According to ancient folklore, the Emperor of the Heavens called upon 12 animals and told them he would hold a race to Heaven’s Gates and reward them in order. Although the ox was the most diligent and arrived early, the mouse used its wit and cunning to hop on the back of the ox and leapt off at the last moment to become the first animal to represent the zodiac. The ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig followed.
Each zodiac year has the characteristics of that year’s representative animal. For example, a sheep year would mostly be calm and peaceful, whereas a horse year would be a galloping one. 2012 is the Year of the Dragon. To be more specific, it is the Year of the Black Dragon, which comes around every 60 years. The significance of the Black Dragon is argued among scholars, some dismissing it as a sly marketing ploy, but as the hanja (Chinese character) with the interpretation of ‘black’ also has the meaning of ‘water’ – the original dwelling of the dragon – it is supposed to be a more than a lucky year.
But what is a dragon anyway? In the East, instead of being described as a serpent-like creature with wings, the dragon is explained as a mythical being with the characteristics of many animals: 1. Head of a camel 2. Eyes of a rabbit 3. Nose of a pig 4. Horns of a deer 5. Ears of an ox 6. Unique fur beard 7. Neck of a snake 8. Scales of a carp 9. Claws of a falcon 10. Stomach of a large clam 11. Fist of a tiger. Although capable of flight, the dragon does not have wings. As it is a creature that can fly to the heavens, its power is considered to be omnipotent.
In the West the dragon seems to be considered an evil creature; a creature that is to be conquered, to be killed in order to save a princess, for example. The dragon in the East is quite different. It is mostly thought of as a powerful creature, a protective god, a ruler of the water and the seas (where is usually resides), and was a symbol for royalty, and in a broader sense; safety and protection, virtue, enlightenment, hope, and change.
Besides being a favorite subject for literature and art, the dragon can also be found as a motif in many aspects of traditional Korean culture: architecture, furniture, clothing, ornaments and jewelry, and various household items. Also, many Buddhist temples are adorned with the dragon as it is said that nine dragons poured perfume from the heavens upon Buddha’s birth. Dragons hold a cintamani in their mouths – the magical jewel representing Buddha’s virtue – which can grant your every wish.
Everything related to the king had a dragon reference such as “dragon face” (용안), “dragon coat” (용포), “dragon seat” (용좌), with dragon engraved in the king’s royal seal. Also, the first work to be written in the Korean alphabet Hangeul was Yongbieochonga (용비어천가), “Song of the Dragons Flying to the Heavens”, praising the achievements of the forefathers of the Joseon Dynasty. A traditional funeral carriage is adorned with a dragon to escort the deceased to the other world. Dreaming of a dragon is the luckiest dream that can ever be, and expressions that equal the dragon with that of excellence and greatness are still used today.
Since it’s supposed to an exceptionally lucky year, 2012 is predicted to be a major baby boom year. Not that everyone is incredibly superstitious here, but if you’re planning to have a baby anyway, and it’s considered extremely lucky to have one this particular year – after all, it’s not coming back until another 60 years – it wouldn’t hurt to time it thus, would it?
Dragon Years are about important changes. As it is the presidential election year in Korea, there is no doubt that it will be.
To learn more about what the dragon means in Korea, a visit to the National Folk Museum of Korea is highly recommended. To celebrate the New Year, a special exhibition titled “Dragon, dreams” is running until February. The exhibition showcases various drawings, paintings and artifacts which all have the dragon as its main theme.
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Have a very Happy Black Dragon New Year!