Monday, January 25, 2010

I Write: On Dragons

So the other day, the following chain of events happened: 1) Lavie Tidhar revealed to us the new cover of the Dragon and the Star anthology, of fiction by ethnic Chinese writers all over the world. 2) The cover looks awful, and my friend Joyce asked, why is it a Western dragon, not an Oriental dragon? Because, after all, this is an anthology of Chinese writers writing specifically Chinese-inspired fiction. The cover looks like an average dragon fantasy anthology, which isn't what the anthology is about. Anyway, 3) while we studied the features of the dragon closely to see what coded it as suitable for this anthology, I suggested, maybe it's a mixed-race dragon, because, even though Asian parents' genes will dominate over European-Caucasian genes, there's always that possibility, and 4) clearly, someone needed to write a story about that. Joyce did. I tried, but I ended up writing a story about an exchange student dragon. (Her situation is significantly more angsty than mine ever was.)


But I was thinking about Chinese dragons in the mythology I grew up on, comparing them to the Western dragons such as those I read in Dragonlance novels and other fairy tales. I'm gonna talk about Chinese dragons, in particular, because Oriental dragons are not in my purview for several reasons:

1) Obviously, the term "Oriental", centering an Eurocentric perspective, isn't useful, because
2) It covers a LOT of ground. A Chinese dragon is probably a bit different from the Japanese dragon, for example. I don't know by how much, but I'm sure there're some little differences. The Orient's gone from just being about India and the Arab world to encompass the rest of Asia.
3) I'm drawing from specifically Chinese sources, or at least, those Chinese sources in my memory.
4) I may also compare them to what I know of tropes regarding European dragons.

So. Chinese dragons. They are usually long and skinny. They have bulbous eyes in a lot of statues (hence, the longan fruit, when translated, is Dragon Eye), and they have long whiskers, that flow from their faces which like crosses between certain monkeys, lizards, and lions.

They are guardians which are appointed posts and kingdoms to rule and maintain peace in, and do not randomly pick off peasants unless they've gone bad. Like humans, they, too, are bound by laws of magic and nature.

Chinese dragons do not have wings. In fact, I can't think of a single Asian dragon which does. For very obvious reasons, dragons don't need wings to fly in the sky. They're dragons. (Also, they're probably based on dinosaurs and crocodiles, most of which do not have wings.)

Chinese dragons are not vindictive. They get power-hungry, certainly, but that's because like humans, they're bound by hierarchies and in hierarchies, certain traits will occur.

They are also highly intelligent beings, and I don't just mean in the complicated-species sort of way. They're the purveyors of wisdom, keepers of knowledge and magic and wonderful strange artifacts. They speak to humans not on the same level, but on a higher level, because dragons are a form of immortal.

They do not pick off random cows from farms.

They are more often good than evil, and more often neutral than either, and are not simply to be ridden on, like horses, for transportation, unless one of them invites you to. They are either noble creatures, or they're introverts who have their own treasures that ought to be left the heck alone unless you want to be a thief. In which case you, the human, have some serious thinking to do about your priorities.

Chinese dragons are not to be disrespected. You don't hunt down dragons as if they were prey, you approach them with great caution. Because they are magical and immortal, and better than you. Actually, you don't hunt down anything magical and immortal.

They are legendary and not metaphors for humanity, but an aspect of the world, the mysterious world that we can never see as a whole because we are only human, and thus, unless we work hard to perfect ourselves, can never seen cosmic largeness with mere eyes.

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