As Lunar New Year dawns across Asia, a blue dragon takes wing

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SEOUL, South Korea — As dawn broke across East Asia Saturday, festivities region-wide ushered in the Lunar New Year — the Year of the Dragon.

The celebrations for one of Asia’s most important holidays are culturally specific, but this year’s centerpiece is universal and ubiquitous.

Dragons may be one of humanity’s favorite artistic subject, seen on T-shirts and tattoos, starring in computer games and Hollywood movies. The fascination is ancient. Mythical reptiles have captured man’s imagination for millennia, embedding themselves into lore and literature, art and religion.

“In temples from Southeast Asia all the way through China and Korea and Japan, there are dragons,” said David Mason, 66, an American author who has dedicated his life to exploring East Asia’s cultural roots in the field. “But look at churches in Europe – how many have windows with dragons, and St. George killing it? So many damned dragons!”

While they assume different forms and roles, west and east, the first dragon likely hatched in Eurasia’s center: the cradle of civilization.

Here be dragons

“We think Mesopotamia is where dragons started – there is a stone carving of a river monster from ancient Babylon,” said Mr. Mason, whose next book will be a study on dragonology. “Later, they added wings and started to fly as well as swim in water, then went east and west.”

Western dragons are predominantly perilous, hoarding gold, threatening maidens, and being slain by heroes like St. George, Beowulf, and Siegfried. Mr. Mason notes that dragons can also symbolize strength and loyalty, as on the Welsh flag, but “are mainly evil – like a snake, or like Satan” in the Western European imagination.

Dragons traveled east early in human history: “The Chinese had the character for dragon (“yong”) around 3,500 years ago,” the author said, and Eastern dragons tend to be more benevolent than their Western counterparts, drawing on a more benign tradition.

“The authority of the dragon is in the clouds,” Mr. Mason said. “It is the symbol of heaven, and the dragon with five claws is the symbol of the emperor.”

Under Chinese imperial codes, foreign kings and top nobles could only represent dragons with four claws, and lower nobles were limited to three. “In old days if you put a carving of a dragon with five claws on your house, you’d be arrested,” he said.

Reflecting the culture from which they sprung culture, Chinese dragons observe hierarchies. According to Chinese folklore and geomancy, 2024’s dragon is blue (from the primary colors), eastern (from the cardinal directions), and wooden (from the five elements).

Such complications may baffle outsiders, but for common people tilling the soil, subject to seasons and storms, dragons meant something very different: water dynamics.

“On the ocean, there are always waves — because there are dragons down there making it move!” Mr. Mason noted. “Mist comes off the ocean and become clouds, and clouds twist and turn — because there are dragons in there!”

Before the development of environmental science, dragon beliefs helped encourage sound land-use practices for poor, struggling farmers.

“They did not know why water moved, but saw that if it became stagnant, it became poison and fish died,” Mr. Mason explained. “They saw that clouds moves from oceans to mountains, then it rains, rain is captured in the mountains, and this becomes springs or waterfalls.”

Fresh, clean water sources are where Asian dragons were worshiped. And the flow of dragon-inspired wisdom goes on.

“Springs become rivers, and rivers become human civilization: All settlements were built on riverbanks,” Mr. Mason said. “Without water moving there is no life and no civilization. So dragons are good!”

Snakes, dinosaurs, crocodiles

Across East Asia, dragons appear in paintings and sculptures, writhe across vases, curl around pillars. Embroidered on silk, they inspire dances and martial arts, and they feature frequently in proverbs. “Do not despise the snake because he has no horns,” one warns. “One day, he may become a dragon!”

Asian dragons have snakelike qualities, fearsome qualities reflected in modern phobias. “Snakes were scary,” Mr. Mason said. “We would light fires to keep them away.”

As present-day horror films make clear, man captures his fears in art. Snakes inspired dragon imagery as Buddhism traveled east from India.

“In images from India are these giant cobras that protected the Buddha, and as Chinese influence grew, these giant snakes become dragons,” Mr. Mason said. “You can see gigantic dragons that are really snakelike in Cambodia, Myanmar and Thailand, but in India, they are still giant snakes. In Northeast Asia, the dragons are more ‘T-Rex-ish.’”

Did dinosaurs, whose bones were first excavated and scientifically categorized in 19th century in Europe and the U.S., inspire the widespread interest in dragons? The Gobi Desert is a trove of dinosaur relics, and Chinese called traditional medicines of powdered bones “dragon bones.”

“It’s speculated that ancients found bones and thought this was a monster that still lived,” Mr. Mason said. “It’s an interesting theory.”

Today’s most dragon-like creatures — crocodiles and alligators — most likely served as inspirations. “Babylonians saw dragons as big fish with big teeth,” Mr. Mason said. “The idea of crocodiles might have blended into that, to make them reptilian.”

Subsequently, imperial Romans and Crusaders in the Middle Ages encountered Nile crocodiles, possibly influencing Western dragon imagery and art. Eastern dragons, however, are rarely depicted in swamps or jungles. They swim through oceans or rivers, and writhe through clouds over mountains.

American interpreter of Asian lore

It was the mountains and the lore associated with them that first lured Mr. Mason to Asia.

Peering through thick glasses under a shock of receding white hair, he favors voluminous khaki shorts and could be an extra in an “Indiana Jones” movie. He speaks passionately and emotionally about the research subjects that still enthrall him.

Growing up a Boy Scout in “white bread” Detroit stoked an interest in more distant cultures, he recalls. When the boy from flat Michigan first visited the Rockies, the impression was powerful: “I got a religious sense,” Mr. Mason said.

He majored in Eastern philosophy at the University of Michigan, then jetted east as soon as possible: “The Boy Scouts gave me the skills to pick up a pack and a map and go.”

He ended up in South Korea, where backpackers could earn a living as English teachers. Beyond the cities, he discovered a thriving, ancient culture in the Korean peninsula’s high places.

“There are these really beautiful mountains and nature, but also all  these Buddhist temples and Shaman shrines — not museum stuff, real stuff!” Mr. Mason said. “This combination was perfect for me. Everything I loved was in one location.”

He was astonished to find that, that though Koreans proudly showed their Buddhist culture and roots to foreigners, they denigrated the more ancient beliefs of shamanism, which includes such practices as communicating with the dead and exorcisms.

“The oldest format of Korean culture is Shamanism, indeed, of human culture,” Mr. Mason said. “It started 20-30,000 years ago, moved into paganism and then into religions.”

“The government said it was old witchcraft, and shameful,” he continued. “That’s still an attitude today.”

Diving deeply into his subject, he earned a master’s degree in religious history at Yonsei University, taught at South Korean colleges, and guided specialized tours. His books include a “Lonely Planet” Korea guide, an award-winning work on Korea’s mountain spirits and an encyclopedia of Korean Buddhism.

Today he divides his time between Korea, where he works as a tour guide and lecturer, and his home in the Philippines, where his wife and son live.

There, his book on dragons is taking shape. The research he has done in the field, on Shamanism, Daoism and Buddhism, swarms with dragons, and the universality of the mythical creatures means that, even compared to his 600-page tome on Buddhism, it could be a big book.

“It’s dynamic power! Macho energy! The king of heavens, fire-breathing — people love the idea!” he said. “There may be more depictions of dragons than of anything or anyone. It’s mind-blowing, it’s like counting stars in the sky.”

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