Archive file# r020900a
donated by James Vandale
Dragons, dragons and more dragons
by Bruce McGee
Dragons, dragons and more dragons
Dragons have been an integral part of the culture of the Chinese, Koreans and
Japanese peoples since the beginning of recorded history. In China they are used
to mark the stairways over which only the Emperor could be carried. In Japan
they are used in Buddhist temples both as decoration and as fountain heads for
purification before worship. In many cases the dragon is combined with the
phoenix to symbolize long life and prosperity. It is also combined with the
tiger to represent heaven and earth or inyo (Yin and Yang).
Have you ever wondered how to tell the difference between Chinese, Korean and
Japanese dragons ? Each of these countries dragons look the same at a glance,
but each has a difference in the detail. You have to start by counting the toes.
Yes the toes. The Chinese dragon has five toes. The Korean has four toes and the
Japanese dragon has three toes. Each of the three countries explains this
differently, and since nearly everything in Asia has its roots in China we will
start with them.
The Chinese dragon is a central figure of both good and evil in their fables and
legends. According to the Chinese the dragon originated in their middle kingdom
and has always had five toes. The dragon by nature is a gregarious creature who
wanders the earth. However, the farther it goes from China, the more toes it
loses. Hence, when it reached Korea it only had four toes and by the time it got
to Japan it only had three. This also explains why it never made it to Europe or
the Americas in that by the time it got that far it had lost all of its toes and
could not walk.
The Japanese account of the dragon is very similar to that of the Chinese. The
Japanese also believe that the dragon had its origins in their country. Again
they know that the dragon has a tendency to travel and the farther it travels,
the more toes it grows. By the time it reached Korea it had four and by the time
it got to China it had five. Again this is the reason it never made it much
farther than China. It kept growing toes and could not walk any further.
It should probably be noted that the Asian dragons do not have wings, even
though they are often depicted in clouds or ascending from the heavens.
The Koreans tell a similar story of the dragon. They of course know that the
dragon began with them. Probably just like they know that karate began in Korea.
The Korean dragon has always had four toes. When the dragon travels East or
North, it loses toes. When it travels South or West it gains toes. This explains
why the Japanese dragon has three toes and the Chinese dragon has five toes. It
also explains why the dragon never made it to Europe or the Americas. As it
traveled West to Europe, it grew so many toes that it could no longer walk. As
it traveled East to the Americas, it lost all of its toes and could no longer
The sexuality of the dragon can also be noted in most cases at a glance. In all
three countries, the determination is based on the same factors. (Isn't that a
relief). The male dragon holds a war club in its tail while the female dragon
holds a sensu or fan in its tail. One of the problems lies in that you cannot
always see the tail or tell the difference between the fan or the war club. But
then again, if you are not another dragon, you probably do not need to know.
Now wasn't that simple. Each of the three countries can totally explain the
origins of the dragon, and in doing so can take total credit for its origins.
The next time you see an item of Oriental art that is of dragons, whether it is
a painting, a bronze casting or a decorative motif on sword furniture, take a
close look at the claws of the dragon and you can always tell where it's from.
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