A camel’s head, a deer’s horns and a demon’s eyes. A bull’s ears, a snake’s neck and a clam’s belly. A carp’s scales, an eagle’s claws and a tiger’s paws. Pieced together, these disparate physical features yield an illustrious creature of Chinese legend: the dragon.

Believed to soar through the waters and heavens as a nature deity ruling over the rains, the dragon is a dominant figure in Chinese mythology, perched at the center of longstanding creation tales. Ancient legends depict the mythical being, called long in Chinese, descending to the ground with the fog and rising out of the ocean with the sun, moving the seasons in its wake. Initially a vague motif in ancient Chinese art, the dragon is now an emblem of benevolent divinity, imperial power and sweeping unity. Its symbolism builds on thousands of years of folklore and Chinese history. And, as the only mythological animal in the Chinese zodiac system, the dragon takes on yet another layer of meaning.

A Zhou dynasty wine vessel featuring a depiction of a dragon
A Zhou dynasty wine vessel featuring a depiction of a dragon Public domain via Wikimedia Commons
A jade Chinese dragon
A jade Chinese dragon Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Chinese zodiac consists of 12 animals—the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig—that alternate every Lunar New Year. Though the timing of the Lunar New Year changes based on cycles of the moon, the celebration generally falls between January 21 and February 20, beginning with the second new moon after the winter solstice. Every Lunar New Year, a new zodiac animal takes over the reins of fate. Its character guides the course of the year, and individuals born under its sign are said to adopt its behavior, character traits and compatibility standards.

Arriving fifth in the sequence, the dragon is the most potent—and most desired—zodiac symbol. It “catalyzes all the powers of nine animals and is therefore considered very supreme,” says Richard E. Strassberg, an expert on Chinese culture and the author of A Chinese Bestiary: Strange Creatures From the Guideways Through Mountains and Seas. “There [is] an overwhelming mixture of respect and hope in invoking the dragon’s powers.”

When the Year of the Dragon arrives, birth rates in China tend to boom. Many parents believe that a child born during this year, a lucky dragon baby, will be destined for success. Though this perception is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, with parents investing greater resources in their dragon child, the extraordinary expectations surrounding the zodiac creature speak to its deep associations with intelligence, authority and good fortune. This year, the dragon will take the helm from the rabbit on February 10, ushering in a long-anticipated period of prosperity unique to the mythical being.

A 16th-century Ming dragon medallion
A 16th-century Ming dragon medallion Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The birth of the zodiac

The 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle has ancient origins, but exactly when it became associated with specific animal symbols is subject to debate. Zodiac creatures are represented in artifacts and depicted in Chinese literature as early as the Warring States period, which spanned 475 to 221 B.C.E., and some scholars assert that a Chinese zodiac system has existed since the reign of Qin Shi Huang, the first Qin emperor, who ruled immediately after that period. But the classification scheme was only widely adopted during the Han dynasty, which presided over China from 206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E. “The system that included these 12 animals continues to be developed and represented, and [it] evolved in connection with folklore from then on,” says Strassberg.

The accompanying zodiac legend varies across Buddhist and Taoist belief systems, but the overarching narrative remains relatively consistent. In it, a deity often identified as the Jade Emperor calls upon all animals to participate in a race. The first 12 animals to complete the course will be included in the zodiac calendar, with their position in the cycle determined by the order in which they arrive at the finish line.

Illustration of the Chinese zodiac
The dragon is the only mythological creature in the Chinese zodiac system. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Each zodiac animal’s competition strategy is indicative of that sign’s traits. The rat, for instance, finishes in first place by convincing the ox to carry it across the river; it represents cunning and tenacity. The dragon, expected to easily prevail due to its powers of flight, stops halfway through the race to provide water to a drought-ridden village, immortalizing the animal as a symbol of selfless benevolence.

The zodiac also alternates between the five fundamental elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. This year, the dragon inhabits the wood element, which represents development and achievement.

Early forms in art

Long before it was imbued with symbolic meaning in the zodiac and beyond, the dragon was an ambiguous silhouette adorning art forms—a sheer convention of imagination, says J. Keith Wilson, curator of ancient Chinese art at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Asian Art. The Chinese word for dragon has been in use since the Bronze Age, and “a creature called the dragon has been in the Chinese art vocabulary for thousands of years,” says Wilson.

Representations of dragons are etched into divination inscriptions and reflected in the shape of ritual bronze vessels unearthed in Anyang, the capital of the Shang dynasty. (An ongoing exhibition at the museum, “Anyang: China’s Ancient City of Kings,” examines the city’s archaeological riches through a display of more than 200 artifacts.) “For more than a thousand years before the advent of symbolic designs—roughly the length of the Chinese Bronze Age—the dragon flourished in art without a set of specific associations,” wrote Wilson in a 1990 journal article.

Group of ritual wine pouring vessels
A group of ritual wine-pouring vessels decorated with masks, dragons and animals from the middle and late Anyang period, circa 1150 to 1100 B.C.E. National Museum of Asian Art

The commanding version of the dragon seen today only emerged during the Han dynasty, when “this notion of mythological creatures being composite [creations] with aspects of different living forms” gained popularity, says Wilson. The amalgamation “results from contact between China and Central and Western Asia,” he adds. This increased exposure “helps us understand why dragons before the Han dynasty look very different from dragons after the Han dynasty.”

Creatures of cosmology

The composite dragon wields extensive powers, says Strassberg, controlling rainfall, thunder, wind, tornadoes and storms. Though the creature’s influence lies mainly in the realm of water and weather, hundreds of iterations exist within Chinese culture, each with its own distinct mythology.

Historical texts offer a sense of this rich lore. Compiled between the fourth and first centuries B.C.E., the Shan Hai Jing features a dragon-headed deity that sends booms of thunder rollicking across the skies by using his stomach as a drum. (Strassberg’s Chinese Bestiary translates the Shan Hai Jing and provides additional cultural context on this collection of mythic geography.)

A mural depicting the Azure Dragon
A mural depicting the Azure Dragon Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

The Shan Hai Jing also presents the dragon as one of the “Four Symbols” in Chinese astrology, which assigns a protector to each cardinal direction. The Azure Dragon rules over the east, a connection that Strassberg attributes to the rising of the sun in the sky in that direction, “just as dragons rise from the water toward the skies.” According to Wilson’s journal article, the Azure Dragon and its fellow protectors were “believed to be benign” guardians, their likenesses “often used to decorate palaces and public buildings.”

In the Huainanzi, a second-century B.C.E. text detailing the ideal structure of an empire, Prince Liu An writes that at the beginning of the universe, “dragons arose and phoenixes alighted.” When describing terrestrial properties of the planet, the prince claims that “the earthen dragon brings rain.” Liu An also tells of a fifth cardinal direction, the center of the world, represented by the Yellow Dragon.

According to Strassberg, the dragon is often ritually paired with the phoenix to maximize its auspicious qualities. The combination allows for perfect harmony between the dragon, associated with the active, masculine principle of yang, and the phoenix, linked to the passive, female principle of yin.

One of the best-known ancient Chinese legends centers on the nine sons of the dragon, among them Ya Zi, a bloodthirsty being who often appears on weapons, and Pu Lao, a roaring creature typically depicted atop of bells. Other types of dragons featured in Chinese folklore include the Celestial Dragon, the Spiritual Dragon, the Dragon of Hidden Treasures, the Dragon of the Underworld, the Winged Dragon, the Horned Dragon, the Coiling Dragon, the Yellow Dragon and the Dragon King, a Hindu deity that was later absorbed into the Buddhist pantheon.

One of the nine dragons depicted on a wall relief in China
One of the nine dragons depicted on a wall relief in China Richard Fisher via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY 2.0 DEED

A spiritual neighbor

Though the dragon was viewed as the “superior force in [the] cosmos,” it wasn’t just a vague allegorical deity, Strassberg says. Believed to dwell deep within oceans, lakes and rivers, the dragon was considered a neighbor, part of the larger spiritual population. “No one claimed to have directly captured or seen the dragons,” the scholar adds, “but they were believed to exist everywhere, and people could represent and depict them because they knew what animals came together to form their bodies.”

The dragon’s cultural significance was inextricably tied to China’s agricultural society. Farmers prayed to the creatures for good weather, erecting temples during droughts to implore the dragon to grant rain and fruitful harvests. “On a folklore level, there is a general view that dragons bring benefits and are inherently good,” Strassberg says.

In stark contrast to the fire-breathing, gold-hoarding dragons of medieval Europe, Chinese dragons were perceived as benevolent creatures. Though they lived peacefully among the population, they were still thought to be “very mysterious and unpredictable, [just] as the weather is,” says Strassberg. “Human beings would feel very minuscule in relation to the dragon’s power, and in general, there would not be a feeling of intimacy toward this powerful creature. They wouldn’t welcome an encounter.”

The emblem of the emperor

Beyond its enduring role in Chinese culture, the dragon played a crucial part in the consolidation of the Chinese imperial state.

Shiji, a monumental history compiled around 85 B.C.E. by Han dynasty court scribe and historian Sima Qian, states that the birth of the first Han emperor, Gaozu, was blessed by a dragon.

A Qing dynasty dragon robe featuring a five-clawed dragon
A Qing dynasty dragon robe featuring a five-clawed dragon Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum

Sima Qian recounts the event in mystical fashion, writing:

Before he was born, [Gaozu’s mother] Dame Liu was one day resting on the bank of a large pond when she dreamed that she encountered a god. At this time, the sky grew dark and was filled with thunder and lightning. When Gaozu’s father went to look for her, he saw a scaly dragon over the place where she was lying. After this, she became pregnant and gave birth to Gaozu.

Gaozu is largely credited with laying the foundation of imperial China’s ruling structure, and he is often said “to be descended in some way biologically [from] the dragon,” Strassberg notes. In chronicles of Gaozu’s rule such as Sima Qian’s, the dragon became inseparable from imperial authority and ascendancy. It also emerged as a unifying agent for ethnically Han Chinese people, many of whom now consider themselves “descendants of the dragon.”

The supremely powerful dragon became “the emblem of the emperor,” says Strassberg. It was taboo to refer to this supreme leader directly, so dragons became a vehicle for honoring the emperor from a respectful distance.

Under later Chinese dynasties, among them the Yuan, Qing and Ming, only the emperor and other senior royals could wear garments depicting a dragon with five claws, representing ultimate authority over all five elements. Lower-ranking individuals were expected to wear robes featuring four-clawed dragons.

Chinese Dragon Dance

“[The dragon’s] associations with mutability, with water, storms, male energy—all of those attributes evolve over time, and it’s very early on taken as a symbol for the imperial institution,” says Wilson. “Its use on imperial costume, for example, really cements the association of the dragon with power.”

In a departure from the loose artistic visualizations seen during the Bronze Age, the Chinese dragon has evolved into a concrete symbol of prosperity and power. The creature has shaped mythological conceptions of creation, played a key role in religious practices and adorned the clothing of the most powerful figures in imperial history. Its dynamic presence is felt throughout Chinese culture: Every Lunar New Year, traditional dragon dances featuring giant dragon puppets snake through clamoring crowds, bestowing luck on all those present. The upcoming Year of the Dragon is steeped in this historic symbolism, bringing with it thousands of years of meaning.

“In the end, the invisible dragon of nature is, ironically, the most real and tangible of all. After its deep winter slumber, this creator awakens in spring and rises to the sky to provide the earth with new life,” wrote Wilson. “In this context, the dragon is a pulsating force, the world’s activating agent.”

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