The Chinese dragon is not the same as the Western counterpart inasmuch as it has always been considered a benevolent monster. It was worshiped since earliest times as Lung Wang (the Dragon King), in charge of rain. The dragon is the chief of the four supernatural creatures, the others being the unicorn, the tortoise, and the phoenix. Many believe that the physical appearance of the dragon is based on some prehistoric animal, but it also resembles alligators which are found in some Chinese rivers along with smaller serpents and lizards.
The dragon lives part of the year in heaven and part of the year in the mud underground. Most dragons inhabit the watery depths of the sea and rivers, and popular tradition has four dragon Kings ruling over the four seas surrounding the habitable earth. The dragon was originally the symbol of fertile rain, and the regenerative power of heaven, but beginning with the earliest literature, dragons were appropriated by the rulers of China as emblems of imperial power. Many of the early emperors were said to have dragon fathers and terrestrial mothers. The emperors became known as “dragon faced” men who sat on the dragon throne and entered heaven on the back of a dragon. The imperial dragon was depicted as having five claws on his foot rather than four, like dragons of the more common type.
Because of the constant association with power, dragons came to symbolize success, wealth, and importance. The I Ching uses the dragon to signify wisdom. Physically, however, dragons are an amalgam of nine different beasts. It is believed that there are in fact nine different types of dragon, each inhabiting a different type of environment and in charge of different powers. The only harmful variety of dragon is the chiao which is scaly and resides in the marshes high in the mountain. For its strength, the dragon is always shown pursuing a pearl, which is called the Pearl of Potentiality. If lost, the pearl leaves the dragon helpless and incapable of action. The picture of a dragon trying to swallow the sun has often been used by magistrates to signify the impossibility of their dealing unjustly.
While the cult of the dragon in China is widespread due to imperial appropriation of the mythical animal, it remained popular as a water deity also. Sailors and boat owners traditionally beseeched the dragon for safety on water and for wealth. The dragon was held responsible for storms and droughts, as well as being in charge of the confluence of two rivers. Peasants prayed to the dragon and made earthen dragon images to bring rain in times of drought. Floods were also the dragon’s domain, and were controlled by the proper sacrifices. The teeth and bones of the dragon are considered among the rarest of medical substances. They are gathered from the bones of mammoths and other prehistoric beasts occasionally found in China, and they are ground into a fine powder and sold for a very high sum of money.