The Dragon Raises its Head 龍抬頭

The Second Day of the Second Month 二月初二 in the Lunar Calendar was traditionally celebrated in Northern China as the day when the ‘Dragon Raises its Head’ 龍抬頭. In 2017, this falls on the 27th of February.

The day on which the Dragon Raises its Head has long been associated with water and rain. This time, which  with its astronomical associations symbolically marks the beginning of the new farming season, is when tillers of the soil supplicate the dragon in the hope of plentiful rains and bountiful crops.

Tun Li-ch’en 敦禮臣 writes in Annual Customs and Festivals in Peking 燕京歲時記:

The second day of the second month is the ancient festival of Middle Harmony (中和, so called because it comes in the middle of spring), while the people of today call it the time when the dragon raises its head. The cakes eaten on this day are called dragon-scale cakes 龍節餅, and the noodles that are eaten are called dragon-whisker noodles 龍鬚麵. In the women’s quarters needlework is stopped for fear that they might injure the dragon’s eyes. 二月二日,古之中和節也。今人呼為龍抬頭。是日食餅者謂之龍鱗餅,食面者謂之龍鬚面。閨中停止針線,恐傷龍目。— trans. Derk Bodde, Peking, 1936.

From Nine Dragons 九龍圖卷 by Chen Rong 陳容 of the Southern Song (early thirteenth century). The Provenance of this work indicates that it was possibly owned by Yixin 奕訢 (Prince Gong 恭親王; 1833-1898), the regent forced from power by the Empress Dowager Cixi during the Tongzhi reign. During his years ‘in the wilderness’ 在野, the Prince spent time in a modest garden at a temple outside Beijing. There he was know as a ‘Hidden Dragon’ 臥龍 (so called because of the ‘recumbent pine tree’ 臥龍松 growing nearby), nurturing his talents and biding his time, waiting to be recalled to Court. Source: Boston Museum of Fine Arts.

The Chinese calendar is cluttered with festivals, anniversaries and celebrations of various kinds. Local regions have long marked the changing seasons and customs with holidays or feast days. In the dynastic era, different festivals would flourish in importance or fade into relative, or local, obscurity. In certain epochs country-wide festivities were proclaimed.

Following the collapse of dynastic rule in 1911 and the rise of the Republic of China, traditional holidays jostled with new state-promulgated national days. Under the People’s Republic (1949-), holidays and celebrations have waxed and waned in tandem with the shifting fashions of revolutionary fervour.

For instance, those of a certain generation may well recall the decade when families were forced to enjoy (in moderation) a Revolutionised Spring Festival 革命化春節 or Chairman Mao’s Birthday (conveniently falling on the day after Christmas). Then there was the plethora of commemorations of Party meetings, announcements, rhetorical victories, heroes and martyrs. These were often marked with fireworks, clamorous processions with drums and slogans, as well as song-and-dance performances. For later generations, the mix of old (and many revived) festivities (and extended holidays) with the days on which the Party congratulates itself and its favoured causes (May First; May Fourth; Children’s Day (1 June); August First; October First, etc) is welcome for it means less work and more shopping.

Chinese New Year’s fireworks. Photograph by Lois Conner.

Since the Lunar New Year, China Heritage has marked a number of traditional festive days (see here, here and here), adding to our calendar today’s celebration when the Dragon Raises its Head. We will return to the topic of annual festivals in China First: Heritage Engineered. At that time we will focus on the significance of ‘An Opinion Concerning Preserving and Enhancing Exemplary Chinese Cultural Heritage關於實施中華優秀傳統文化傳承發展工程的意見, a lugubrious document issued jointly by the Chinese party-state (that is the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council of the People’s Republic) on 25 January 2017. (In the document-driven world of bureaucracy ‘Opinions’ 意見 originate at the highest level of party-state management; they offer direct guidance and practical suggestions for the implementation of the ‘Spirit of the Centre’ 中央精神 when subordinate organs set about realising the vision of the Opinion in question.)

As noted in the above, the Second Day of the Second Month is predominantly celebrated in the drier climes of the north, where beseeching rain from the heavens was long practiced. It also marks the birthday of the legendary Sage King Yao 堯. For the moment, we would point out that in the list of approved annual festivities and celebrations contained in the January 2017 ‘Opinion on Chinese Cultural Heritage’, The Dragon Raises its Head does not rate a mention. Indeed, the era of Chairman of Everything Xi Jinping (2012-) began with the banning in China of a satirical image published on the cover of 4 May 2013 issue of The Economist of the party-state-army leader dressed in a imperial dragon robe 龍袍 celebrating his defeat of factional enemies with a glass of champagne and a party whistle. The cover caption read: Let’s party like its 1793: Xi Jinping, the ‘Chinese Dream’ and a return to greatness.

Nonetheless, in China Heritage, with the help of the work of the photographer Lois Conner, we pause to consider the Dragon.

— The Editor, China Heritage
The Second Day of the Second Month of the
Dingyou Year 丁酉年二月初二
27 February 2017



The importance of this moment in the cycle of being can be found in Hexagram I of the Book of Change 易經. This hexagram, Heaven 乾卦, contains Six Dragons: Hidden Dragon, Dragon Seen, Flying Dragon, Dragon Leaping, Overreaching Dragon and Headless Dragon. Each is taken to represent the natural progression of events (agriculture, political or social), phases in the unfolding of an enterprise or, in later times, the  stages of personal enlightenment. The Dragon Raises its Head is signified by the solid or Yang Line in the Second Place in the Hexagram, the Dragon is seen in the fields 見龍在田:

Yang in the Second Place

The Dragon

Is seen in the fields.

Draco in campis.

It profits

To see a Great Man.

Magnum virum.

Yang line in Yin Place. Centered. The fields lie upon the Earth, writes Cheng Yi. Now the Dragon emerges, visible above the Earth, manifesting Inner Strength, influencing others in a  process of universal extension. The Sage Shun cultivated the Earth and caught fish. It Profited him to see a Man of Inner Power, the Sage Yao, in order to implement the Tao.

John Minford, The Book of Change, 2014, p.17ff.

Dragon 龍 in the hand of the Tang-era calligrapher Zhang Xu 張旭, from ‘Four Ancient Poems’ 古詩四貼.

The Chinese dragon, lóng 龍, is a zoological miscegenation. It has the head of a camel, horns of a stag, eyes of a rabbit (or devil) and the ears of cow (or ox). These are joined by the neck of a snake to the belly of a sea-monster. It is covered with the scales of a carp, has the claws of an eagle and the pads of a tiger. Along its back are eighty-one scales. It has whiskers on either side of the mouth, and a beard on its chin, and it carries in its mouth a pearl, the symbol of wisdom. Furthermore, the dragon can change size at will, and in an instant can shrink as small as a silkworm or become so gargantuan that its form fills the skies.

Although the dragon has a venerable history in China — dragon-like creatures, the kuí 夔, festooned ancient bronzes — its rise to the status of imperial emblem was gradual. From the time of the Tang dynasty in the seventh century it was employed by the dynastic house and in the following dynasty (the Song, tenth to thirteenth centuries) it became the crest of the imperial family: a five-clawed dragon was reserved for the use of the emperor and his immediate relatives, a four-clawed creature being a common decoration on the robes of lesser officials.

In the middle of the nineteenth-century, in need of an identifying national symbol as it reluctantly entered the world of international politics, the Manchu-Qing government chose the Dragon Banner. This Yellow Dragon Flag of the Great Qing Empire 大清黃龍旗, as it was called (the background of the flag was imperial yellow, the dragon was an Azure Dragon 青龍/蒼龍), was first hoisted by Chinese diplomatic missions in the West from early 1862, at the start of the Tongzhi reign period.

Thus, something that had been the mark of imperial power became, in the age of the nation-state when the invention of individual national identities were de rigueur, emblematic of China as a country. As the rule of the Qing Dynasty faltered revolutionary patriots set on the overthrow of the imperial house rejected the dragon and its symbolism; it was regarded as being symptomatic of a dated and reactionary tradition.

Remains of dragon-headed water spouts at the ruins of the Marvellous Realm of the Square Gourd 方壺勝境, Garden of Perfect Brightness 圓明園, Beijing. Photograph by Lois Conner.

After the Revolution of 1911, the dragon was abrogated by nationalists as they formulated a new sense of self-identity. Yet, as the century progressed, this ancient icon was gradually reclaimed as a symbol of the nascent nation-building temper of the country. Eschewed as a remnant of the feudal past on Mainland China during the height of Maoism, it has only been since the 1980s that the dragon has been embraced once more as being emblematic of the Chinese-Han people, as well as a commercial icon with a high-recognition factor for tourists. It flourished during the first Year of Tourism of 1988, and while it was promoted by the authorities, some intellectuals criticised it as a symbol of malevolence, violence and backwardness (at the time, the published dialogue between the journalist Dai Qing 戴晴 and the social scientist Yan Jiaqi 嚴家其 on the subject of the dragon was supposed to have offended the party-state elder Deng Xiaoping, whose Zodiac Sign was the Dragon, that it helped seal the fate of The World Economic Herald 世界經濟導報, the popular newspaper that ran the conversation).

In Taiwan, by contrast, the Dragon had resurfaced in the unlikely context of the US government’s recognition of the People’s Republic of China in 1979 and the abandonment of three decades of diplomatic support for the Republic of China. At the time, the campus song-writer Hou Dejian 侯德健 composed ‘Heirs of the Dragon’ 龍的傳人 to express the melancholy mood of the island and a profound frustration with China’s autocratic traditions; then and subsequently the song has generally been misinterpreted as being a paean for the outsized scaly creature and its descendants, the Chinese People.

Hou’s lyrics describe a sense that many people have had of growing up not secure in the reassuring embrace of the dragon, but rather constricted by this snake-like totem and oppressed by its mighty claws:

In the ancient East there is a dragon;
China is its name.
In the ancient East there lives a people,
The dragon’s heirs every one.
Under the mighty claws of this might dragon I grew up
And its heir I have become.
Like it or not —
Once and forever, an heir of the dragon.


Hou Dejian’s fellow Taiwanese writer, the acerbic essayist and historian Bo Yang 柏楊, was even more direct:

I really don’t know why the Chinese people have chosen this grim, hideous figure of the dragon to symbolise our nation!  In fact, the dragon can only symbolise the hardships of our people!  Whenever anyone mentions ‘Heirs of the Dragon’, my hair stands on end.

It was a sentiment repeated by the mainland writers of the controversial tele-series River Elegy 河殤 broadcast on CCTV at the height of late-1980s openness which excoriated China’s inward-looking, landlocked culture:

In the garden of the Republican-era Presidential Palace 總統府, Nanjing. Photograph by Lois Conner.

Some say there is an element in Chinese culture that tolerates evil; others say the fatal weaknesses of the Chinese national character are worldly wisdom, fatalism and a docile acceptance of suffering. This in no accident… . Water is the lifeblood of agriculture, and it is the dragon king who rules over water. For this reason, this nation both loves and hates the dragon, worships him and curses him.  It is a complex combination of emotions, as twisted as the form of the dragon itself…

You could say that [the dragon] is the symbol of our nation. But has anyone ever considered why the Chinese adore this terrifying monster?

After defecting to the mainland in the early 1980s, Hou Dejian, now cast not as a forlorn Taiwanese Chinese betrayed by American dreaming but as a patriot, was for a time a darling of the authorities. ‘Heirs of the Dragon’ became something of an unofficial anthem, uniting at least superficially the Mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong. For the Communist authorities it lost some of its lustre when Hou joined the protesters in Tiananmen Square in April-June 1989, and revised the song for the occasion.


The description of the dragon, and the potted history of the dragon as a symbol in China is from my In the Red: on contemporary Chinese culture, New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. The quoted material from Hou Dejian, Bo Yang and River Elegy first appeared in Geremie Barmé and Linda Jaivin, eds, New Ghosts, Old Dreams: Chinese Rebel Voices, New York: Times Books, 1992, pp.153-155.