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Year of the Wood Dragon

Dragon clip art

Year of the Wood Dragon begins in just over two weeks on February 10. Dragons are considered the luckiest sign in the Chinese zodiac, and people born in a dragon year are said to be charismatic, confident, and powerful. Dragons are also known to be stubborn and dogmatic.

Those born in a wood dragon year are said to be especially energetic and creative.

Red is a lucky color for people born in a dragon year. Red underwear in particular is said to boost good fortune, provided the red garment is purchased by someone else. Jade jewelry is also auspicious.

The Great Animal Race

Jade Emperor

Legend says that during the Ming Dynasty, the Jade Emperor wanted to implement a new way of measuring time so he announced a swimming race. The first twelve animals to cross a fast flowing river would win, and each would have a zodiac year named in their honor.

There are stories about each of the competing animals and the skill each used to complete the race. The dragon was the fifth animal to cross the finish line. This surprised the Emperor. The dragon was favored to finish first, because he could fly. So the Emperor asked the dragon what slowed him down.

Chinese Zodiac

The dragon replied that he had to make rain, because people and animals needed water to drink. Also, he saved a village that was on fire. Then, when the dragon was neared the finish line, he saw a rabbit floating on a log, so he blew a puff of air so the log would float to the river bank. 

Rabbit Stamp from Year of the Rabbit

The rabbit, meanwhile, had decided to hop across the river. He hopped over several stepping stones, before hopping onto a floating log that took him to shore.

The rabbit was the fourth animal to finish the race, and the dragon, the fifth.

The lesson from the dragon’s sacrifice is that strength is not a source of power, but a gift to lend those less fortunate.

Dragon Birth

You might wonder how dragons originated. According to legend, there was a woman in the village of Lotus who was pregnant for 999 days before giving birth to a boy. The infant was unusual because he had glittering dragon scales on his chest and back.

Dragon on Rooftop

The village chief surmised the babe was a dragon god, and tried to kill it. The mother put her son in a foot basin and hid him in the lotus pond. The chief found the child, and raised his knife to kill him. But the child jumped out of the foot basin and leaped into the pond. The dragon child grew until it was tens of feet long. As time passed, any time there was a drought, the dragon returned to the village to provide rain. In gratitude, villagers used 999 lotus petals to make a flower dragon, and performed a dragon dance every Spring Festival, which we now call the Chinese (Lunar) New Year.

Dragon Dance Brings Good Luck & Prosperity

Dragon dances are performed to welcome prosperity and chase away evil spirits. The dragons have four different colors: green for a good harvest; yellow for respect for the empire; gold or silver for prosperity, and red to usher in good fortune. 

The costume for the dragon dance has a large head, and a long body of various sections that are lifted up on poles. The costume is made of  materials such as grass, bamboo, paper and cloth that are woven in a tubular shape using thin bamboo strips to create the segments. The completed dragon is covered with a red cloth and dragon scales. The longer the dragon, the more good luck it brings. 

Dragon Head with Pearl of Wisdom

The body is placed in a local Dragon King Temple until the day of the dragon dance. People connect the dragon’s head and tail to the body, followed by a ‘eye-pointing’ ceremony.

During the dance, one person holds a rod with a large ball, known as the Pearl of Wisdom, at the top to lead the dragon during the dance. In the picture on the left, the Pearl of Wisdom is above the tip of the dragon’s tongue, behind the front teeth. The dragon follows the Pearl of Wisdom as it moves up and down, left and right, back and forth to create waves that correspond to the dance. As he follows the Pearl of Wisdom, the dragon demonstrates his continual pursuit of wisdom.

When the dance is over, the dragon’s head and tail are burnt, and the body returns to the temple until it is used the following year.

Enjoy the video from the 2014 Smithsonian Folklife Festival Program “China; Tradition & the Art of Living. Dragon dancers are from the Zhejiang Wu Opera Troupe from Jinhua in eastern China

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Illustrations & A Few Sources

Dragon clip art by ebaychatter0; Jade Emperor, Ming Dynasty 16th century; Kushida Shrine, Chinese Zodiac Relief by Hirho; Indonesian stamp for Year of the Rabbit; Dragon on Rooftop by Zhao-Ying Chi; Head of a Dragon Dance Costume by Leonard G.; Cindy. “What is Chinese Dragon Dance?” China Highlights. Jan 19 2024. “Dragon.” Chinese Zodiac. Reda Wigle. “Year of the Wood Dragon.” New York Post. Jan. 11, 2024.

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Author Sandra Wagner Wright

Sandra Wagner-Wright holds the doctoral degree in history and taught women’s and global history at the University of Hawai`i. Sandra travels for her research, most recently to Salem, Massachusetts, the setting of her new Salem Stories series. She also enjoys traveling for new experiences. Recent trips include Antarctica and a river cruise on the Rhine from Amsterdam to Basel.

 Sandra particularly likes writing about strong women who make a difference. She lives in Hilo, Hawai`i with her family and writes a blog relating to history, travel, and the idiosyncrasies of life.


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