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Global Times: Evolution of Chinese dragon totem shows diversity, unity of ancient civilization
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Global Times: Evolution of Chinese dragon totem shows diversity, unity of ancient civilization
  • PR Newswire
  • 승인 2024.01.29 15:49
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BEIJING, Jan. 29, 2024 /PRNewswire/ -- As the Spring Festival is around the corner, the world is expecting a unique Year of the Dragon associated with this auspicious symbol. Of all the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac system, only the dragon is mythical, giving it a special seat in traditional culture.

Chinese people love this 10,000-year-old totem, as they have long proudly referred to themselves as "descendants of the dragon." However, outside of the Asian context, the term "dragon" is anything but a positive symbol, making the Chinese dragon a perfect case of being "demonized in translation." Now, a spontaneous campaign is on to clear its name.

Whenever China's important traditional holidays arrive, the dragon dance team in Fengshun county, South China's Guangdong Province, takes center stage in the town.

Holding up hand-made Chinese dragons, or long in Chinese, people in a group of 10 will dance amid the crackling of fireworks while praying for a prosperous and peaceful New Year.

The reverence for the Chinese dragon extends globally, along with the Chinese communities both in and outside of the country, which is still seeing the evolution of this unique totem. This millennia-old totem might be the most typical symbol of the Chinese. Deer antlers, an ox head, snake body and fish scales, this unique figure has been unearthed by archaeologists from noble tombs buried deep in the ground in Central China, carved by construction workers on the roofs of buildings in the Forbidden City centuries ago, and is creatively employed by pastry chefs in modern dim sum.

However, long was translated as "dragon" by Western translators to share the name with Western dragons, leading experts and scholars from both the East and the West to spent decades explaining the differences between the two.

In Christianity, evil dragons in the West were recorded as being defeated by Saint George. In China, for decades, scholars have held varying opinions on the emergence of the nation's lucky emblem.

Many folklorists and historians believe that the appearance of the Chinese dragon's initial form is closely related to the worship of celestial beings and the survival in agricultural societies. The latest findings in archaeology trace the origin of the Chinese dragon to nearly 10,000 years ago.

"In the eyes of our Chinese ancestors, the dragon could provide rain, nourishing the earth and ensuring bountiful harvests in agricultural societies. It could soar through the clouds, a magical means of transportation between Heaven and Earth. The dragon's power and majesty also symbolized the maintenance of order in the human realm," Professor Xiao Fang, head of the Department of Anthropology and Folklore Studies at Beijing Normal University, told the Global Times.

Whether it be the stone-stacked Chinese dragon of Hebei or the jade-carved Chinese dragon that laid the foundation for future depictions, the tangible representation of totems in various forms over the past millennia stands as a powerful symbol of the diverse unity within Chinese culture.

Misrepresented in translation

Over the decades, long in Chinese has commonly been translated into English as "dragon." However, the English "dragon" typically refers to a winged, evil creature, quite distinct from the benevolent and powerful image associated with the dragon in ancient Chinese culture.

Scholars have long debated the appropriate translation for long. Huang Ji, a scholar from East China Normal University, noted that the original Western dragon is demonic, and there's a need for a reevaluation of the translation of long. In an effort to dispel misconceptions about Chinese national symbol resulting from the association with the Western concept of dragons, Huang proposed the English name "Loong."

However, a majority of Chinese experts are opposed to the proposal, calling it an unnecessary change that would lead to more misunderstandings among foreigners.

"People in other countries who know even just a little about Chinese culture can distinguish the difference between the Chinese dragon and the Western dragon," Huang Youyi, former vice president of the China International Publishing Group and executive vice president of the Translators Association of China, told the Global Times.

French sinologist Rémi Mathieu told the Global Times that the Chinese dragon and the European dragon do not share any commonalities. The Chinese dragon represents power and is often depicted as a creature with formidable strength. It is associated with positive attributes, actively dispelling evil. The Chinese dragon is portrayed as a creature with almost sympathetic qualities, Mathieu said.

"In contrast, the Western dragon is almost synonymous with absolute evil. From the birth of Christianity, it has symbolized malevolence, even being associated with the Devil. In Christian iconography, it often appears defeated and killed by Christian heroes, such as the guardian St. George or St. Michael, typically with a spear or arrows," he added.

True Chinese archaeological origins

According to archaeological findings, the Neolithic era was a crucial period for the formation and development of Chinese dragon worship. Various artifacts and remnants of dragon worship have been unearthed across different regions in China, indicating its prevalence.

A stone pile dragon, pottery fragments with dragon decorations, and a pottery jar with a snake clasping a toad discovered at the Chahai site in the Liaohe River Basin are currently known as the earliest mature representations of Chinese dragons. These artifacts already possess the basic characteristics of the Chinese dragon, including the head, neck, body, scales, tail, and claws, making them great representations of the origin of dragon worship. By examining various dragon depictions unearthed from different regions slightly later in the archaeological timeline, it can be seen that dragon worship that emerged during the Neolithic era was associated with agricultural production.

The origin of the Chinese dragon can be traced back to about 8,000 BC. The earliest depictions of these dragons were crafted using pile-up techniques, as exemplified by the dragon-shaped artifacts found at the Chahai site in now Northeast China's Liaoning Province.

Since the Chahai Culture, dragon worship has been intertwined with Chinese culture for thousands of years, becoming a significant symbol of the origin of Chinese civilization.

Jade dragons dating back to around 5,000 years ago were unearthed from the Late Hongshan Culture to the early Liangzhu Culture, with the Hongshan culture featuring the most prevalent jade-carved dragons, as well as painted and molded clay dragons.

The image of the dragon found in the Hongshan Cultural ruins profoundly influenced the evolution of dragons in subsequent dynasties, becoming the backbone of the origin of Chinese dragons.

Diverse dragon artifacts from 3,000 years ago were also unearthed at the renowned Sanxingdui Ruins. These artifacts include dragon-shaped vessels with distinctive forms, coiling dragon-shaped lids, as well as bronze dragon decorations on the Bronze Sacred Tree, figurines with tiger heads and dragon bodies and various dragon-shaped imple-ments.

Continuous evolution

From a symbol of imperial authority to a character in folk tales, the Chinese dragon has continuously evolved and been innovated on over time.

In folk society, as people became familiar with this symbolism, they began to personalize this image for folk literature and art over the centuries by assigning them human-like characteristics. For example, as custodians of water sources, Chinese sea dragons are depicted as both benevolent and powerful in myths and novels, such as the 16th-century novels Investiture of the Gods and Journey to the West, as well as in some theatrical plays such as Liu Yi and the Dragon Princess from the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368).

Overall, the image of the Chinese dragon took a positive path after the jade-carved dragon figures from the Hongshan Culture 5,000 years ago laid the foundation for the subsequent Shang Dynasty (C.1600BC-1046BC). This totem later evolved to symbolize auspiciousness and luck in literature, architecture, art, and even personal names. For instance, the extensive use of Chinese dragon imagery in the Forbidden City is notable, with public data revealing a staggering 14,986 dragon decorations carved both inside and outside the Taihe Hall, alone. In everyday life, the family name Long also ranked 85th out of over 10,000 surnames in the 2016 population census in China, with a population exceeding 2.8 million.

"Chinese people have been venerating, believing in, and talking about this image for a long time. The early myths later evolved into cultural beliefs, making the Chinese dragon the most consecrated object of worship for Chinese people," noted Xiao. 

"Since the reverence for dragons during the time as early as the Shang Dynasty, Chinese people were gradually referred to as the descendants of Chinese dragons. During its evolution, the totem has transformed from a symbol of ancient tribal beliefs to a symbol of national and political power, and further into the dragon of our present-day culture - a symbol of beauty, goodness, and auspiciousness," Xiao said.

Read more: https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202401/1306032.shtml 


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