Various Spellings and Translations
- Naga (Sanskrit for all serpentine creatures, including the dragon)
- Long (Chinese for dragon)
- Qinglong (Chinese; blue/green dragon; Jp. = Seiryuu)
- Ryū (Japanese = also Ryuu, Ryuujin, Ryu-jin, Ryujin)
- Tatsu (Japanese)
- (Japanese = also Ryuu-ou, Ryuu-oo, Ryu-oh; lit. Dragon King)
- Symbol of Imperial Power, Guardian of the Eastern Direction, Deity of Rain and of Heaven, Protector of the Buddha and Buddhist Law
- Often depicted with a pearl or ball under its chin, which symbolizes thunder
- Turtles are the messenger of the Dragon
DRAGON MYTHOLOGY. A mythological animal of Chinese origin, and a member of the NAGA (Sanskrit) family of serpentine creatures who protect Buddhism. Japan's dragon lore comes predominantly from China. Images of the reptilian dragon are found throughout Asia, and the pictorial form most widely recognized today was already prevalent in Chinese ink paintings in the Tang period (9th century AD). The mortal enemy of the dragon is the Phoenix, as well as the bird-man creature known as Karura. In contrast to Western mythology, Asian dragons are rarely depicted as malevolent. Although fearsome and powerful, they are equally considered just, benevolent, and the bringers of wealth and good fortune. Please see our sister site's Dragon Page to learn much more.
Dragons figure importantly in folk beliefs throughout Asia. Dragon lore was well established long before the birth of Buddhism in India (the latter around the 5th century BC). Buddhism was introduced to China by the 1st and 2nd centuries AD, and to Japan by the 6th century AD. By the 9th century AD, the Chinese had incorporated the dragon into Buddhist thought and iconography as a protector of the various Buddha and the Buddhist law. The dragon is also considered a shape shifter. These traditions were adopted by the Japanese. In both China and Japan, the character for "dragon" (see orange-colored ideogram above) was often used in temple names. Even today, most Japanese Zen temples have a dragon painted on the ceiling of their assembly halls.
DRAGON SYMBOLISM. The dragon corresponds to the season spring, the color green/blue, the element wood, and the virtue propriety; supports and maintains the country (controls rain, symbol of the Emperor's power). Often paired with the Phoenix, for the two represent both conflict and wedded bliss. In both China and Japan, dragon and phoenix symbolism is associated closely with the imperial family -- the emperor (dragon) and the empress (phoenix). The dragon also represents the yang principle; often portrayed surrounded by water or clouds. In both Chinese and Japanese mythology, the dragon is closely associated with the watery realm, and four dragon kings are said to rule over the four seas (which in the old Chinese conception limited the habitable earth). In Chinese mythology, a fifth category of dragon was added to these four, for a total of five dragon types:
- celestial dragons who guard the abodes of the gods
- dragon spirits, who rule over wind and rain but can also cause flooding
- earth dragons, who cleanse the rivers and deepen the oceans
- treasure-guarding dragons; guards precious metals and stones
- imperial dragons; dragons with five claws instead of the usual four
NUMBER OF CLAWS. Excerpt from "Myths and Legends of Japan" by F. Hadland Davis. "The Dragon of China and Japan resemble each other, with the exception that the Japanese Dragon has three claws, while that of the Celestial Kingdom (China) has five. The ancient Chinese Emperor Yao was said to be the son of a dragon, and many rulers of that country were metaphorically referred to as dragon-faced."
FOUR GUARDIANS OF THE FOUR DIRECTIONS. In both Chinese and Japanese mythology, the dragon is one of four legendary creatures guarding the four cosmic directions (Red Bird - S, Dragon - E, Tortoise - N, and the Tiger - W). The four appear during China's Warring States period (476 BC - 221 BC), and were frequently painted on the walls of early Chinese and Korean tombs to ward off evil spirits. The Dragon is the Guardian of the East, and is identified with the season spring, the color blue, the element wood (also water), and Yang male energy. The Guardian of the South, the Red Bird (aka Suzaku, Ho-oo, Phoenix), is the enemy of the dragon, as is the bird-man Karura. Actually, the Phoenix is the mythological enemy of all naga, a Sanskrit term covering all types of serpentine creatures, including snakes and dragons. The Dragon (East) and Phoenix (South) both represent Yang energy, but they are often depicted as enemies, for the Dragon represents the element wood, while the Phoenix signifies the element fire. However, they're also depicted as partners. The Dragon is the male counterpart to the female Phoenix, and together they symbolize both conflict and wedded bliss. For many more details, see our sister site's Phoenix page and Four Guardians of the Compass page (outside links).
YELLOW DRAGON, WHITE DRAGON. A yellow dragon is said to have presented the Chinese with a scroll inscribed with mystic characters, and this tradition is said to be the legendary origin of the Chinese system of writing. In China, yellow dragon robes are reserved for the Emporer and his family. The dragon is THE symbol for the Chinese Emperor, the Son of Heaven. In earlier times, the color of a dragon robe reflected the rank of its wearer. Yellow for the Emperor and Empress, apricot for the Crown Prince, golden yellow for the emperor's other wives. Lower-ranked people probably wore blue. There is also a white dragon, which according to legend can transform into a bird called O-Goncho. When this bird appears, it forewarns of a great famine to come. (This last paragraph was adapted from Kyoto Nat'l Museum research at this URL: kyohaku.go.jp/mus_dict/hd19e.htm.)
LEARN MORE ABOUT THE DRAGON AT THE A-TO-Z
PHOTO DICTIONARY OF JAPANESE BUDDHISM (SISTER SITE)
- Dragon Lore in Japan and China (outsite link)
Learn much more about the dragon, dragon symbolism, and the history of this creature in Japanese and Chinese traditions. Lots of photos.
- Four Guardians of the Compass (outside link)
The dragon is one of the four mythical Chinese creatures protecting the four directions. The dragon is protector of the Eastern quarter.
- Hachi Bushu (Hachibushuu), Eight Legions Guarding Buddhism (outside link)
The Naga are a group of serpent-like creatures, including snakes and dragons. They are members of the Hachi Bushu (Eight Legions), a group of beings who serve as Protectors of Buddhism.