Dragons. A famous mythical beast present in stories in the West and East. However, even though dragons were born from fantasy, there are notable differences in the way dragons are perceived in the east, in particular China, then in the west, as they have different cultural roots and image in literature and the entertainment industry.
In China, or the East, a dragon is a symbol of luck, auspiciousness and of high religious authority. Whereas in the West, a dragon symbolises an evil creature that spreads violence and injustice throughout the land that needs to be conquered.
In this article we will learn about the origins of the Eastern and European Dragons and their similarities and differences.
European Dragon and Chinese Dragon similarities
The main similarities between the two dragons are that they are huge, can fly, are powerful beasts and possess magical powers, and they love all things related to money: jewellery, Gold etc. But this is were the similarities end.
Chinese Dragon and European Dragon differences
The first difference between a Chinese dragon and a European dragon is that the former are considered divine creatures and a symbol of just rule, whereas the latter is considered a symbol of evil and the devil.
A Chinese dragon sprays water as opposed to spitting/breathing out fire for a European dragon, which ties in to the pure nature of a Chinese dragon. Also, a European dragon typically has wings, two arms and legs that are akin to a lizard/dinosaurs, whereas Chinese dragons have four claws and no wings.
Finally, a Chinese dragon is a prosperous omen and is believed to bring about a good harvest and times of abundance, while European dragons brought about chaos and destruction and were feared across the lands.
Origin of Dragons in China and Europe
Both dragons have origins clouded in mystery. Let’s explore the two:
In China, written accounts of dragons appeared in the book of songs, Songs of Chu and other many other books. These books alongside the literature of the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, relics from the Xia Dynasty allude to the tales of dragons.
In Europe the dragon can trace its origins to both the Bible and ancient Greece. The bible mentions ‘Dragon’ more than 20 times, whereas the dragon is mentioned in Greek literature and is the most likely origin of the dragons reptilian appearance.
Appearance of Dragons in China and Europe
Chinese dragons most resemble snakes, due the admiration of a snakes small, flexible nature with the ability to kill in an instant. Further details of Chinese dragons emerged after the Yuan dynasty where the dragon began to be decorated with horns, scales and its colourful appearance. While they spray water, and are thought of the God of Rain.
In contrast, European dragons are more akin to lizards, but with wings similar to bats, two feet and arms, a head similar to a horse, extremely sharp teeth and a long thorny tail. They also breathe fire or spit out poison, with their blood being highly toxic.
Also, the colour pattern is quite different. European dragons are mostly monochromatic or favour harsh evil colour schemes like black or red. Whereas a Chinese dragon has a warmer inviting colour usually with blue, white and gold.
Cultural Symbol of Chinese Dragon and European Dragon
The Chinese believe that the dragon is a kind, divine creature, who holds on important position as head of the four spirits. Because of this, many imperial rulers adorned their clothes with dragon patterns, dubbing them dragon robes. This further cemented the importance of dragons and the power they hold over the other spirits and mythical creatures.
There are very few negative connotations of a dragon in China, especially Chinese dragons, unlike the European dragons, which were the embodiment of evil, and if tamed used by sorceress to further advance their evil agendas. These dragons had to be slain for good to prevail.
Perception of Dragon in Religion, Literature and Movie
From the earliest records, Chinese dragons were depicted as leaders of animals and later the first of the four divine spirits. They had the ability to enter the dark and light territories, can change their size at will, fly and swim as the seasons changed. Because of this, the dragon has become a symbol of luck, power and nobility.
The earliest records of European dragons was found in Homer’s Epic and then the bible. These depictions state that the dragon was the devil shapeshifting into a dragon to further deceive the people and cause terror among the lands. A dragon had to be defeated and cast away, which led to many tales of dragons being slain for the protection of its people, or saving the damsel in distress.
However, as the European and eastern cultures begun interacting more, and through popular media, the image of the European dragon began to change. For instance, in Skyrim, one of the dragons was depicted as an ally who helped defeat the evil dragons, or other films which depict the courage and support dragons provide to our unlikely heroes. Though, they are still not depicted as holy as their Chinese/Asian counterpart.
The main difference between European and Chinese/Asian dragons stem from the way they are depicted and interpreted. In Europe, due to the heavy influence of the bible and Greek mythology, mythical creatures are depicted as evil sentient beings, whereas in China/Asia, they are thought of as a pure being of divine standing.
Because of the positive image of Chinese dragons, many customs and festivals stem from dragons. Festivals and activities like dragon boat race to the dragon boat festival, the Chinese New Year dragon and lion dance, or flying dragon kites and much more. I guess there are always two sides to every coin, especially in regards to mythical creatures like dragons.