Friday, December 15, 2006

Debating the Dragon

Via the CDT, my attention was drawn to this article on the BBC news website that discusses the debate ongoing in China about the dragon as symbol of China:

Chinese internet users have stirred a heated debate over the status of dragons, seen as a national symbol.

The problem, some academics allege, is that Chinese people and Westerners have very different concepts of dragons.

Chinese dragons are supernatural symbols without the Western traits of aggression or maiden-eating.

The debate began when a Shanghai professor claimed Western views of dragons could give people a negative impression of China.

But some 90% of respondents to a Chinese website survey disagreed, insisting that the dragon should remain the traditional Chinese icon.

Besides from the fact that I think it is pretty strange to hear Chinese question the appropriateness of having the dragon as their national symbol, exactly at the time when China is re-emerging as a powerful force on the world scene, I don't think the arguments brought forward in the article bear much relevance to the question.

Pang Jin, the director of China Research Centre on Dragon and Phoenix Culture, said dragons in the two countries should not be mixed up.

"The dragon in western culture enjoys a low cultural rank, but in China, it is a spiritual and cultural symbol representing prosperity and good luck," he told the Xinhua news agency.

If matters were that simple, I doubt if there would be any debate at all. Why get rid of a symbol that incorporates only "prosperity and good luck", and how come Westerners have never thought of adopting the creature and dropping it into their heritage ? Because it's all more complex than is expressed in those three lines above, just as the dragon itself is a complex creature.

I suppose if you are reading this article, there is a good chance you have seen or heard about the six-part documentary that hit Chinese TV screens in 1988, "River Elegy" (He Shang, 河殇). The first part "In search of the Dream (寻梦)" opens with one the most comprehensive explanations on the very nature of the dragon culture in China. Starting with the dragon itself (translation is mine and thus so are eventual errors):

Cai Dacheng (Mythology expert): "In our opinion, the primitive man created the dragon from a special designed concept, it is a composite creature. Which parts can we discern ? The head of a horse, the antler of a deer, the body of a snake and the claws of a rooster. The body of the snake represents the life vision of that primitive man, for it happened very rarely that he got to see a dead snake, so therefore it was thought that the snake, once old, just shed one layer of skin and was thus rejuvenated. Likewise are the claws of the rooster a symbol of life. each time the old ladies went down to the market to pick a rooster, they always watched the spurs first: were these short, the meat would be tender. Again the same with the teeth of the horse: "judging a horse by it's teeth". The antler of the deer changes once a year and each time again it grows an additional hairy branch. With one fork each year, a hunter knows the age of a deer as soon as he has seen how many forks the antler has. An antler that has dropped came to symbolize death. The growing of a new antler came to symbolize life, new life. Thus, in it's cultural implication, the dragon became a symbol of life, a symbol that reflects the hope of the ancient man towards the cycle of life, towards dying and being born again."

I believe the "dissection" above is not even complete, other sources discern even more animal parts but with such a background, it is hard to expect that the dragon could be purely a symbol of prosperity and luck. If life itself were to be an endless chain of good things and happiness, then maybe, but clearly it is not. If the ancient Chinese had wanted to create a symbol for all that is positive, they surely could have gotten away with something less complex and it would have been void of meaning, for not all IS positive. But in the struggle for survival they have clearly looked for a polymorph creature which embodies a positive and inspiring vision, which is different from saying that the creature is nothing than good.

Things tend to become even more complicated when we look at the source of the dragon culture, the Yellow River basin.

According to Xie Xuanjun, co-editor of the book series "Cultural Philosophy", where the dragon is seen as the wild creature from the (super)natural world, the king (emperor) projected himself as it's counterpart in the human world and deemed himself to be the incarnation of the dragon on earth. The artery of China is the livelihood of innumerable people, who depend on it for their subsistence, yet the water of this river is dominated by the "dragon" king. Remember the mythical king Yü the Great, who is hailed for being able to bring the waters under control. Others were less successful, so developed a love-hate relation between the agrarian society that depends on the river and it's ruler, which swings from admiration to despise. That relation is as complex as the form of the dragon itself.

With this in mind, getting rid of the dragonsymbol would in my opinion be equal to the previously uttered idea of getting rid of the Chinese characters for writing and reverting to the "Western" alphabet. It would be tantamount to cutting off the next generations from an important part of their history, and doing away with a vision of life that has helped them sustain through the centuries. And for what ? Because the West feels threatened ? It will not feel less threatened if China adopts a cute little Calimero as it's symbol, yet keeps flooding the markets with cheap clothes and shoes and lays it's hand on every natural oil resource it can get.

Purely from a timespan argument, one could defend that the dragon has, without competition, in effect become THE symbol of the Chinese identity. So instead of continuing this debate, let's rather focus on how, in the Big Forest that is our world, the dragon can find other animals to mate with, leading to an even more complex, even more fascinating creation.

Besides, by dropping the dragon, just imagine how many scenic spots would have to be renamed in China. Can you fathom having to lead a bunch of tourists to the "Nine Chimpanzee Wall" ? Any other suggestions ?

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