Skip to content

Here be dragons….


Re-reading what is pretty much my all-time favourite book, Douglas Hofstadter’s Le Ton beau de Marot, I again came across the fascinating information that many of the creatures known in English as dinosaurs are known in Mandarin Chinese as various kinds of dragon (lóng): dinosaur itself is kǒng lóng (= fearsome dragon), brontosaurus is léi lóng (= thunder dragon), tyrannosaurus rex is bà wáng lóng (= despot dragon), triceratops is sān jiǎo lóng (= three-horn dragon), and so on. Even some other prehistoric creatures, as well as modern ones, are dragons in Chinese: pterodactyl is yì lóng (= wing dragon) or yì shǒu lóng (= wing-hand dragon), and chameleon is biàn sè lóng (= change-colour dragon).

All these creatures most definitely exist (or existed); even fundamentalist Christians admit that, only they affect to believe (and teach their children) that the prehistoric ones co-existed with us some time in the past six thousand years – some time after dogs were domesticated, although such minor details seem not to bother them. But in the Chinese language, and presumably mind, all these creatures are associated with dragons – and, with apologies to those of us who believe in dragons, there is no reason to suppose that they have ever existed. They are surely as mythical as mermaids, basilisks, unicorns, djinns and dybbuks.

What are we to make of all this? I find it curious to think of Chinese archaeologists, some of them world leaders in their field, blurring the distinction between fact and legend in this way. To be sure, dragons are a constant feature of Chinese imagery – a fact I was reminded of not long ago when I was walking in Amsterdam’s small Chinatown with my friend Ellen (who speaks and reads Chinese) and she started deciphering the names of the restaurants (which by no means always matched the names in Dutch or, in many cases, English). At least one included the word lóng = dragon, and quite a few Chinese restaurants in both Holland and Belgium are called De Gouden Draak (The Golden Dragon). But do Chinese scientists really believe in their heart of hearts that dragons do – or did – exist?

Interestingly, the meanings of the Chinese names for these creatures tend to echo the meanings of the Greek-based names that are used in English – for instance brontosaurus means thunder lizard, and in modern Greek brontê and saura (now pronounced vrondí and sávra) still mean thunder and lizard. So the Chinese names are almost certainly literal translations of the Western ones. But in Chinese the Greek word for lizard (zoologically inaccurate, but a lizard is at least a living creature) has been consistently replaced – I have to assume deliberately – by the word for dragon (the Chinese for lizard is quite different: xī yì).

One amusing sideline on this story is that some Christian fundamentalists have cited the recurrence of dragon legends around the world – from Wales (whose flag displays a red dragon) to Vietnam (whose people are supposedly descended from an egg-laying goddess and her uncharacteristically loveable dragon mate) – as ‘proof’ that humans and dinosaurs co-existed in recent times. Against all the evidence – not that evidence has ever deterred them – they have even claimed that dinosaurs breathed fire, igniting methane gas belched from their vast bellies by gnashing their teeth to create the necessary sparks. If humans had not seen such things with their own eyes, how could all the dragon legends ever have developed? Ergo, dinosaurs walked the earth with us.

Quite frankly, if they had, our chances of surviving into the twenty-first century would have been minimal – we would surely have been gobbled up and reduced to methane gas much earlier on. Can these people really believe such stuff?

A cartoon a friend recently sent me on the subject of wine pretty well sums it up. It showed two Stone Age humans (who presumably lived before dogs were domesticated). The caption read ‘Simple rule of thumb: if it tries to eat us, serve with red – if it runs away from us, serve with white’.

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: