Dragons of China

Arkane Curiosities

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:

  1. Head like a camel
  2. Demon eyes
  3. Ears of a cow
  4. Horns of a deer
  5. Belly of a clam
  6. Neck of a snake
  7. Paws of a tiger
  8. Claws of an eagle
  9. 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. 

Quick Change

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. 

Tim Kane

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3 Weird Ways to Confuse a Vampire

Arkane Curiosities

If a vampire has you on their menu, you can reach for a stake or garlic. But another solution is to simply confuse the vampire. Through the years, people have surmised various weaknesses of these nocturnal bloodsuckers and come up with different ways to perplex them. A confused vampire is one that won’t be feasting on you.

Force the Vampire to Do Some Math

Many cultures contend that vampires are obsessive to the point of compulsion. They will count various objects, no matter how many, until the job is done. We can use this to our advantage.

Germans would scatter seeds (poppy, mustard, oat or carrot) around the grave of a suspected vampire. The undead was compelled to count all the seeds before leaving the grave to seek blood. Although this seems like a simple task, often the vampire found themselves delayed till daylight. The Kashubs of Poland believed a vampire could only count a single seed a year, thus keeping it busy for centuries. 

Knots could also delay a vampire. Nets were often buried with the deceased forcing the undead to untie all the knots.

A more macabre practice was to leave a dead cat or dog on your doorstep. In this case, the vampire must count all the hairs on the animal. Personally, I would opt for the seeds. 

Trick the Vampire with Poop

Never has the poop emoji been so powerful. No garlic or crucifix at hand? Just shove a bowl of excrement in the vampire’s face.

In Europe, vampires were thought to exit the grave through small holes (the size a serpent might make). In Bulgaria, they placed bowls of feces (or poison) right outside these holes. The vampire, it seems, is so famished that it will consume the first thing it comes across, devouring the bowl of excrement. 

Get the Vampire Drunk

A happy vampire is one that won’t invade your home. Sometimes a bottle of whiskey was left in the grave with the corpse. If the vampire became too drunk, it might not be able to find the home of its relatives, preventing it from feeding on you. 

In Romania, people would bury a bottle of wine with the corpse. After six weeks, they dug up the bottle and drank it, offering a form of protection from the strigoi (a Romanian vampire).

Tim Kane

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