Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    The Long Debate Over China’s Most Potent Symbol

    The loong — or Chinese dragon — has symbolized good fortune and imperial authority. But where did the legend come from?
    Feb 15, 2024#history

    The Year of the Dragon is finally here. Of the 12 years in the Chinese zodiac, that of the dragon — better referred to as the loong to distinguish it from its counterparts in other cultures — may be the most anticipated. Its association with good fortune often results in a mini-baby boom, as Chinese parents time the birth of their children to give them a lucky start in life.

    Curiously, the loong is also the only one of the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac that doesn’t exist. This oddity has long perplexed Chinese scholars: What exactly was the inspiration for the loong?

    One theory is that it evolved from snakes. In 1946, the poet and scholar Wen Yiduo speculated that the loong began as a kind of snake used as a totem by an ancient tribe. After defeating other tribes in battle, the tribe would incorporate their animal totems into its own, creating a creature with “the four legs of a beast, the head and mane of a horse, the horns of a deer, the claws of a dog, and the scales and whiskers of a fish.”

    That would explain the loong we see today, and Wen’s theory has received some support from the archaeological record, in particular the Taosi site in what is now the northern province of Shanxi. Dating back roughly 4,000 years, the site features walls, an astronomical observatory, and a cemetery. Archaeologists have unearthed highly distinctive pottery plates, which they named “loong plates,” in several of the larger graves. These are a reddish-brown, with a black glaze and an image resembling a loong painted in either red or red and white.

    These so-called loong have prominent foreheads or no foreheads at all, a relatively long snout, a protruding tongue that resembles a tree, and a striped pattern. Their lack of feet, coiled bodies, and tongues do bear a striking resemblance to snakes, and the idea that loong are based on snakes is widely accepted among the general public. However, a number of prominent historians and archaeologists prefer an alternative source: alligators.

    In 1957, Yang Zhongjian, a leading Chinese paleontologist, devoted a chapter of his book on evolution to the loong. Yang noted that the Chinese character “loong” as written on ancient oracle bone inscriptions — the oldest extant form of the Chinese script — featured a large mouth, body markings, and a winding shape, all of which are consistent with alligators.

    However, Yang could not explain the horns included in the character, and he also noted that it did not have limbs, which could point toward a snake origin.

    Nearly 30 years later, Yang’s confusion about the loong character’s horns was solved by a biologist. Chen Bihui, a well-known Chinese academic specializing in the study of alligators, pointed out that older alligators often have prominent bony plates above their eyelids. When these animals float in the water, only the upper part of their heads and the end of their snouts are visible, causing these plates to look especially prominent. It’s not inconceivable that they could be mistaken for horns.

    More recent research also points to alligators as the origin of the loong myth. Zhu Naicheng, a researcher at the Institute of Archaeology at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, believes that 6,500-year-old clamshell mosaics found at the Xishuipo site in what is today the central province of Henan are the earliest extant representations of a loong in China.

    The mosaics feature a head, bent neck, undulating body, and long tail; the creatures seem to stand on their back claws, with their front claws raised as if preparing to take flight. Zhu argues that the images were based on an alligator, citing the Yangtze alligator as an example of a fierce and intimidating creature whose vocalizations and habit of floating with only its head above the water might have inspired a sense of awe in the mosaics’ creator.

    Another supporter of the alligator hypothesis, Huang Huaqiang, an editor at the Forestry Publishing House and amateur researcher, has amassed a large collection of alligator photos and videos that bear a resemblance to the clamshell loong mosaics.

    Findings in the field of zooarchaeology give additional credence to this theory, showing that people in ancient China interacted with alligators across a wide geographical range beginning more than 8,000 years ago. In recent years, alligator remains have been found at more than 20 sites across China, from Shaanxi in the northwest to Guangdong in the south. The bones of Yangtze alligators unearthed at archaeological sites are often broken, suggesting that people consumed their meat. In some areas, including Taosi, their hides were used to fashion drums.

    In addition to the snake and alligator hypotheses, there is another theory on the origins of the loong: a snake-alligator hybrid. Li Ling, a professor of Chinese literature at Peking University, claims that the image of the loong was created by combining the features of various reptiles such as alligators, lizards, and snakes. Li believes that early loong got their body and patterning from the snake, and their head, horns, scales, and claws from the alligator.

    Of course, this debate is largely academic. Whether the answer is snakes or alligators, neither are what we think of today as loong. The inspiration for the creature was likely based on a variety of reptiles, but over time its image changed as artists endowed it with new features and mysterious, supernatural abilities. The loong thus became a hybrid totem, a testament to the Chinese people’s ability to create meaning from the humblest of origins.

    Translator: David Ball; editor: Wu Haiyun, portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

    (Header image: A Qing dynasty cloth with dragon embroidery. USC Pacific Asia Museum/VCG)