That’s not a dragon — it’s a loong!

“benevolent mythological creatures… slim, inoffensive… the symbol of Chinese culture.” Really?


(Click the dragon to show/hide our local dragon photo collection.)

I’ve been asking about the origins of the dragon motif in Chinese culture for a while now, but haven’t researched it yet. Just this week I was talking with Houston about how – to us – the traditional Chinese dragon art (seen everywhere, but especially in the temples and the National Palace Museum) gives the impression that they’re on a crazed rampage, eyes bulging, claws extended, teeth bared, ready to shred and devour everything within reach, smoke and flames curling out of their mouths and noses. I assumed it was intentional.

But CNN reports that Shanghai professor Wu Youfu is in the middle of a cultural debate involving dragons, or, I should say, “loongs,” because of this common perception among Westerners.

Fire-breathing monster or supernatural symbol of harmony? When it comes to the dragon, East and West don’t see eye-to-eye.

Chinese culture mavens alarmed by the prevailing Western image of the dragon as a terrifying, fire-breathing monster are urging that their country seek a less intimidating national symbol, provoking a debate over the whole issue…

The latest brouhaha arose after a newspaper, the Shanghai Morning Post, cited a local professor, Wu Youfu, as saying that the dragon’s image in the West was too negative.

imloong.gifWu wants to replace the word “dragon” in English with “loong” when referring to a Chinese lóng (龍 / 龙). Dragons are mean, destructive, winged, fire breathing, dark, and evil. Lóngs aren’t any of those things. He spells it “loong” instead of “long” so as not to confuse English speakers who’d be thinking measurement, “How long? Yeah, dragons are real long, esp. the Chinese ones!”

imbrucelee.jpgI didn’t believe it at first. I thought, surely this is just a P.R. move. Aren’t dragons supposed to be scary? Isn’t that the point? But Mingdaw, our reasearch practicum supervisor, says no. He doesn’t have any scary, fire-breathing, violent associations with lóngs. They’re powerful, but they’re not the kind of thing little kids would have nightmares about. I asked my class today if lóngs were the same as “American dragons.” They said no. Lóngs are good. And they’re long and skinny, wingless, and don’t have fire. Only one student said lóngs were bad, but he couldn’t explain why.

guanyindragonsmall.jpgI asked what a bad monster was and they immediately replied 年兽 (nián shòu – year monster), the monster behind many of the traditions at Chinese New Years. It has the head of lion, the body of an ox, lives in the sea, and comes out at CNY to devour people. It doesn’t like red or loud noise, hence the fire crackers, and it’s not a dragon (picture).

In this famous “U.S. airforce photo” (right), which is still displayed in homes and temples, Guanyin, the Chinese bodhisattva/goddess of mercy, has a nice lóng ride.

And what about dragon alternatives?

One scholar, Huang Shouyu, proposed the “pig” as a possible substitute, given the animal’s reputation in China for being clever, wise and brave…

“Well, the word panda has a nice ring to it, but you’d better watch out or Westerners will confuse it with Prada,” a contributor to the Sina.com bulletin board wrote.