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There Be Dragons!

There Be Dragons!

The dragon (龙 / Lóng) is a central feature in Chinese (and therefore Pan East Asian) culture. Understanding what they mean, their background and symbolic role is vital if you are to make the most of your activities with Chinese as customers and partners. You should know that the Chinese name for CashToChina is "龙银" - the first character means Dragon, the second character means Money; "Dragon Money" is what your Chinese customers see when they see our name for the CTC service in Chinese. Consequently, you may decide to use depictions of dragons in your marketing campaigns and so on, so, take note of the following so that you do it right!

There are numerous references to dragons throughout Chinese culture, from the rationale behind the number of toes Chinese, Korean and Japanese dragons have (5,4 and 3 respectively, supposedly losing one claw the further it gets from China), to the widespread use of dragons in language to express good fortune, success and power (望子成龙 - “To expect one’s son to become an outstanding personage”) it is difficult to disentangle this most central of Chinese symbols as - like so many things Chinese - it goes back a long, long way.


First known depiction's of dragon like objects are from the Hóngshān (红山文化) culture (4700 > 2900 BC). Jade amulets showing animals that look like fish, crocodile, snake hybrids are not unusual at this time. It is likely that the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus) prompted the myth in this period - the crocodile can sense oncoming rain and slight changes in air pressure that may have been the origin of the dragons ability to control the weather, especially the rain (dragons are the gods of water).


As the dragon evolved to become a mythical creature its physiology became more concise and in line with other aspects of the culture: The horns of a deer, the head of a camel, demon's eyes, the neck of a snake, a tortoise's viscera, hawk's claws, the palms of a tiger, a cow's ears. And it hears through its horns, its ears being deprived of all power of hearing. There is often a flaming pearl under the chin - this pearl is associated with good luck and prosperity. Another common feature of Chinese culture - the importance of numbers - is also expressed in the dragon; The number 9 is important as it is the largest single digit - the number of scales on a dragon is exactly 117…. 81 (9 X 9) of which are Yang, and the remaining 36 (9 X 4), Yin.

  Symbol of imperial authority

Qín Shǐhuáng (秦始皇 - say “Chin Sherr-hwang”) was the first emperor to unify China in 221 BC under the state of Qin (this is where we get the word “Chinese”). The importance of a unified China is absolutely central to the culture since this time. At the time of his death, Qín Shǐhuáng is said to have been immortalized (dragons are immortal to boot) and risen up to heaven. Many Chinese refer to themselves as 龙的传人 "the descendants of the dragon" - they see themselves as having descended fromt eh man who brought China together after a 300 year period of internal conflict and instability known as the warring states period.

The dragon is known as the most powerful and divine of all creatures > Its a wonderful symbol that helps us learn much about Chinese people and culture, however - as with all things cultural there are a few caveats you should be aware of…

Duh! How to get it wrong

Nike had an advertising campaign where the basketball player LeBron James was shown slaying a dragon (as well as beating up an old Kung Fu master and slam dunking sacred deities….). Unsurprisingly this remarkable display of ignorance was immediately banned by the Chinese government after public outcry over disrespect - not just for political reasons, but genuine cultural issues as well - its forbidden to disfigure a depiction of a dragon in Chinese culture. A comment made by a Chinese sociologist on this advertisement was made that sums up our stance on dealing with such matters: "Conflict will occur when you are ignorant about another culture and things will be even worse if you take too much for granted.” You have been warned!

As a footnote on cultural marketing - you probably know that outside of East Asia dragons are seen as aggressive, warlike and not particularly friendly creatures. Because of this, outside China the Panda has been promoted as the countries symbol - a far more benign creature in line with what they want to communicate to others. If the medium is the message then a Panda does well for the Chinese coming out, but much better a dragon if you are looking to get in!

Further fascinating work on the universality of the dragon creature throughout human cultures can be found here. Enjoy!

  Best Regards

The Team at Netelis Asia
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