Dragons; Qilin and Phoenix in China

Shenyang, dragon
Imperial dragon at the Shenyang Imperial Palace, Liaoning

Dragons in China are not the fire-breathing, evil monsters that they are portrayed elsewhere in the world. May be a different word should have been used to distinguish the Chinese version of these mythological creatures. The Chinese dragon is imperious, powerful but good-natured. People need to seek the favor of dragons and keep them on their side. It is a strong ‘yang’ animal (male; sun; light). As such it associated with the number nine (3 is 'yang' so 3x3 is extremely 'yang') and so Nine Dragons jiǔ lóng are extremely propitious. Kowloon, part of Hong Kong means ‘nine dragons’ in Cantonese. There is an impressive imperial nine dragon wall of glazed tiles at both the Summer Palace and the Forbidden City at Beijing.

According to an ancient classification the dragon is considered the chief of all scaled creatures, while birds are represented by the phoenix; animals by the unicorn and all shelled creatures by the tortoise. It is second only to humans in the hierarchy of animals. It has a sinuous body covered in scales, with four legs, two horns. It is said to be a composite of Imperial nine different creatures: camel's head; deer's horns; rabbit's eyes; cow's ears; snake's neck; frog's belly; carp's scales; hawk's claws and tiger's palm. There are traditionally 81 (9x9) scales running along its spine. Its face has whiskers and a beard. Dragons were well established in the Chinese mind as far back as the Shang dynasty. Dragons are lords of nature, commanding mountains; sky; sea and land. Dragons belong to various categories: heaven dragons ( tianlong) ruling the sky; spirit dragons ( shenlong) ruling the rain; earth dragons ( dilong) ruling springs and streams and treasure dragons ( fucanglong) which guard buried riches. The blue-green dragon ( qinglong) represents the East; Spring and is one of the four divisions of the traditional month. The river forming a long stretch of China's north-eastern border is the hēi lóng jiāng ‘Black Dragon River’ which in turn gives its name to the whole province. Buddhists brought with them into China a rather different view of dragons more akin to the Europeans, Buddhist dragons are more cantankerous and prone to malice.

A representation of a tān lónggreedy dragon’ was often put at the entrance to the administrator's house (the yamen) so that the administrator and all the supplicants were encouraged to keep honest by this savage and greedy embodiment of a dragon.

Forbidden City, dragon, Beijing
Imperial dragon at the Forbidden City

Hidden Dragons

Feng shui favors sites with a ‘hidden dragon’, which is found where the form of the surrounding hills look like a huge protecting dragon. Ideally this should be to the east of the location as with Nanjing. The film title Crouching tiger, Hidden dragon comes from a place of hidden strength, and a most auspicious Feng Shui location.

Cáng lóng wò hǔ [cang long wo hu]
hide dragon lie tiger
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are people lurking with great power and strength

Chinese Dragons are mostly associated with water, with the power to bring drought or floods, and so they control the lives of all those who cultivate the fields. Legend has it that a son of the Emperor Hongwu chose the site for city of Beijing as the Ming capital after he had managed to tame two dragons who controlled the city's water supply. The belief in dragons has remained strong, at the start of the 20th century 82% of people believed they existed and Yuan Shikai in 1912 sought to legitimize his usurpation of power by the appearance of a dragon - he sent teams of people to go and look for one.

dance, dragon, Foshan, people
Traditional dragon dance, Foshan, 2013 Copyright © Dreamstime see image license

Dragon Kings

The seas are ruled by dragon kings (Long Wang ), one for each of the traditional four seas that surround China. If a dragon king takes to the air it brings a great storm and rain - a typhoon ( taifeng in Chinese). Death by drowning was considered a sacrifice to the dragon king and this is tied to the origin of the Dragon Boat festival which at a later date came to commemorate the drowning of Qu Yuan. Originally people pleaded with the dragons to bring rain for a good harvest at this mid-summer festival.

In ancient times lightning was considered to be ‘dragon fire’. An eclipse of the moon or sun was supposed to be caused by a dragon eating the celestial body. The Moon rose between the horns of the Spring Dragon; as the moon is often represented as a pearl, the common depiction of dragons chasing and holding pearls (as in the Dragon Dance) is related to the moon and thunder. Others say the pearl represents the sun.

A lower category of dragon are the 'hornless dragons ' chī also known as 'mountain demons'. They are depicted as small dragons without horns: 螭吻 chī wěn

Fossils of animals were known as ‘dragon's bones and teeth’. Traditional medicines are often named after parts of the dragon to advertise their potency. The Dragon Dance takes place at Chinese New Year and marriage ceremonies. Carvings of dragons and chiwen are some of the mythological beasts placed at the ends of the roof ridges of buildings. On the very top of the roof ridge they acted as lightning conductors.

Proverbial Dragons

Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé [qiang long nan ya di tou she]
strong dragon difficult press soil head snake
Even a dragon finds it difficult to conquer a snake in its lair
Knowledge of local area and people gives them a distinct advantage even against a strong enemy
lóng shēng jiǔ zhǒng, zhǒng zhǒng bù tóng [yi long sheng jiu zhong, zhong zhong bu tong]
one dragon produce nine sons, grow not same
The dragon has nine sons, each different from the others
Brothers and sisters may not resemble each other
Lóng fēi fèng wǔ [long fei feng wu]
dragon fly phoenix dance
A dragon's flight and a phoenix's dance - very powerful and invigorating.
Flamboyant. Lively and vigorous
Lóng zhēng hǔ dòu [long zheng hu dou]
dragon war tiger battle
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders

Dragons are one of the twelve animals of the astrological year, people born in a dragon year are born leaders and lucky. For more on dragon symbolism please refer to our symbolism section.

dance, dragon
115th Annual Golden Dragon Parade, Lunar New Year celebrations. Los Angeles, 2014

The dragon as an Imperial Emblem

The symbol of the Emperor has been a dragon since the Han dynasty. The Emperor ruled China from the Dragon Throne at the Imperial capital (Beijing, Nanjing and other cities over the centuries). The throne faces south and is considered the very center of the civilized world. The number of claws of the dragon's feet is important. The five clawed dragon is reserved for the Emperor and his sons; anyone else found with a depiction of a 5 clawed dragon could be executed. Princes of the third and fourth rank were allowed four clawed dragons, three claws or less were reserved for the officials at court.

Beijing, Forbidden City, Dragon throne
Dragon throne at the Imperial Palace, GuGong (Forbidden City, Zijincheng), Beijing
Nine Dragon Wall, Beijing, dragon
One of the nine dragons on the Nine Dragon Screen, Forbidden City, Beijing


qilin, carving
Qilin also known as Kylin or Kirin, is a mythical Chinese creature that brings serenity and prosperity

The Qilin is a mythical creature just like the Dragon and Phoenix. The Chinese name is 骐麟 qílín which is sometimes written as ‘kilin’ or ‘kylin’. The character ‘Qi’ is a type of horse and so has the horse radical while the ‘Lin’ character is only used in this context and with 23 strokes is a complex character.

A stone qilin often guards a tomb, sometimes as one of the creatures along a Sacred Way. The best known example is on the Spirit Way to the Ming tombs in Beijing.

Although described as the ‘Chinese Unicorn’ the creature is different to the Western Unicorn, it can have one; two or three horns and a deer's body but often the sculptor has gone to town with their imagination and embellished with fish scales and an ox's tail; it is usually portrayed in white. A qilin is the representative of all animals bearing fur (horses; cows; goats; deer etc.). When Zheng He's voyages to Africa brought back a giraffe as a gift to Emperor Yongle, it was considered to be some sort of Qilin, the Emperor did not agree but in Japan the giraffe is given the name qilin to this day.

The similarity to the Western unicorn is mainly due to its association with gentleness, virtue and benevolence. One tradition has a qilin bringing a piece a jade to the mother of Confucius. Its walk is so gentle that its hooves do not crush the grass and it can walk on water. The appearance of a qilin is considered an auspicious omen; and so it is said to have appeared during the reign of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) and the birth of Confucius. They are solitary animals. The Qilin is often used as a symbol in paintings and ceramics with the hidden meaning to wish that a young man will produce sons.

Qilin, Sacred Way, Ming tombs
"Ways of souls" tombs of the Emperors of the Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644CE). 50km north west of Beijing, in Changping. December 2005. Image by ofol available under a Creative Commons License .

Phoenix - Fenghuang

Song dynasty, phoenix, sculpture
Stone phoenix at the tombs of the Song Dynasty, Gongyi, Henan

As with the dragon the Chinese phoenix has little in common with the mythical bird of Egyptian origin . The Europeans chose to give the Chinese phoenix, Feng huang the same name as a vaguely similar bird; it does not have the link to rebirth and immortality as with the Western phoenix. The history of the ancient Chinese mythological creature going back 4,000 years. Like the Qilin it is considered a creature signifying the just rule of the Emperor. The Chinese name is made up of fèng (wind) and huáng (a homophone with emperor showing as the emperor under a canopy). The phoenix appears at auspicious times, and is associated with sun, south, justice, obedience and loyalty. It is a peaceful creature accompanied by small birds. It perches on the admired 梧桐 wútóng tree 'Chinese Parasol' (Firmiana simplex). It is associated with the sun and summer. The phoenix represents the class of all feathered creatures (birds). Early (Zhou and Shang) representations make it more like a bird of prey with a curved beak; in later centuries it became to look like a pheasant (native to China).

Landmarks named after the phoenix include the mountain ‘Fenghuang Shan’ near Dandong, Liaoning with many Daoist temples dotted over it. Fenghuangfu in Anhui is the place credited with its last sighting, where it scratched at the grave of Emperor Hongwu's father, giving him legitimacy to rule.

In later centuries the Empress became associated with the phoenix. As the dragon represents the Emperor, the dragon and phoenix together are Emperor and Empress. A picture with a dragon and phoenix symbolizes a married couple; and based on this there has been a long association of the phoenix with conjugal sex. Famously the Qing dynastic tomb near Beijing of the Dowager Empress Cixi has the phoenix dominating the dragon, stressing her dominance at the Imperial court.

Proverbial Phoenixes

Fèng máo lín jiǎo [feng mao lin jiao]
phoenix hair unicorn horn
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable
Nìng zuò jītóu, bù dāng fèng wěi [ning zuo jitou, bu dang feng wei]
serene make chicken head, no equal phoenix tail
Rather be a chicken's head than a phoenix's tail
Better to be leader of a humble organization than the stooge of a grand one
A big fish in a small pond
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Citation information: Chinasage, 'The Chinese Dragon; Qilin and Phoenix', last updated 17 Oct 2014, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/dragons.htm.

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