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This Lunar New Year Is the Year of the Dragon: Why the Beast Is a Big Deal in Chinese Culture

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The last time China’s birth rates peaked was in 2012: that year, for every 1,000 people, there were 15 live births, a far cry from 2023’s 6.39. It was a statistical anomaly, considering the country’s ongoing state of demographic decline, which has proven extremely difficult to reverse. But 2024 may just see another baby boom for China, for the same reason as 12 years ago: it’s a Year of the Dragon. 

Dragons are a big deal in Chinese culture. Whereas in the West dragons are often depicted as winged, fire-breathing monsters, the Chinese dragon, or the loong, is a symbol of strength and magnanimity. The mythical being is so revered that it snagged a spot as the only fictional creature in the Chinese Zodiac’s divine roster. And the imagery pervades society today—whether in boats, dances, or the stars

Read More: What’s So Special About Mandarin Oranges During Lunar New Year?

International discourse about China’s economy or politics also often references the country as a “red dragon,” which critics have said subconsciously panders to Orientalism and fears of communism. But many Chinese proudly embrace the connection: China’s President Xi Jinping told former President Donald Trump in 2017 that the Chinese people are black-haired, yellow-skinned “descendants of the dragon.” 

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That’s why, in Years of the Dragon (which happen every 12 years), spikes in births tend to occur in China (as well as other countries with large Chinese populations, such as Singapore), as many aspiring parents try to time their pregnancies to result in a child born with the beast’s positive superstitious associations.

Read More: 5 Things to Know About Lunar New Year and How It’s Celebrated Across Asia

A symbol of prosperity

Where the Chinese dragon first came from is still debated by historians and archaeologists. But one of the most ancient images of the loong was unearthed in a tomb in 1987 in Puyang, Henan: a two-meter-long statue dating back to the Neolithic civilization of Yangshao Culture some 5,000–7,500 years ago. Meanwhile, Hongshan Culture’s Jade Dragon—a C-shaped carving with a snout, mane, and thin eyes—could be traced back to Inner Mongolia five millennia back.

Marco Meccarelli, an art historian at the University of Macerata in Italy, writes that there are four reliable theories for how the loong came to be: first, a deified snake whose anatomy is a collage of other worldly animals (based upon how, as ancient Chinese tribes merged, so did the animal totems that represent them); second, a callback to the Chinese alligator; third, a reference to thunder and a harbinger of rain; and lastly, as a by-product of nature worship.

Most of these theories point to the dragon’s supposed influence on water, because they are believed to be gods of the element, and thus, agricultural numen for a bountiful harvest. Some academics have said that across regions, ancient Chinese groups continued to enrich the dragon image with features of animals most familiar to them—for example, those living near the Liaohe River in northeast China integrated the hog into the dragon image, while people in central China added the cow, and up north where Shanxi is now, earlier residents mixed the dragon’s features with those of the snake.

A symbol of power

Nothing cemented the Chinese dragon’s might better than when it became a symbol of the empire. The mythical Yellow Emperor, a legendary sovereign, is said to have been fetched by a Chinese dragon to head to the afterlife. The loong are also said to have literally fathered emperors, or at least that’s what Liu Bang, the first emperor of the Han dynasty (202-195 B.C.), made his subjects believe: that he was born after his mother consorted with a Chinese dragon. 

“The dragon totem and its corresponding clout were employed as a political tool for wielding power in imperial China,” Xiaohuan Zhao, associate professor of Chinese literary and theater Studies at the University of Sydney, tells TIME. 

From then on, the loong was a recurrent theme across dynasties. The seat of the emperor was called the Dragon Throne, and every emperor was called “the true Dragon as the Son of Heaven.”  D. C. Zhang, a researcher in the Institute of Oriental Studies at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava, tells TIME that later dynasties even prohibited commoners from using any Chinese dragon motif on their clothes if they weren’t part of the imperial family. 

The Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) created the first iteration of a Chinese national flag featuring a dragon with a red pearl, which was to be hung on Navy ships. But as the Qing Dynasty weakened after several notable military losses, including the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and Boxer Rebellion of 1900, caricatures of the dragon began to be used as a form to protest against the government for its weakness, says Zhang. But with the dynasty’s fall after the establishment of the Republic of China (ROC)—which would then become Taiwan—in 1912, Zhang says the pursuit of a national emblem was temporarily cast aside. 

During the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), there had been renewed calls to find a unifying symbol to boost morale, and the dragon was among several animals considered. But when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the quest for a unifying symbol for the Chinese was forgotten again, as the country pivoted priorities toward rapid industrial development.

A symbol of unity

Outside China, the dragon motif may have quickly caught on, but inside it, the dragon was not as influential until the 1980s, says Zhang. In 1978, Taiwanese musician Hou Dejian composed a song entitled “Heirs of the Dragon” as a means to express frustration over the U.S.’s decision to recognize the PRC as China’s legitimate government and sever diplomatic ties with the ROC (Taiwan). Lee Chien-fu, a Taiwanese student at the time, released a cover of the song in 1980 that grew immensely popular on the island.

Despite being a song decrying Taiwan’s disappointment, the song managed to cross the strait and also resonated with citizens of the mainland. Zhang says “China was becoming stronger” and its government tried to co-opt “Heirs of the Dragon” as it needed an emblem for unification and prosperity “which would be apolitical and would be inclusive to all Chinese nations even for those living abroad.” Hou, who had since moved to China, sang the song in a Chinese state variety show to usher in the Year of the Dragon in 1988.

But the song’s popularity also led it to be used against the Chinese leadership. Dissidents turned “Heirs of the Dragon” back into a protest anthem before the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, according to the South China Morning Post, with Hou even changing some of the lyrics according to Zhang. Hou was deported back to Taiwan in 1990, but his music stayed with the ethnically Chinese and the Chinese diaspora, Zhang says.

The song as well as China’s overt efforts to create a national symbol that transcends borders, Zhang says, play a large part in the lasting cultural significance of the loong. And the dragon’s historic regality has certainly helped boost the mythos, symbolism, and popular sentimental attachment for Chinese people today, says University of Sydney’s Zhao. “The basic characteristics, features, beliefs and practices associated with dragon totem and clout remain largely unchanged,” he says. “It’s very much a living tradition.”

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