恭喜发财 - Gong hei fat choy - Cantonese/ Gōng xǐ fā cái - Mandarin
Wishing you happiness and prosperity - Chinese New Year, Chinatown, Feb 11th 2024
On a fresh February morning, I was immersed in a sea of people as the Chinese New Year Parade whirled and swirled through London streets, carrying good cheer and good fortune on the tails of dancing dragons. A Fire Dragon, I came home inspired to delve deeper into the rich traditions surrounding the Year of the Dragon.
The Roots of the Word Dragon
The Proto-Indo-European - derk - to see - is the coiling root of words:
दृश् dr̥ś - Sanskrit - to see, darsata - visible / འབྲུག་ - Tibetan - druk / Gothic gatarhjan characterize / Old English torht, Old High German zoraht - light, clear / Albanian dritë - light/ Old Irish adcondarc - I have seen / Greek derkesthai - to see clearly / Greek drakon - serpent, giant seafish/ Latin draconem - huge serpent / Old French - dragon
龍 / 龙- lóng - is the Chinese character for Dragon. 恐龍 / 恐龙 kǒnglóng - terror dragons are Dinosaurs and
寐Mei- sleeping lóng - are duck-shaped dinosaurs first found sleeping in China.
In the West, dragons came to be viewed as creatures to be slain by warriors such as St George, as part of the patriarchal subjugation of nature. In the East, the Dragon is a deeply auspicious creature, scales glinting with good fortune and wisdom, invoked in ancient ceremonies to preserve the balance between humans and nature.
བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས - Tashi Delek - Happy Losar - Auspiciousness come to you
The Dragon Seers
For Tibetans, Dragons are auspicious seers who can see through deception, confusion and manipulation. Kind-hearted, powerful and unseen, they awaken humans to compassion and truth through thunderbolts of wisdom.
Bhutan / Druk or Drukyül འབྲུག་ཡུལ་ - Land of the Thunder Dragon, was named by Tsangpa Gyaré (1161-1211) an ancestor of Bhutan’s founder Zhapdrung Ngakwang Namgyel (1594-1651) Arriving in Nam in the Kyichu valley in 1206, he beheld a vision of nine dragons, who disappeared with a thunderclap and a downpour of flowers. This inspired the naming of both the region and the Drukpa Buddhist lineage.
In the Thunder Dragon Kingdom adorned with sandalwood,
The protector who guards the teachings of the dual system,
He, the precious and glorious ruler, causes dominion to spread,
While his unchanging person abides in consistency,
As the doctrine of the Lord Buddha flourishes,
May the sun and peace of happiness shine on the people. - Bhutan National Anthem
Himalayan neighbours India, Bhutan and Tibet share spiritual practices. The Sanskrit नाग Nāga are serpent deities, often depicted as humans with a crown of multiple cobra hoods in both Hindu and Buddhist imagery. In Buddhism, they are associated with water and cleanliness, protecting their ocean, river and lake homes from pollution. The Naga Mucalinda famously sheltered the newly enlightened meditating Buddha under his hood, protecting him from a storm.
Losar/ Dangpa Losar - Tibetan/ Bhutanese New Year is a powerful celebration rooted in pre-Buddhist Bon customs. Homes are swept and decorated and two days of powerful masked Lama Dances are held ahead of the New Year. On the first day, Lama-Losar, family members pay their respects and receive blessings from the lamas at the monastery. Public celebrations take place on the second day, Gyalpo-Losar and guardian deities are honoured on the third, Chokyong-Losar. Chanting and the sounding of the long Tibetan dungchen trumpet form part of ceremonies. Beautiful sand mandalas are created, then swept away as a symbol of impermanence. Prayer flags dance in the air alongside coils of incense smoke. Food is prepared and offered to family and friends including Tibetan guthuk dumplings and ema datshi a spicy warming Bhutanese dish. Tibetan New Year practices are restricted under Chinese rule, but continue to be celebrated by the diaspora including the exiled Tibetan community in Dharamsala.
We all talk about peace, expressing hope for peace in the world. But peace has to be developed in our minds; it’s not just about the absence of weapons. And the Tibetan custom of cultivating a warm heart is the best means for developing peace of mind. Please keep it up. That’s all. Tashi Delek to you!
- His Holiness the Dalai Lama - Message to Tibetans, Losar 2024
The Chinese Dragon
The Dragon tail is coiled in the roots of Chinese ancestry and identity. Legend tells that the Chinese are descended from emperor-warrior sons of dragons, such as warrior 炎帝 Yándì who partnered with Yellow Emperor Huangdi to unify China. Integrating the nine tribes of the Yellow River, Huangdi’s dragon totem had nine features - a shrimp’s eyes, a deer’s antlers, a bull’s mouth, a dog’s nose, a catfish’s whiskers, a lion's mane, a snake’s long tail, a fish’s scales, and a hawk’s claws. The dragon was also believed to have nine sons, found in Imperial decorations and sculptures.
Dragon Dance, Chinese New Year Parade, London 2024
Shennong, ‘Divine Farmer’ of Vietnamese and Chinese folklore, who gifted humanity the gifts of agriculture and medicine, was also considered the son of a dragon. In ancient agricultural practices, dragons were invoked to bestow good weather. Chinese dragons breathe wind, not fire and the word for tornado - 龙卷风 lóng juǎn fēng - means wind-swirling dragon. Celestial/ male/ cloud/ sky dragons were believed to fly to the heavens and bring rain, while female dragons of the earth/ underworld guided the flow of earthly waters - rivers, lakes, seas, and wells.
Five Regional Dragon Kings were linked with the Five Elements, Colours and Directions - White Dragon, was associated with the Autumn/ West/ Purity, Azure/ Green Dragon with Spring/East/ New Growth, Red Dragon with South/Summer/ Good Fortune, Yellow Dragon of late Summer/ Centre/ Wisdom/ Wealth and the Black Dragon of the North/ Winter/ Mystery.
Japanese legends also tell of Zennyo Ryūō - 善如龍王 / 善女龍王 dragons invoked for help with rainfall. In a legendary rainmaking contest between Kūkai and Shubin on the order of Emperor Junna (r. 823–833), Kūkai was successful in summoning the Zennyo and bringing on a thunderstorm. A famed shapeshifting Zennyo dragon appeared to the priest Keien (1143–1223 CE) as a beautiful woman.
Other Dragons include he Coiling Dragon, found in Oceans, able to control time, the 500-year-old Horned Dragon able to unleash floods, the Treasure Dragon, guardian of hidden treasure - found in Western mythology and Shrek!? and the Dragon King who oversees them all.
The Yellow Dragon was adopted as the Imperial Dragon and for many centuries, only the Emperor’s clothes, belongings and temples could bear the image of dragons. Dragons became associated with the yang/masculine principle, power and authority. After the rule of the final Emperor in 1911, everyday folk could reclaim the dragon.
Dragon Dance, Chinese New Year Celebrations 2024, Shaftesbury Avenue, London
The Dragon Dance is thought to have emerged from agricultural ancestral rituals during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) A fundamental part of New Year ceremonies, it is believed to drive away misfortune and bring good luck. During the dance, the dragon follows a ball symbolising the Pearl of Wisdom, creating movements such as ‘loud cave', 'whirlpool', 'tai chi pattern', 'threading the money', 'looking for the pearl', and 'dragon encircling the pillar.’ The dragon’s body, which can be anything from 2 -1000 metres long, is formed of decorated cloth woven around bamboo canes, forming auspiciously odd-numbered joints.
The Lion Dance - features in New Year Festivals across South East Asia, as a bringer of good fortune, strength, power, wisdom and happiness. Detailed descriptions from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) suggest that the dance, performed by two athletic dancers, had travelled from other countries. Guarding temple gates, Lions protect the Buddha and his Lion’s roar of wisdom. The long shaggy lions of the North and the one-horned Southern lions have many local variations. The loud music and bright colours of the Southern Lion Dance were believed to drive away the terrifying mythical creature Nian, meaning new, which emerged at New Year.
Lion Dance - Chinese New Year Parade London 2024
The Dragon Boat Festival is held on the 5th day of the 5th month, (around May/ June in Western calendars) to drive away evil spirits. It celebrates the life of poet, Qu Yuan, (c. 340–278 BC) who drowned himself as an act of political protest. Local people attempted to save him in their dragon boats but were unable to find him. They threw Zongzi - sticky rice dumplings into the river to protect his body fish and evil spirits, still eaten today as part of the festivities.
The Chinese Zodiac Dragon is the fifth sign, part of the 12-animal cycle. People born in the years 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012, or 2024 are Dragons, considered to be willful, talented charismatic, creative, lucky and strong leaders. The idiom 望子成龙 - wàng zǐ chéng lóng - means hoping for the child to become a dragon, whilst the famous film title, 卧虎藏龙 - wò hǔ cáng lóng - Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon - refers to talented individuals concealing their talents.
Chinese Lanterns, Leicester Square London Feb 11th 2024
So the Dragon has much to teach us in this New Year - to look and see beyond illusion, live in tune with nature, exercise good leadership and share our talents generously with the world with a pure heart.
Wishing You an Auspicious New Lunar Year of the Dragon!
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