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New year's Chinese zodiac features storied history

The China Post--As the Chinese New Year holiday comes to an end and as readers have learned pretty much every aspect of the Year of the Dragon hype, perhaps it is a good time to understand the meaning and the evolution of the Chinese character for “dragon.”

The mythical creature with a crocodile-like head, serpentine body and four limbs each with five claws has long represented not merely the king of animals but the ruler of all worldly matters in Chinese culture. The dragon is used as the representation of Chinese emperors, who alone were allowed to wear clothes or use articles with five-clawed dragons. Even now, the belief of the special power of dragons can still generate real-life consequences, as exemplified by the government's expectation of higher marriage numbers and birth rates this lunar year as people may prefer to have “dragon sons and daughters.”

While the Chinese dragon is more serpentine in features compared to the European mythical reptilian creature, the English word “dragon” actually came from the Greek word “drakon” meaning a giant, serpent-like seafish, which might be derived in turn from the Proto-Indo-European word “derk” (“to see,” with a possible meaning of “one with the deadly glance.”)

Since its very beginning, the character “dragon” has been closely linked to the Chinese concept of power. According to the “32 Basic Chinese Characters and Relevant Questions” (三十二個基本漢字及其相關問題) by the Liangzhu Culture Museum (良渚文化博物館), the oracle bone script (甲骨文, dated around the 14th century to 11th century B.C.) for “dragon” is a both an ideogrammic compound and a pictograph. The script is composed of the character xin (辛, now meaning hot in taste, toilsome or suffering), a pictograph of a thorn used as a tool for punishment and was therefore used to imply authority. The rest of the “dragon” oracle bone script is shaped like a serpent to reflect the shape of the imagined creature. Taken together, the script refers to a snake-like creature of authority.

Archaeologist Zhou Chong-Fa, on the other hand, suggested that the word for dragon is an onomatopoeia of the sound of thunder, as the coiling shape of a snake resembles that of a thunderbolt and that poisonous snakes are as deadly as thunders. Nowadays the “dragon” is pronounced “long” in Mandarin, the same as the character (隆) used to describe thundering sound.

There were dozens of variations of the script for “dragon” but they mainly kept the same structure. The Chinese bronze inscription (金文) of word shared the overall shape and ideogrammic characteristics as the bone script version.

In its seal script (篆書) variation popular in the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 B.C.), the character “dragon” came to resemble its modern traditional Chinese version. On the left side, it keeps the part for xin (辛) and adds a new part referring to body (肉, or its Chinese character component form 月) to, in combination, refer to a body (entity) of authority. The coiling component on the right, again, depicts the shape of the dragon, with three parallel stokes representing scales and claws.

In the regular script (楷書) traditional Chinese, the modern Chinese variation for nations that use traditional Chinese, the xin part in the word “dragon”(龍) is reduced to 立, sharing the same root with the character di (帝, emperor) while retaining all other characteristics from its seal script counterpart.

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Clockwise from top left are the oracle bone script (甲骨文) of the Chinese character for “dragon,”(龍) showing the evolution of the word.

(The China Post graphic)

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