Home Opinion Special Reports Year of the Dragon or the Loong? The Chinese Viewpoint

Year of the Dragon or the Loong? The Chinese Viewpoint

Welcoming the Year of the Dragon or the Loong? Insights from the Chinese perspective

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Cambodia Phnom Penh Chinese Lunar New Year Celebrations
Artists perform dragon dance to celebrate the upcoming Chinese Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Feb. 9, 2024. (Photo by Phearum/Xinhua)

As communities worldwide, both within and outside China, partake in diverse festivities to welcome the Year of the Dragon, the mythical creature has become the subject of debate. Some call it a dragon, while others prefer the term “loong,” underscoring a discussion about the most accurate translation of this symbol of traditional Chinese culture.

CONTRASTING PERSPECTIVES

Do dragon and loong convey the same meaning, or do they represent different creatures with distinct connotations? “Clearly, there’s a difference,” said Luca Nurmio, a scholar at the University of Luxembourg. “Western dragon is usually like a big magical monster.” In Western culture, shaped by Greek mythology, the dragon is frequently portrayed as the guardian of treasure, embodying a symbol of greed and destruction. “In the West, our dragons are almost all negative and very bad, fierce beasts that have to be killed,” said Frances Wood, a well-known British sinologist.

Notably, medieval European manuscripts depict the iconic image of “Saint George slaying the dragon.” Furthermore, within the Christian Bible’s Book of Revelation, there is the representation of the Great Red Dragon, symbolizing Satan and the impending end times. These diverse cultural narratives contribute to the multifaceted symbolism of dragons in the Western imagination, where they often embody themes of conflict, temptation and apocalyptic forewarnings. “The one word dragon does encompass two very different ideas,” explained Wood, adding, “In China, the dragon is very positive, it’s an animal that helps humanity and that is noble.”

In Chinese culture, the dragon, or Chinese loong, is considered an auspicious symbol, with emperors often referring to themselves as the “true dragon sons of heaven.” “The Chinese dragon is more like a friendly (one),” remarked Luca. In the Chinese language, more than 100 idioms incorporate the word “dragon,” predominantly conveying positive connotations such as excellence, power, prestige, royalty and good luck. Given the Chinese penchant for illustrating daily nuances through idiomatic expressions, the term “dragon” remains a pervasive and integral element in their everyday conversations. When people express admiration for a son-in-law, they often refer to him as “a swift son-in-law who rides the dragon,” subtly suggesting his abilities, power and prestige.

During weddings, couples are often blessed with wishes for a harmonious and prosperous life, symbolized by the dragon and phoenix, with the groom referred to as the dragon and the bride as the phoenix. The dragon is revered as a symbol of strength and authority, while the phoenix embodies wisdom, beauty and auspiciousness. It is a prevalent aspiration among Chinese parents to hope for their children to “become a dragon,” signifying the pursuit of greatness or success. This cultural inclination underscores the profound significance and positive attributes associated with the dragon within the Chinese collective consciousness. Outside China, in the Japanese language, which shares a cultural affinity with China, the Western dragon and Chinese loong are different characters and separate entities, with Chinese loong often used in people’s names and Western dragon seen in the term for dinosaurs, which tends to merge with the Western concept of a dragon.

LOST IN TRANSLATION

Given the profound differences in meaning between dragon and Chinese loong, why has the loong been translated into English as dragon?

Dragons appeared in the 13th-century book The Travels of Marco Polo, which described decorations at the royal court. Polo might have believed that the Chinese architectural depiction of dragons bore certain resemblances to the Western concept of dragons. In the early 19th century, British missionary Robert Morrison compiled the first Chinese-English, English-Chinese dictionary in history, in which he translated the Chinese loong as dragon. “The impact of this dictionary was profound, leading to the widespread adoption of the term dragon in the West,” remarked Peng Ping, professor and vice dean of the School of English and International Studies at Beijing Foreign Studies University.”Language significantly influences human minds, and as a result, Westerners perceive it intriguing that the Chinese associate themselves with the concept of dragons. In their culture, dragons are symbols of malevolence, contributing to a cultural distortion and misinterpretation,” she explained.

As China becomes more integrated into the global community, the growing popularity of Chinese culture offers the world a genuine glimpse into the rich symbolism and significance of the Chinese dragon or loong. Xinhua correspondents conducting interviews worldwide observe a growing interest among Westerners in exploring Chinese traditional culture. “If I think of my life, when I was young, nobody knew about Chinese New Year or anything like that. But now it’s spread into Trafalgar Square,” said Wood, who recalled that the Lunar New Year vibe has grown strong in the last couple of decades. The global influence of Chinese culture is expanding, sparking curiosity and appreciation for the iconic dragon’s symbolism and rich heritage. “I think many people only learn about the traditions when they have more contact with it, like the Dragon Boat Festival. And I was at the Dragon Boat Festival. So I know that Chinese traditions also reference the dragon and its cultural association with water,” said Luca.

TIME FOR A CHANGE?

With the world becoming more familiar with the Chinese zodiac sign, has the time come to translate the Chinese dragon to loong? “While we see positive changes, indicating that Chinese culture is spreading more widely in the West, I feel (the term dragon) may still fall short in capturing the true essence of the Chinese dragon’s image, as its core term remains dragon after all,” said Peng, suggesting using loong instead. “Maybe we can call it Chinese dragon and name this year as The Year of the Chinese Dragon,” said Wood. “I think it would be good to call it loong. Western dragons don’t really reflect the Chinese culture in this way,” commented Luca.

In some parts of the world, the term loong has already been adopted. As the Chinese Lunar New Year approaches, Fiji issued Year of Dragon stamps to celebrate the Chinese New Year. “Bula! (meaning hello in Fiji) It is a pleasure that I take this opportunity to wish you all the compliments of the season for the year of the Loong,” Fijian President Wiliame Katonivere extended New Year greetings to China through a Xinhua video. The issue of translation may seem trivial. What matters more is conveying the true essence of the zodiac dragon. The Chinese people place great importance on welcoming people globally to immerse themselves in the Year of the Dragon’s celebratory spirit and share in the Spring Festival’s joy, warmth and splendor. Happy Chinese New Year. May you live loong and prosper!

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