wise friend – Japanese tales often tell of friendships struck up between dragons and monks or other devout people. For example, in a time of drought the emperor commands a monk to make it rain as he knows the monk to be friends with a dragon, the dragon knows he will be punished by his king, but will do this for his friend as the monk cannot disobey the order. Three days later with thunder and lightning rain falls and the drought is broken. The monk heads into the mountains and finds the dragon’s torn body in a pond, he buries the dragon and erects three temples in its honour. In another tale a mischievous tengu snatches a dragon that is in the form of a snake from beside a lake and deposits the dragon in a dry hole in the ground to eat later. The tengu then decides to abduct a monk, snatching him as he is going for a drink and deposits him in the hole also. The monk and dragon talk, learning that the dragon is powerless without any water the monk gives him the gourd he is carrying. The dragon is then able to break free and flies the monk home, leaving him at the temple accompanied by rain, thunder and lightning before heading off to hunt down the tengu.