HBO’s House of Dragons tantalizes our imaginations about a world filled with flying reptiles. Yet throughout history, not all dragons had wings and breathed fire. The dragons of China slithered through the skies millenia ago and were just as deadly.
Chinese dragons controlled the weather and symbolized royalty and divine good fortune. They guarded heaven and inhabited nearly every biome in Asia.
A Conglomeration of Beasts
Wang Fu, a philosopher and poet in the early Han Dynasty (206 BCE – CE 220) wrote extensively on the anatomy of dragons. According to him, all Chinese dragons (and Asian dragons in general) share nine characteristics:
- Head like a camel
- Demon eyes
- Ears of a cow
- Horns of a deer
- Belly of a clam
- Neck of a snake
- Paws of a tiger
- Claws of an eagle
- Scales of a carp
Notice that, unlike their western counterparts, only one animal is of the reptile variety. This creature is more at home with a Greek Chimera than a European dragon.
Yin and Yang
Wang Fu also stated that dragons have exactly 117 scales. That’s right. Not a scale more or less. You see, dragons were seen as concise in their construction. Even the scales themselves were divided up, much like a baking recipe, with 81 scales representing yang essence and 36 representing yin essence.
Although they are portrayed as male (having beards and horns), Chinese dragons are essentiallly gender neutral or non-binary (having some parts yang and others yin). Instead, the Chinese phoenix is split into male (凤) and female (凰) versions.
The yin scales give the dragon its aggressive and destructive side, but thanks to its smaller ratio, it’s balanced by the peace and serenity of yang. Just as a flood or tidal wave can wreak havoc (yin is associated with water), so too, dragons can summon storms or cause droughts by withholding water.
Number of Toes
The Chinese believe that all Asian dragons originated in China and that as they flew farther away, they lost some of their power.
Imperial dragons are the only ones to have five toes. The more common dragons have to make do with only four. Korean dragons only have four toes (being removed from the center of China) and Japanese dragons have only three (even farther from China).
Unfortunately, these days no one remembers these strict rules about the number of toes and people draw all dragons with five toes.
In many stories, dragons can stretch their bodies or even make themselves disappear. They can also take on the form of a fish, snake or human being.
Dragons could also shrink to very small sizes. In the illustration, a Buddhist monk convinces a dragon to fit into a rice bowl.
Dragons Aren’t Born
Dragons are not born. Instead they transform into a dragon from another creature (like a snake or carp). This might account for the various animals which make up their appearance.
The process of transformation can take thousands of years. Just to grow those 117 scales can take a millennium. Often, young Chinese dragons appear more like fish until they reach maturity.
There really is no need for young dragons because they are not seen as monsters roaming the countryside, as in Europe. Instead, they are forces of nature, akin to the Greek fates or the Norse Valerie’s. We don’t see the fates having little fates running around. There’s no need.