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(The picture shows a detail of what is believed to be the Japanese visual master Hokusai’s last work, Dragon Flying over Mt. Fuji, painted in the year of his death, 1849, at the age of 90.)


2024 is Wood Dragon year in the Chinese calendar. This calendar has a 60-year cycle, with all the permutations and combinations of the 12 year animals (rat, horse, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, ox, sheep, monkey, cockerel, dog, and boar) and the 5 elements of Chinese cosmology (air, fire, water, metal, and wood).

I’ve always had a certain affinity for dragons, and I’m glad that the dragon year has come around again. It’s very interesting for someone like me, who has experienced a lot about dragons in both Western and Eastern cultures; interesting that both sides of the globe have very definite ideas about dragons, their appearance and their qualities, and that these are very different.

For example, dragons in the West are seen as greedy, grasping and sneaky. They usually have a “hoard” which may contain stolen treasures or maidens, anyway valuables, and they defend their hoard with violence and trickery. If you have read The Hobbit of JRR Tolkein, or the Narnia books of CS Lewis, you have a pretty good idea. In the latter, one of the children actually is changed into a dragon. “Sleeping on the dragon’s hoard with greedy, dragonish thoughts in his heart, he had become a dragon himself.” In the Earthsea books of Ursula LeGuin, it is possible to glimpse a tricky and dangerous but very wise and ancient beast. Human beings (wizards) who could talk to dragons and have relationships with them were called Dragonlords in her books. She even went so far as to postulate an idea of why and how the dragons in her vision evolved. Some of her dragons had hoards and were violent, others had years and centuries of life and relations with human beings to look back on and something important to contribute to the lineage of human kings in Earthsea.

Dragons in the West are very large, long and skinny, reptilian and scaly, with big teeth, four paws and two wings. It is said that one should not look into a dragon’s eyes. Traditionally they breathe fire, and have some kind of furnace inside themselves. They lay eggs; of course there are females but I would say that the dragon is traditionally considered male. A certain amount of magic centers around the dragon’s egg.

Conversely, the Chinese dragon is powerful, wise, and epitomizes movement and activity. This year animal is associated with success and good luck, and also with impatience and aggressiveness. He doesn’t collect valuables, but he is often depicted in Japan as grasping a “ball” or jewel in one forepaw. There is a popular Japanese kid’s TV program and manga, “Dragon Ball”. This type of dragon is usually depicted as flying among clouds in a twisting and convoluted manner which seems irrepressibly active and even playful. There are a lot of dragon pictures in Japan, many of them on the ceilings of temples like Tenryuji (Heavenly Dragon Temple) in western Kyoto. The dragons in these pictures usually have bulging eyes, big teeth, no wings, and three sharp claws (in Japan; in China they have 4 or 5) on each foot. I like to think of them as smiling with irrepressible energy and a kind of scary good humor.

Dragons, to me, are like cats. They have no wish to be anything else than what they are. They do what they do, not to curry favor or to attract friends, but because that is what they do. They have a mysterious quality which is both frightening and attractive. They seem wise and aloof, but will share their wisdom when appropriate, and then go off somewhere else where we cannot follow.

Happy New Year, Year of the Dragon, and may you have all the luck and success that this year animal is said to provide.

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