Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

Yao Minji
Slay the dragon in your mindset about the upcoming holiday. Two mythical creatures of disparate appearance and symbolism have muddied cultural appreciation.
Yao Minji
Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper
Dong Jun / SHINE

Happy Loong Year!

For Westerners, the Year of the Dragon is approaching. For the Chinese, it's the Year of the Loong. This disparity is not a matter of semantics; it's a significant cultural difference between two mythical creatures with different appearances, different characteristics and different symbolism.

The Chinese New Year, which begins on February 10 this year, gives us a chance to explore this dichotomy in greater detail and, perhaps, for Westerners to revise their thinking.

The Western dragon is depicted as a ferocious, green lizard-like creature with wings, a long tail and breath of fire. It is considered evil and to be slain by heroes.

The loong, sometimes called the "Chinese dragon," is a serpentine creature with no wings and a noble aura. Its image is a composite of nine animals, including the horns of a deer, the head of a horse, the claws of a tiger and the body of a snake. It is a benevolent creature associated with controlling power over water, and has long symbolized prosperity, wisdom and the authority of the emperor.

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

Year of the Dragon fountain pen, by Visconti

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

"Draco Darling" by Benu, to commemorate 2024 Chinese New Year.

Slowly, Westerners are becoming cognizant of these differences and why they matter.

Scottish Whiskey brand Johnnie Walker named its limited New Year artist edition and exhibition "Loong to Walk." And Badaling, the most popularly visited section of the Great Wall, launched a virtual IP image in December – a cartoon Chinese dragon called DaDaLoong.

Shanghai-based designer Christina Huang, 25, said the loong presents a good design element, both visually and for word-creation in both Chinese and English contexts.

"Visually, it has a long body," she explained. "The two Os are easy to decorate creatively, and you can always add more Os."

She added, "Loong is also similar to the English word 'long.' With the Chinese pronunciation of Chinese dragon, you can create a lot of new phrases in English, interchanging it with 'long,' or in Chinese, interchanging it with the Chinese character."

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

The virtual IP image of Badaling section of the Great Wall

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

Johnnie Walker "Loong to Walk" at Shanghai Center

When the Chinese say "may you live loong and prosper," they are evoking a common blessing for longevity and good fortune.

Cultural sensitivity has proven a stumbling stone for global brands trying to indulge one of the world's largest consumer markets. Their campaigns and products have often been tripped up by a failure to understand Chinese tradition or by the use of outdated cultural stereotypes.

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper
Huang Ji

Designers get creative with "loong" at a mall in Foshan, Guangdong Province.

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

New Year poster by L.I.Studio @ RED

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

Loong poster by Senslab@RED

Many luxury brands have been mocked by Chinese consumers for their ubiquitous use of red colors or red characters to appeal to local consumers, who don't make the cultural connection or consider the choice offensive.

Many brands have come to realize that modern Chinese consumers "like products with a Chinese feel," and it's important to "show respect for local traditions and be relevant for local consumers," Adidas CEO Kasper Rorsted said in a 2022 interview with CNBC, when explaining the sportwear's big drop in revenue in the region.

When it comes to loong, one of the most important cultural symbols of China, brands tread carefully but not always wisely.

Apple was the latest to spark a backlash among Chinese netizens for its Year of the Dragon iPhone case, priced at 498 yuan (US$70). According to the product description on the company's website, the case "brings to life the dragon's bold personality through bursts of peony-shaped fireworks, swirling lines, and bright colors."

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

Year of the Dragon iPhone case, with four claws

In trending on Chinese social media platforms, netizens lambasted Apple's depiction, saying it doesn't resemble the culturally accepted five-clawed loong of China.

Various folk experts and historians point out that the modern-day Chinese dragon appeared after the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). Prior to that, the mythical creature was depicted in various guises – some of them quite different from current common imagery.

For example, a unique type of jade artifact from the Hongshan Culture, dating back 5,000 to 6,500 years, sparked a lot of debate among archeologists due to its pig-like shape. It was coined a "jade pig-dragon" and was regarded as the earliest prototype of the symbolic animal.

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper
Nationa Museum of China

A dragon carved from dark green Xiuyan jade. Regarding the prototype of the dragon, researchers have put forward various hypotheses, such as snakes, crocodiles, lizards, fish, salamanders, horses, cows, pigs, deer, bears, tigers, silkworms, grubs, pine trees, clouds, lightning and so on. It has the reputation of "China's No. 1 dragon."

The loong as we know it today became a major form about 2,000 years ago, sporting three, four or five claws. In the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the five-clawed loong became the official imperial symbol to be used only by the emperor, while the four-clawed python version could be used by kings, usually the emperor's brothers or close relatives.

French fashion house Louis Vuitton got a thumbs-up from Chinese consumers for "having done its homework" by placing giant azure dragon decorations outside some of its Chinese outlets and resisting the typical red or golden dragon images used by so many brands.

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

An Azure dragon outside Louis Vuitton at Taikoo Li Qiantan in Pudong

The Chinese New Year not only rotates through 12 animal zodiacs, but each zodiac rotates by the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The year of 2024 is the wood dragon, which is greenish blue in color.

In ancient Chinese astrology, the azure dragon is one of four symbols that are guardians of the four cardinal directions – the azure dragon of the east, the vermilion bird of the south, the white tiger of the west and the black tortoise of the north,

Thus, many people consider the Azure Dragon Year, which occurs every 60 years, especially lucky.

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper
Silver Drumstick

Azure Dragon red package, hongbao, by Silver Drumstick@RED

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper
Xia de Guo Zi

Loong-shaped dim sum by xiadeguozi@RED

The Oxford English Dictionary has updated its online site by creating "Chinese dragon" as a separate listing. Previously, it was often listed as a sub-item under "dragon" in major dictionaries.

The revised entry in the Oxford English Dictionary explains the meaning of "Chinese dragon" as such: "A mythological creature or god associated with China, depicted in a variety of different animal forms, but typically as a serpent with four limbs, and symbolizing wisdom, fortune, and power. Also: such a creature viewed as a personification of China or its former empire."

Hugo T.Y. Tseng, a Shanghai-based professor and translation expert, welcomed the new entry in the dictionary, writing that it "reflects the current status of a language, so that means the difference between Chinese and Western dragons is widely recognized in the English-speaking world."

However, Tseng concluded that it doesn't matter whether one uses "loong" or "Chinese dragon" to describe it.

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

A screenshot of the Chinese dragon entry on Oxford English Dictionary

Huang Ji, a retired professor from East China Normal University in Shanghai, disagrees. He tells Shanghai Daily that the new entry is late in coming and it should be "loong" instead of "Chinese dragon."

Almost 20 years ago, Huang was among the earliest Chinese scholars to promote the use of "loong" as the English translation of the mythical beast. In 2005, he set up the loong.cn website and has kept track of the distribution and use of the word since then.

He contends that "loong" and "dragon" are entirely different mythical beasts, and the evil image of the dragon in Western culture could adversely impact the image of the Chinese dragon and China.

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper
Harvard CSSA

A poster of the Ivy League Spring Festival Gala in Boston, organized by Harvard Chinese Students & Scholars Association

The retired professor of communications is particularly heartened to see the increased use of loong in English texts.

"This is a long time coming," he said. "When I first proposed the idea to use loong as the English translation, many people, especially Chinese scholars, were opposed because they said the dragon image had been used for so long that it would be too hard to replace.

Well, apparently today's Chinese, especially the younger generation, don't find it hard.

"From the perspective of communications, the use of 'loong' has passed a turning point," he said. "At first, I collected every tiny little bit of 'loong' usage, like on a coin or a belt that nobody would notice. Now, there are so many examples that I have to choose the most significant ones."

Huang added, "The more the term it is used, who says it won't become more popular with English speakers?"

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

TMall's Loong poster

Dragon and loong in history

To understand how the confusion between dragon and loong began, you have to go back in history.

The Oxford English Dictionary lists the earliest English citation of "Chinese dragon" as a 1769 translation of an epic novel "The Bronze, or Chinese Anchorite."

Some experts traced the "mistranslation" of "loong" to "dragon" to much earlier times in other European languages.

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

A page of the "The Bronze, or Chinese Anchorite" on auction.

"Dragon" appeared in the 13th century book "The Travels of Marco Polo" in a description of decorations in the royal court. In the 16th century, Italian missionary Michael Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci co-authored a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary that translated "loong" as bicha-serpens, or "bug-like serpent," and jiao, a type of loong, to "dragon."

"Well, it doesn't matter anymore how it got wrong in the first place," Huang concluded. "The fact is, loong is now used widely, and will become even more widely used."

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

A page of the now-incomplete Portuguese-Chinese dictionary co-authored by Michael Ruggieri and Matteo Ricci

Happy Chinese New Year! May you live loong and prosper

Reverso Tribute Enamel 'Dragon' by Jaeger-LeCoultre for 2024 Lunar New Year.

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