Tooth, Claw, Fire, Rain

A beginner’s guide to dragons


Detail of a Chinese emperor’s winter robe from the Yongzheng period (1723–1735). Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

By Tim Gihring

The Year of the Dragon, in the Chinese zodiac, began on February 10 — the same day that “Year of the Dragon: Mystical Creatures of the Sky” opened at the Minneapolis Institute of Art. In sculpture, paintings, robes, and other objects, the exhibition traces the evolution of Chinese dragons over thousands of years, from a kind of folkloric rain god to the ultimate symbol of imperial power to the friendly cultural mascot of today. It’s an eye-opener for anyone who assumed dragons were dragons, whether drawn in the margins of old English maps or paraded through the streets on Lunar New Year. In fact about the only thing Chinese and European dragons have in common is that they don’t actually exist. Here’s how to tell them apart.

A dragon figurine from a 14th-century set of Chinese zodiac creatures, featured in the “Year of the Dragon” exhibition at the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Chinese dragons live in the sky; European dragons live in the ground. At the entrance to Mia’s exhibition, a video installation shows dragons silently soaring among clouds. Created by Yang Yongliang, whose illusionary mountain landscapes featured in Mia’s 2018 “Power and Beauty” show, the looping imagery feels crisp and contemporary, as though the monitors were displaying a live feed from a dragon cam somewhere in Yunnan Province. But the depiction of dragons — serpentine and undulating, moving through the sky as eels through water — dates back to the earliest representations in China. Indeed, one possible origin of the Chinese dragon is that people looked up at stormy skies and imagined dragons among the slender streaks of lightning and booms of thunder. Thought to control the weather, the beasts were prevailed upon for thousands of years to provide more — and sometimes less — rain.

European dragons, on the other hand, are generally cave-dwellers, lurking in the dark, consulted only when necessary and usually at the end of a very long lance. Perhaps this began with the Bible, where the dragon-like beast in Revelation — interpreted as Satan — battles with angels before being chained and left in a bottomless pit. In the medieval period, English villagers sometimes lit fires near significant openings in the earth to prevent any dragons from emerging.

Ironically, Chinese dragons generally have no wings; European dragons usually do. There are some exceptions, like Mia’s rather unique “winged dragon,” which starred in the recent “Eternal Offerings” show and features again in “Year of the Dragon,” as well as the wingless dragon killed by St. George in this 15th-century engraving. But most Chinese dragons barely have legs, let alone wings, and most European dragons look more like the hapless beast in Albrecht Dürer’s early 16th-century take on the St. George legend.

An engraving of St. George and the Dragon by Albrecht Dürer, from around 1501–1504. Collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art.

Chinese dragons breathe clouds; European dragons breathe fire. That Chinese dragons exhale water vapor suits their role as sky-dwelling masters of meteorology. Similarly, European dragons would seem to come by their fire-breathing honestly, as avatars of a sulphurous hell somewhere down below. This trait, too, may be biblically inspired, as the snake-like sea monster Leviathan of the Old Testament is said to boil the ocean with its breath. Perhaps the first truly draconian fire-breathing beast in literature is slain by the hero of Beowulf, the Norse saga thought to have been written in England sometime between the 8th and 11th century. That dragon, like many that would follow, is guarding a vast treasure — another European trope with no Chinese counterpart.

Chinese dragons are benevolent; European dragons are evil. This is, in many ways, the most definitive contrast, unless you count the taco-eating variety of recent children’s lore. Even the dragons in the Harry Potter series are strictly unhelpful, while Chinese dragons have always been receptive to prayers for more rain, or less rain, and other big asks. Not coincidently, the notion of Chinese dragons as powerful but benevolent matched most Chinese emperors’ perception of themselves, an association that goes back to the very first emperor. Qin Shi Huang, of the terracotta warriors, was said to have united China with the help of dragons. Similar propaganda helped the reputation of Liu Bang, whose humble beginnings were embellished with a story of his mother conceiving him one stormy night with a dragon. The people of China, especially its rulers, have used the epithet “descendants of dragons” ever since.

This cultural dichotomy, like many others, may largely reflect two different views of nature: to be conquered, on the one hand; to be honored, on the other. Though one thing both dragons have in common is that they have starred, in spirit or in form, in some of the most popular books and films of all time. The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings feature a handful of dragons, all of them awful. “My armor is like tenfold shields, my teeth are swords, my claws spears, the shock of my tail a thunderbolt, my wings a hurricane, and my breath death,” the dragon Smaug announces to Bilbo Baggins. J.R.R. Tolkien once shared that he’d been fascinated with dragons since childhood, though “of course, I in my timid body did not wish to have them in the neighborhood.” In Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, still the highest-grossing non-English-language movie of all time, the titular dragon is metaphorical but no less powerful. To be a “hidden dragon,” as the Chinese saying goes, is to be underestimated — a deliberate strategy, sometimes, to not give away your strengths. As with all dragons, a little mystery goes a long way.



Minneapolis Institute of Art
Minneapolis Institute of Art

From Monet to Matisse, Asian to African, ancient to contemporary, Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) is a world-renowned art museum that welcomes everyone.