Omnipresent and immortal, no other creature—mythical or real—has had as powerful an impact on Chinese art, folklore, and culture as the mighty dragon.
Some dragon-like creature, perhaps a sea serpent or winged snake, features in the folk stories of almost every culture in the world. Researchers suggest an intriguing reason for this universal trope: dinosaur fossils, which can be found on almost every landmass on earth. Discovering gigantic unfamiliar bones, early mankind envisioned dragons as a way of explaining this terrifying mystery. Nowhere was this more necessary than in China, which continues to be one of the world’s richest sources of prehistoric bones. And it is China where dragons took on a greater significance than in any other culture.
Pause for a moment to consider how dragons are typically portrayed in popular Western culture: evil, angry, dangerous, fire-breathing—the ultimate storybook villains. In China, by contrast, a dragon is often the hero of the story (the same was true in early Mesoamerica). Why? Rhett Rushing is a folklorist who helped curate the exhibition “Here Be Dragons” at the University of Texas at San Antonio, which explored the cross-cultural significance of this mythical animal. “If you’re ruled by fear, like the Norse, with plants and crops that are hard to tend and a real struggle for survival, your mythology about dragons is more adversarial and the stories more brutal,” Rushing explains. “In China’s Yellow River valley, it’s temperate and the weather is stable, so the relationship is much friendlier.” (Early Mesoamerican civilizations were equally blessed with abundance, at least until an extended drought kick-started their practice of human sacrifice and curdled their view of dragons).
As for breathing fire, it’s a purely Judeo-Christian detail—a nod to the wicked serpent of the Garden of Eden myth. “J.K. Rowling treats dragons as pure evil, something to be conquered—you had to defeat or outsmart it,” Rushing says. “In China, you would help the dragon, or it would help you because you did something worthy.” No wonder Bruce Lee’s Chinese screen name was Li Xiaolong (or Little Dragon).
The Chinese dragon is a noble beast, often depicted as carrying a flaming pearl (one of the popular symbols of Chinese art known as the Eight Treasures), signifying wisdom and longevity. The early Chinese believed that dragons were present during the earth’s creation, with one holding up the heavens, while the goddess Nu Kua, part-dragon herself, created humanity. Among the first people she brought into being were the Five Emperors, mythical men considered to be China’s earliest rulers, who had dragon blood coursing through their veins. Even today, the Chinese often refer to themselves as the descendants of the dragon. “It’s a marker of pride, as well as ethnic individuality, and it’s become a symbol of China as a whole,” explains Jared Miracle, an anthropologist who writes and lectures about folklore. He notes that the Chinese version of the dragon is more standardized than in other cultures, stitched together from various creatures like a mythical Frankenstein: “It has the head of a crocodile, the antlers of a deer, the neck of a snake, the claws of an eagle, the feet of a tiger, the face of a camel, and even an oxlike set of ears.”
The earliest written reference to a dragon as we know it is in the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. Written down 4,000 years ago, the tale was probably transmitted orally for thousands of years before that, according to Miracle. Since then, certain dragon tales have risen to prominence and helped define the cultures in which they emerged. Miracle cites the legend most associated with St. George, which appeared during the Crusades. In this story, the heroic knight rescues a village from a dragon that demanded daily sacrifices, including children, and offers to slay the beast if the villagers convert to Christianity. “It’s the national myth of England,” he says, “and has so much symbolic value that it becomes a shorthand for national identity.”
In East Asia, meanwhile, there was another resonant dragon myth, that of the carp and the Dragon Gate. It provides a lyrical explanation for why carp swim upstream and leap from the water. This ambitious fish isn’t trying to spawn, claims the story, but rather to find the Dragon Gate at the end of the river. If it beats the current to reach this magical place, the carp will be transformed into a dragon. The legend might be familiar to Pokémon players, Miracle notes: “There’s a [carp-like] Pokémon that is completely useless throughout the game, but if you stick with him, the child is rewarded with it turning into this absurdly powerful monster.”
Clearly this mythical beast continues to capture our imagination, just as it has since human beings began telling stories—when it took the form of the Leviathan, a legend that predates the Old Testament, and Jörmungandr, the Midgard Serpent of Norse mythology, a dragon so large that it encircled the earth and grasped its own tail in its mouth. When early mapmakers were faced with areas yet unexplored, they used a stock phrase to denote the danger of these unknown lands: “Here Be Dragons.” More recently, J.K. Rowling honored the animal in the motto of Hogwarts—“Draco dormiens nunquam titillandus” (Latin for “Never tickle a sleeping dragon”)—and used the same name for Harry Potter’s adversary Draco Malfoy. In the gory world of Game of Thrones, few characters survive more than a few episodes—except, of course, the resilient Daenerys Targaryen, Mother of Dragons.
Across Wynn’s resorts from Las Vegas to Macau, the dragon motif retains its beneficent power from Chinese lore. A golden dragon appears as a sculpture among centuries-old pomegranate trees in the Las Vegas gardens outside Wing Lei restaurant and in a shimmering pen-and-ink drawing projected on a vase at Macau’s SW Steakhouse. It could be on a menu—the green tea at Golden Flower is named Dragon Well—or above the best table in the house, as at Macau’s Wing Lei, where a sinuous dragon writhes in midair along one wall. This glittering animal weighs more than 600 pounds and contains 90,000 crystals. At Wynn Palace, meanwhile, monumental red and gold dragons guard each corner of the performance lake, while the gondolas that glide around the fountains owe their shape to the dragon.
Undoubtedly the grandest dragon anywhere, though, is at Wynn Macau: the Dragon of Fortune, an animatronic beast that materializes in the main rotunda (in rotation with the Tree of Prosperity), created by designer Michael Curry. With an illuminated base that evokes decorative jade, Curry’s dream dragon stands 26 feet high and blows smoke from its nostrils; fully unfurled, it would stretch to more than 70 feet. The aluminum frame is precisely controlled by computer. No detail is left to chance, not even the lotus flower, which blooms the moment the dragon gazes upon it. Noting the sculpture’s prominence at the entrance to Wynn Macau, Curry explains simply, “Dragons are fortuitous and represent good luck in our story.”
But not only luck; dragons are also associated with power, which may help to explain their hold over us, in China and elsewhere. “Dragons are powerful, whereas humans are not,” says Rushing. “In a world we can’t control, a giant portion of folklore comes from trying to control things. Any way you developed a relationship with dragons, whether conquering or appeasing them, increased your status and power.” Wynn’s own Roger Thomas, the design guru responsible for the dragon motif throughout the company’s properties, agrees. “With their bulging eyes, long horns, and bare teeth, there’s something beautiful and terrifying at the same time,” he says, “and we’re all attracted to terrible beauty.” Dragons have been favored by artists and designers for millennia, and Thomas doesn’t discount the aesthetic aspect of their enduring popularity: “As a design motif, they’re wonderful. They create sinuous curves and loops, both horizontally and vertically, with the theatricality of those amazing heads.”
But perhaps the dragon persists in popular culture for a simpler reason: The creature is both startlingly fantastical and unnervingly familiar. Or, as Jared Miracle says in a whisper, “They’re right on the cusp of being real.”