The dragon could fire up China's property market
The Chinese Year of the Dragon starts on Monday. The mythical creature known as a bringer of good fortune can also influence people’s behaviour and even their spending
MY FAVOURITE Chinese dragon stares out fiercely from the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City in Beijing. It’s an 18th-century piece in the northeastern section of the imperial palace compound, and it is easy to see how this screen, with its dragons coiled and writhing, could have stopped evil spirits getting through to disturb Emperor Qianlong as he slept.
The dragon is the only mythical creature among the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac. For the Chinese, who will celebrate the start of the Year of the Dragon with the lunar new year on Monday, they are not the terrifying beasts of western lore but proud, self-assured bringers of good fortune.
Where exactly does China’s fascination with dragons come from? As well as being a sign of the zodiac that comes around every 12 years, the dragon is a national symbol, the sign of the emperor.
Dragons have certainly been around a long time. The study of a Hongshan cultural settlement around 3500 BC, in Inner Mongolia and other northern areas, has revealed beautiful jade dragons, called “pig dragons” because the faces have a swine-like face.
Some archaeologists believe pigs could be the origin of the Chinese dragon – certainly the modern dragons you see in the dragon dances at this time of year have a pig-like snout. But then again they also have elements of the crocodile, or the lizard, or even the stylised dogs of Chinese iconography.
Dragon years are traditionally powerful and auspicious. Necromancers will tell you that 2012 is a good year of the dragon, because there is no fire in the charts, and only a smidgen of metal, which means it will be not a fiery dragon year but a smoothly auspicious one.
Sometimes myth can guide human behaviour in unexpected ways. This could be a buoyant year for the property market, for example, because people want to marry during the year of the dragon, and to get married you have to buy a house. People will have waited through the year of the rabbit in order to buy now.
Chinese people relish the power of the dragon and its potential for upheaval. I remember the activist and artist Ai Weiwei telling me he did not expect any major political change in China in 2011 because it was a rabbit year. “The year of the dragon is always a big year,” he said.
Upheavals have taken place during dragon years. The most deadly earthquake of the last century, the Tangshan quake, which killed hundreds of thousands of people, took place in 1976, a dragon year. And later that year the Great Helmsman, Chairman Mao Zedong, died.
Yuan Li, of the Chinese National Academy of Arts, believes that the strong association with the dragon in China stems from a kind of creation myth. “There is an ancient Chinese tale where a human being comes from one female and one male in snake form, with a snake body and a human upper body and head. Their children were humans like us, but the human snake was thought of as a special creature, and that’s why the Chinese see themselves as descendants of the dragon,” said Yuan.
One of the first traditional images of the Chinese dragon came during the Song Dynasty (960-1279), when the artist Guo Ruoxu depicted the animal in his important book The Record of Illustration and Traditional Chinese Painting. Huang Tao, who is vice-secretary of the China Folklore Network, says the origins appear very diverse. He thinks the myth stems from dinosaurs. “Dinosaurs are huge and dominated the Earth, they are powerful, there are many different kinds with different abilities, and the image of the dragon looks a bit like a dinosaur.”
Dragon heritage was originally passed on by oral culture, so tracing the origin is difficult. One theory is that the discovery of so many dinosaur bones and fossils in the region over centuries had created the dragon mythology. “It might have been an animal that looked like a dragon; it might have been one of the ancients found a dinosaur fossil and used their imagination to draw a picture of a dragon,” says Huang.
The development of the dragon as a symbol for China, and the idea of the Chinese being descendants of the dragon, come from the story of the Chinese coming from the Yellow River. The ancestors had the dragon as a totem, so it became an early symbol of China, and some great figures in Chinese history such as Laozi and Confucius were considered like dragons, but later the symbol was monopolised by the emperor, who claimed only he could be the son of the dragon. It remained like a water god for the Chinese, and peasants would pray to dragons in time of drought to make it rain. People feel the dragon is positive, beautiful, respectful, noble and powerful. It has no real enemy, and no one can control it. When it is angry it can cause floods, but it mainly has a protective image.
Huang says, “I’m not really hung up on the belief that people who are born in a different year have different animal characteristics. But I am born in a dragon year, and so I need to be careful this year.”