Fiery symbol of Chinese culture comes into its own in `year of the dragon'

In the ancient east flies a dragon, whose name is China,

in the ancient east live a host of people,

they are all descendants of the dragon.

Under the dragon's wings we are growing,

growing as offspring of the dragon.

With black eyes, black hair, and yellow skin,

we remain the dragon's descendants forever.

- Hou Dejian, ``The Dragon's Descendants''

To many of his 1 billion offspring, the dragon is alive and well and darting among the clouds.

The Chinese lunar calendar marks 1988 as the year of the dragon, and dwellers in the land of ancestor worship plan to honor their saurian sire with dances, festivals, and sporting contests. (The dragon is one of a dozen animals representing the 12-year cycle of the Chinese calendar.) According to this traditional calendar the new year does not begin until Feb. 17, but government-sponsored celebrations have started this month.

As with many events in the world's oldest continuous civilization, Chinese look far into the past when paying homage to their mythical forefather, upholding a 7,000-year-old tradition.

Archaeologists in Henan Province last year found China's earliest known dragon image, a design of shells laid next to an entombed body believed to be 7,000 years old.

A photograph of this ancient image is one of 290 pictures and artifacts honoring the dragon in jade, bronze, gold, bamboo, and silk in an exhibit entitled ``The Art of the Dragon'' at the Imperial Palace Museum in Peking. The display of scrolls, pottery, swords, and robes reviews depictions of the dragon from the new Stone Age to the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).

Dragon images curl their tails and bare their teeth throughout the palace. Below balustrades surrounding the three great halls of the Forbidden City, 1,142 marble waterspouts jut into courtyards, just some of the serpentine figures on the palace's buildings and railings, according to Xu Weicheng, vice-secretary of Peking's Communist Party and an editor of two books on the dragon.

Emperor Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Dynasty (207 BC-220 AD), inspired the carvings when he declared that he was sired by a dragon. Earlier, during the Zhou Dynasty (11th century BC-476 BC), Chinese nobles sewed images of dragons on flags or robes to denote their rank.

In a tribute to the dragon's power, Chinese rulers throughout history have tried to saddle the beast as it ranged through the hearts and minds of their subjects. Ancient emperors surrounded themselves with dragon images and, for 1988, the government has launched a kitschy promotion of the legendary animal as a symbol of the promise of communist rule.

The first dragon bolted from a cloud with thunder and lightening or rose from a host of crocodiles or pigs, according to folklore. Worshiped as a rain-giver, the dragon gradually developed from a snake with a pig's head to a hodgepodge beast with a lion's nose, tiger's eyes, deer's antlers, ox's ears, horse's main, hawk's claws, snake's body, and fish scales.

``Chinese peasants no longer revere the dragon as much as in ancient times, although there are still some elderly peasants who worship the dragon in temples today,'' said Mr. Xu.

Reverence for the dragon may have evolved from worship for the snake, Chinese scholars say, alluding to a description of Fu Xi and Nu Wa, China's Adam and Eve, as having human heads and snake bodies in the Book of Mountains and Seas from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC).

During the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), the imperial court monopolized the symbol that so awed the peasantry, declaring that the dragon was the sole emblem of the emperor. The monarch's children were ``the dragon's seed'' and when he mounted his throne, ``the dragon's seat,'' the action was called ``the dragon's flight.'' The court reported the passing of the emperor with the phrase, ``the emperor ascended upon the dragon to be a guest on high.''

``Many feudal emperors used the dragon to build up their own power and considered the dragon to be their own patented emblem,'' said Xu, the communist party official. ``However, the dragon is not a symbol of feudalism,'' he said. Indeed, China's current leadership has invoked the dragon as a symbol of ``good fortune'' under communist rule.

The dragon ``is symbolic of power, grandeur, and fortune - the dragon soars high and the nation is blessed with peace, prosperity and glory. And that's what the Chinese people have, for centuries, been striving for as a dream to be fulfilled. The founding of the People's Republic in 1949 made it possible,'' wrote Chen Li, the editor in chief of the official China Daily.

Some Chinese find the bridling of the dragon for political purposes crass.

``The dragon is not a political symbol, it's a symbol of Chinese culture and the Chinese people - we are very proud to be descendants of the dragon,'' said Wang Qi, an art historian .

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