The dragon has got to be the most mysterious animal of the Chinese zodiac. No one has ever seen a real dragon and yet they continue to occupy a meaningful place in mythology from all over the world. Since the dragon is most likely an imaginary creature, there are no ‘facts’ as such and each culture has invented and reinvented the myths according to their morals and values. For instance, the Chinese dragon is vastly different to the Western dragon. Which story is true or false? Hard to say. After all, we are talking about our imagination. I find it more fruitful to study the values that we have assigned to the myths through the storytelling traditions that have come down to us via our ancestors.

In Chinese culture, the dragon is an auspicious animal. It was an emblem of the emperor’s imperial power over the land and represented the bridge between heaven and earth. The ancient Chinese saw the dragon as a rainmaker. The mythical dragon was blessed with the ability to change naturally occurring geological formations and possessed the power to travel seamlessly between the our world and the cosmos. Unlike the other animals of the zodiac–which have to contend with the physical laws of planet earth–the dragon alone was endowed with the good fortune to allow it to penetrate through matter and overcome all obstructions, obstacles and restrictions.

I have always viewed this description as a metaphor for human consciousness. On the path to realising our potential, we encounter many challenges–both internal and external. I suppose that the dragon represents the part of us that is transcendental. As long as we are alive, challenge is inevitable. The dragon is thus a metaphor for limitless human potential.

Dragon motifs at Yueh Hai Ching Temple, Singapore


The dragon is the fifth animal of the Chinese Zodiac. The time period which is ascribed to this legendary creature is the third month of the Chinese calendar; which refers to a time when nature is at its most transformative and vibrant. It is when yang masculine energy is accelerating and dramatic transformations are occurring within the seasonal cycles of Nature.

The first day of the dragon month is Qingming (All Souls Day), a festival where we Chinese connect with the spirits of our ancestors. We visit their graveyards to clear the weeds and clean their tombs; after which we decorate the tombs with colourful paper, burn incense, and pray to the heavenly and earthly realms for peace, health and–of course–good luck. In Singapore, both the Teochew and Hokkien communities practise the custom of placing ya zhi 压纸 coloured paper on the grave to indicate to others that the descendants have visited and paid their respects.

Qingming, which literally means pure brightness, is a time when we Chinese purify our old energy by remembering our roots and connecting to nature so that we may create our future from a position of clarity. In these fast times, a lot of times people move from one place or period to another without taking the time to properly transition and purify that which is no longer necessary.

The wise dragon reminds us that we first need to purify our body, mind and spirit; before any true and lasting transformation can occur in our lives. Hopping from one thing to the next is like jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire. The wise dragon cautions us not to do that, but instead to take some time to slow down before we charge ahead.

“Five coloured papers” placed on a grave in Bukit Brown Cemetery, Singapore. Image credit: Jack Lee

The Lucky Dragon?

There is widespread belief among the Chinese that individuals born in the Year of the Dragon are destined for good fortune and greatness. Some people choose to dismiss this as superstition, but if this belief has a real world tangible impact, then it becomes a factual reality that we have to contend with. Studies show that countries with large Chinese populations have seen fertility rates increase every time the Year of the Dragon comes along.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in the late 1980s found that dragon kids scored higher on the high school entrance exam in comparison to their peers. In another study that was conducted in 2010 and 2013, dragons were 11 percentage points more likely to have earned a bachelor’s degree when compared to individuals born in non-dragon years.

But do the myths themselves indicate that the dragon is destined for greatness by default? I’m afraid the answer is not that simple.

According to Chinese Cosmology, dragon people are powerful individuals born with an active imagination and a marked inclination towards the arts. In what I would describe as a materialistic culture that deeply values tangible real world achievements, I always thought it contradictory that we would give the artistically-inclined dragon that much reverence in our mythology.

The ancient ones even recommended that dragon people choose an artistic job that allows their imagination the room to flourish–like construction, painting, music and perhaps even advertising. Dragon people are seen as unstable individuals who waste a lot of time because they do not bother to conserve and preserve their energy for the long haul. The advise here is to truly commit only after deliberating carefully on a decision, and being clear on whether or not making a commitment is actually feasible.

While the dragon is a powerful creature, it is viewed as one that has difficulties achieving its goals as it gives up easily when it encounters difficulties. Unlike rabbits, which embody a natural team spirit and tigers that are born leaders; dragons are seen as poor listeners who don’t think things through when they embark on a new undertaking. They can sometimes barge through and break boundaries that are in place for good reason, which in turn creates a lot of instability.

Dragon people are viewed as having rocky lives, particularly in their early years. They have a way of trying this and that as they decide on their future. This strategy can only be successful if they are conscientious about their decision-making process. They tend see success later in life when they finally sober down; having fully exhausted what can only be described as an overextended exploratory phase.

In Chinese culture, the dragon and phoenix are often depicted together–representing the polarities that must merge and come together for the universe to remain in balance.

Myth and Modernity

So why does the mythology differ so greatly to modern reality? One argument is that the effect might simply be psychological. After all, if people keep telling you that you’re special and lucky, you will most likely have higher levels of self-esteem that would give a much-needed boost in the classroom as well as when you go on to pursue professional ambitions.

The symbol that comes to mind when we speak of dragon energy is that of an overflowing reservoir that needs to be drained; or the dam that is holding it all together will quite simply break. It represents pure power that has to be controlled if the individual is to take charge of his or her own destiny. With great strength comes great responsibility and if the dragon squanders it away on meaningless pursuits that have little bearing on the future, the dragon person has essentially wasted the power that he or she was born with.

It takes mental discipline to not miss out on the golden opportunities and to distinguish the real gold from that the glittering imitation that only resembles it. My observations have led me to believe that dragon people are often unable to tell the difference between a good opportunity and a lousy one. They can take unnecessary risks which turn out to be a gamble, instead of a true investment.

By understanding the past–the journey of our ancestors, as well as honouring Nature, we will be in a better position to ascertain and understand who we were, who we are and where in this crazy world we might be headed. As the future is a mystery, we obviously cannot know what will come of the opportunities we decide to take or go after. But if the dragon person is committed and unwavering in its pursuit of the higher path, success will eventually and inevitably follow. Dragon people need to understand that they have an escapist tendency and without purpose and perseverance, they can be very destructive. The challenge for the dragon person is to stick it out and not run away when faced with troublesome or meddlesome situations.

As the only mythical animal of the Chinese zodiac, the transcendental nature of the dragon has allowed us to create and actualise a modern-day rendering of the Chinese zodiac that couldn’t be more different to the original myth.

2 thoughts on “The Daring Dragon of the Chinese Zodiac

  1. I have long been fascinated by dragons. You are right–it is not what the dragon is, but perhaps what it represents in our imagination that is far more significant.

Leave a Comment