Most times, you hear the dragon boats before you see them.
Jumanji-style drum beats fill the air, pounding out a steady rhythm as a 20-strong crew paddles in sync on long, sleek boats in a bid to outrace one another. But the intensity of these competitions aren’t the only eye-catching feature during the Dragon Boat Festival, which takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month in the lunar calendar and falls on June 22 this year.
The boats’ visually arresting designs also play a part in enticing crowds of curious onlookers. Every boat bears a fierce-looking dragon head on its bow, with two horns, piercing eyes, and a wide-open mouth filled with sharp teeth.
Most Chinese Christians do not see any issue with observing or participating in the Dragon Boat Festival, whether through the boat races or in eating savory, sticky rice dumplings known as zongzi (粽子). However, they may regard dragons negatively because of how these fabled creatures are depicted in Scripture.
It’s important to dispel misconceptions about these mythical beings in Chinese culture and develop a fuller understanding of what dragons in the Bible refer to, the biblical scholars CT interviewed say.
Chinese people often have furniture or jewelry bearing images of dragons, as they symbolize prosperity, luck, blessing, and wisdom in Chinese culture. The fantastical beasts are also emblems of imperial power: Chinese emperors were described as “the dragon” and often wore a robe emblazoned with a dragon to represent their “divine and omnipotent rule.”
But some pastors in Malaysia and Hong Kong, as well as at Chinese churches in the US, tell believers to destroy these items because they are evil, says K. K. Yeo, a New Testament professor at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, who was born and raised in Borneo, Malaysia. Christians whose Chinese names contain the character long (龙) for dragon may even be encouraged to change them.
“Assuming that the Revelation 12 dragon is Western and reading the Western meaning of ‘dragons’ into the Chinese dragon is a major flaw in biblical interpretation,” Yeo said. “This is a misunderstanding, and therefore a simplistic way of condemning Chinese culture flat out.”
In the Chinese Union Version (CUV) of the Bible, the character long (龙) for the word dragon appears 138 times. In the Old Testament, it is typically found in transliterations of biblical names such as Absalom (押沙龙), says Chee-Chiew Lee from the School of Theology (Chinese) at Singapore Bible College.
The character is mostly used to represent dragon in the Book of Revelation. In the CUV, it appears in verses that mention the red dragon (12:3), the beast with two horns that speaks like a dragon (13:11), and when an angel catches the dragon—also described as an ancient serpent or a devil—and binds him for a thousand years (20:2).
Only one Bible translation, the Worldwide Chinese Version, uses the Mandarin characters for the phrase evil snake (魔蛇) instead of dragon in Revelation, Lee said.
To accurately grasp what Scripture refers to when speaking of dragons, we have to recognize that the Bible was situated in ancient Near East culture, the biblical scholars interviewed by CT emphasized.
In such a polytheistic environment, a god often battles with—and defeats—an opponent that is usually portrayed as a serpent. A Babylonian myth, for example, records the god Marduk fighting with the serpentine sea goddess Tiamat, while a Canaanite Ugaritic tale shows the god Baal at loggerheads with Lotan, a seven-headed sea monster whose name means “coiled.”
In the King James Version, the Hebrew word tannîn is translated as dragon in verses like Jeremiah 51:34 and Nehemiah 2:13. The Hebrew word livyāṯān appears in the Greek Septuagint as either ophis or drakon, and the latter word may be one reason why these ancient beasts became known as “dragons” in English, says Lee.
“The problem when translating [these words] as ‘dragon’ is that you think of the medieval dragon, not the Jewish serpent,” Lee said. “The medieval dragon has wings. In the Hebrew tradition, it has no wings and no feet. It’s more like a snake than a lizard. It doesn’t have fire spewing from its mouth.”
Readers of Chinese versions of Scripture may also see dragons through a cultural lens.
In Chinese mythology, dragons have scaly, slinky bodies and are wingless, although male dragons have the ability to fly to the heavens and cause rain to occur. (Female dragons oversee earthly water bodies.) Dragons exist in many different realms—from the sky to the sea and the underworld—and exert control over them.
Protestant translators wanted Chinese believers to leave the potentially idolatrous aspect of culture behind, and so connected long to negative imagery in the CUV, which was published in 1919. But an accurate reading of long in Scripture requires understanding that there are two senses in translation, Lee says.
The first involves a translation of language: In English and Chinese Bibles, the words dragon and long, respectively, are different symbols and represent different mythic animals. The second refers to a translation of culture, wherein a symbol that denotes something in one culture need not be totally equivalent in another culture.
For example, said Lee, “If, in the Chinese culture, receiving a gift means you need to open it after your giver leaves, it doesn’t translate that all cultures must do the same.”
For believers, this all means that the biblical symbol of the snake or serpent as evil does not imply that dragons in Chinese culture are evil.
“The Chinese understanding of ‘dragon’ is different from the ancient Near Eastern [understanding], which is used in the Bible. These are two civilizations that are not the same,” Yeo said. Instead, he suggests understanding long as er long (恶龙), or “evil dragon,” to bring out a clearer understanding of the beast in Revelation.
One danger in always reading long as a representation of evil can occur when Chinese Christians reject their culture in its entirety, Asian biblical scholars say.
“Without learning the hermeneutics of metaphors and symbols, people tend to equate symbols with reality or ontology rather than [seeing] symbols as cultural expressions,” Lee explains. “Symbols are dependent on their culture, and their use in that culture is rather fixed.”
In her Mandarin-language seminary courses, Lee uses examples of common cultural customs to demonstrate how symbols are imbued with meaning from their particular cultures. The giving of red packets during the Lunar New Year signifies a festive season in Chinese culture, but when it comes to other local celebrations like Hari Raya Puasa (what Eid al-Fitr is known as in Singapore), people exchange green packets, not red, because the color green symbolizes “paradise, eternity, and wisdom” in Islam.
In China, such misconceptions about Scripture and culture were more pervasive in the 1980s and ’90s, says Zhang San, a pastor in Shanghai (he is using a pseudonym for security reasons). Christians in China refrained from wearing clothes with dragon imagery and did not participate in dragon boat festivals. Many also refused to sing a popular patriotic song, “Descendants of the Dragon,” because they felt that believers were not descendants of Satan, who is referred to as a dragon in Revelation 20:2.
This is no longer an issue for churches in China today because of improvements in biblical literacy, says Zhang. Besides understanding that tannîn is used to describe various sea creatures like whales, crocodiles, and serpents, churches in the country have also moved from more literal to more allegorical expositions of Revelation.
Another danger in understanding long as evil may arise when this interpretation results in a “very distorted sense of eschatology,” said Yeo. Upon rejecting Chinese culture by deeming it evil and thinking that it will be ultimately destroyed, some might think that Western culture is better, whether consciously or subconsciously, Yeo says.
This perception of the West’s superiority is problematic to Yeo: “All cultures have their good points. All are also fallen. Once you have a comparative superior-inferior culture, you are going to have ethnocentrism, racism, nationalism, and a colonial mentality.”
These misconceptions may persist in some parts of Asia. But Chinese Christians don’t see any conflict with their faith when participating in the Dragon Boat Festival, because the event has cultural and historical roots rather than religious ones, Yeo says.
At the same time, Christians do not have a reputation for evangelizing during the Dragon Boat Festival. Zhang, the Shanghai pastor, attributes this lack of engagement among Christians in China to the country’s rapid urbanization and strong atheistic education, which has “removed and cleaned the existence of civil religion.”
“Compared to urbanized China, the Chinese diaspora in Taiwan, Malaysia, and Hong Kong has a more ‘thick’ culture of superstition and religion” to differentiate them from other segments of society, said Zhang.
Churches also tend to be more active during another event in the lunar calendar, the Hungry Ghost Festival, because of its Buddhist and Taoist roots and because it often engenders fear of evil spirits and questions around mortality, Yeo says.
Nevertheless, Chinese Christians can explore using the origin story for the Dragon Boat Festival as an opening for the gospel.
While some say this tradition arose because of superstitious villagers in China who worshiped a dragon god and held dragon boat races to fend off misfortune and seek divine blessing, most Chinese people attribute the event’s origins to royal advisor Qu Yuan’s heroic patriotism.
Qu Yuan was a poet and political figure in the third-century state of Chu, or ancient China. During the period of the Warring States, Qu Yuan warned his king that neighboring state Qiu was a threat to Chu. The king failed to heed his advice and banished him instead. Upon seeing his homeland descend into turmoil, a despairing Qu Yuan took his own life by drowning in the Mi Luo River.
One version of this account says that farmers took dragon boats out on the water to save Qu Yuan’s life, while another says that rice dumplings were thrown into the river to feed fish and a river dragon, thereby preventing his body from being consumed.
Many Chinese people regard Qu Yuan as a beloved figure who transcends “the simple story of his self-sacrifice, coming to represent the very embodiment of patriotism.” Chinese believers, however, can take Qu Yuan’s story a step further by teasing out its connections with Christian themes.
“The biblical narrative provides us with a larger, more persuasive narrative on why a heroic event is not simply about Chinese history but has Christian faith motifs connected with it,” Yeo said. “In the Christian sense, he is like a prophetic figure standing for justice and people’s rights.”
Believers can use Qu Yuan’s heroism as a means of pointing toward the Christian idea of martyrdom, which talks of dying for God in pursuit of justice, love, and fidelity, Yeo added. Stories like these can also raise valuable questions about the relationship between Chinese history and Christian faith: “That’s the kind of work the church should do, linking the two rather than a dualistic, binary thinking.”
When reading and sharing about long in Scripture, Chinese Christians can do this well by deepening their understanding of cultural anthropology.
Dragons in Chinese culture convey a desire for security, peace, blessing, joy, and power, and these can be a helpful starting point for believers to share about a yearning for a greater and more enduring hope, Yeo says.
“It all has to do with the biblical understanding of salvation. Find those themes—salvation of God and Christ for humanity—and how the source—God and his Word—can bring about good news.”