Nowadays, not only Chinese people, but also foreigners who know about the culture of China, all of them know the Chinese dragon and regard it as the symbol of China. There are big differences between the dragons in ancient Chinese myths and the dragons in ancient European myths. Chinese dragons don’t have two wings as European dragons, and generally they can throw water, but they can’t throw fire as European dragons. So in many myths, the Chinese dragon can bring rain and flood. The European dragon was always the symbol of evil, but the Chinese dragon was the symbol of the best dream. In China, there is a idiom "expecting the son to be a dragon". It means that parents want their son to be an excellent talent, but not to be a evil monster.
In fact, there is not such a kind of animal "dragon" in the world, in the past and in the modern days. What is the image of the Chinese dragon from?
The image of the Chinese dragon was from the totem of the snake in the remote ancient times. If we pay attention to the stone sculptures of the Han Dynasty, we can see that Fuxi and Nvwa had a human head and a snake body. Fuxi (伏羲) and Nvwa (女娲) were the two important gods who made the people in myths. Why did they have a snake body? Because in the remote ancient times, the Chinese people thought that the snake was a divine animal, and regarded it as a totem. As we know, the Westerners thought the snake was an evil animal, because a snake enticed Adam and Eve to eat the apple. However, our ancestors let their gods have the figure of a snake, so we can understand how our ancestors worshiped the snake.
Why did the totem of the snake change to the image of the dragon? Maybe the reason was related to a kind of animal named "Milu" (麋鹿, Pere David's Deer). In the Pre-Qin Era (the times before 221 B.C.), Milu was a kind of wild animal which could be seen often. The image of Kylin (麒麟), a kind of favorable animal in myths, was from the figure of Milu. The Chinese dragon has two antlers and four legs, so the image of the Chinese dragon seems to be the combination of the figures of the snake and the Milu.
In the Pre-Qin Era, the image of the Chinese dragon was only decorative. Some reptiles were called “dragons”. According to the records of the Zuo’s Explanation (左传), in the nineteenth year of Lu Zhao-Gong (鲁昭公) (523 B.C.), there was a flood in the Zheng (郑) State. Two “dragons” fought in a deep pool outside the capital of Zheng State. Some people asked the prime minister Zichan (子产) for performing a consecration to the “dragons”. Zichan refused, and said, “When we fought, dragons had never visited us with respect. Now dragons fight, why must we visit them with respect? You want to offer a sacrifice to exorcise evils, but the deep pool is their home. We never demand dragons, and dragons never demand us, too.” So those people abandoned their ideas. In this story, the “dragons” seemed to be crocodilians. In the Western Jin (西晋) Dynasty (A.D. 265-316), a young man named Zhou Chu (周处) killed a ferocious animal which was called “Jiao” (蛟). The other name of “Jiao” was “Jiaolong” (蛟龙), and it was also a kind of dragon. The “Jiao” which was killed by Zhou Chu must be a crocodilian.
The Chinese dragon had been the symbol of imperial power since the Qin and Han Dynasties. Only emperors could call themselves “dragon” and dressed themselves in clothing which had the image of dragons. If another person wore a garment which had the image of dragons, he would be regarded as a rebel. He and his family would be killed. So the Chinese dragon was also a symbol of autocratic imperial power.
Why do nowadays Chinese love the Chinese dragon so much? The reason is that the Chinese dragon was the symbol of the supreme power and riches. A dragon speeds across the sky, how grand it is! How many people dream to be a “dragon”! However, I am willing to recall the words of Zichan, “We never demand dragons, and dragons never demand us, too.” If the great thoughts of our ancestors can be revived, the Chinese dragon should return its home, deep pools, and live placidly.