For centuries, the dragon has been a symbol of power and mystery. Depicted in countless legends, both Eastern and Western, the dragon has provoked man to fear and worship it. In medieval Europe, it was a bloodthirsty, fire-breathing figure. Its malevolence and ferociousness struck terror in all.
However, in Asia, it is the contrary. The mighty dragon is a mythical beast long celebrated for its benevolence, intelligence and good will. The dragon has been a common symbol of identity for East Asian cultures. In fact, Chinese people all over the world are affectionately known as lung de chuan ren, or the "descendants of the dragon." Known in Chinese as lung, the Asian dragon was believed to have originated in China.
There are several distinct species of Chinese dragons:
The Horned Dragon is considered to be the mightiest.
The Celestial Dragon supports the heavens and protects the Gods.
The Earth Dragon rules all of the earth.
The Spiritual Dragon controls the wind and rain.
The Treasure Dragon is the keeper of precious metals and gems.
The Winged Dragon is the only dragon with wings.
The Coiling Dragon dwells in the ocean.
The Yellow Dragon is a hornless dragon known for its scholarly knowledge.
Chinese dragons are also physically concise -- 117 scales, of which 36 are imbued with Yin energy and 81 with Yang energy. They are also equipped with exactly 5 claws in each hand and each foot. Since the reign of Emperor Kao Tsu during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.), a dragon depicted with five claws is considered the emblem of imperial power in China. According to Chinese legend, the farther a dragon travels away from China, the more claws it loses. This explains why dragons from other Asian countries have less than five claws.
A little to the north, the Koreans have lived for centuries with their own distinct set of beliefs. But they are also bound by a common Asian symbol. In Korea, dragons are called yong, and there are three main types:
Yong is the most powerful and protects the sky.
Yo is hornless and lives in the ocean.
Kyo dwells in the mountains on Earth.
The Korean dragon has the head of a camel, the horns of a deer, the eyes of a rabbit, the ears of an ox, the neck of a snake, the belly of a frog, the scales of a carp, the claws of a hawk, and the feet of a tiger.
Like the Chinese, Koreans also believe the original Asian dragon originated in their homeland, where it was born with 81 scales lining its back and four claws in each hand and each foot. According to legend, a yong traveling to the West or South would grow an extra claw -- thus, Chinese dragons have five claws. As it travels to the East or North it loses a claw, thus dragons from Japan would have three claws.
Dragons in Japan are similar to their Chinese counterparts. Known as tatsu or ryu, Japanese dragons are also national symbols and the insignia of the royal family. According to Japanese lore, a single female dragon spawned nine young dragons -- and like the Chinese, each of the nine became distinctive sub-types, reigning in heaven, the seas, and all points of the Earth. However, Japanese dragons are more serpent-like and have the ability to alter its size at will, or become invisible.
Tatsus are also identifiable by their three claws. Chinese beliefs maintain that since the dragon has traveled so far away from China, they have lost all but three claws in Japan. But in Japan, the original Asian dragon is native to their country, where it was born with only three claws. According to the Japanese, dragons traveling away from Japan would grow extra claws.
Regardless of the region of origin, Asian dragons are usually depicted in the colors blue, black, white, red, or the ever-popular yellow. Often, they are shown bearing a pearl in their mouth, under their chin, or in their claws. This pearl symbolizes the power that enables the dragon to ascend to heaven. A beloved figure, dragons are not only a symbol of identity, but also the essence of Asia.