The Chinese zodiac marks 2024 as the Year of the Dragon (龙, long). Every 12 years, numerous Chinese families harbor hopes of welcoming a “dragon baby”—because for thousands of years, Chinese culture has held the dragon in high esteem, and many Chinese people identify themselves as “descendants of the dragon” (龙的传人).
However, numerous misunderstandings and fears about the dragon exist among many Chinese Christians, because they believe the Bible regards the creature as satanic. For them, the imaginary creature is either a symbol of nationalism or the Devil incarnate.
This Year of the Dragon, believers would do well to ask: What might it look like for the gospel to transcend Chinese dragon culture? And what would it mean for Chinese believers to transition from identifying as descendants of the dragon to heirs of God?
Not St. George’s dragon
My surname is Long (龙), which means “dragon.” After my conversion to Christianity, numerous Christians advised me to change my surname because it is the same word as dragon in Chinese Bible translations, and Revelation 12:9 states that the dragon is Satan. While these Christians may have been trying to keep me from associating with the Evil One, I found their interpretation to be an oversimplification and a misunderstanding of both the Bible and Chinese culture.
In the first place, there are significant differences between the dragons in Chinese culture and the dragons in Western culture and the Bible (Greek: drakōn), starting with their appearance. The “enormous red dragon” in Revelation possesses “seven heads and ten horns” (Rev. 12:3), whereas the Chinese dragon only has one head and two horns. And Western dragons have wings and can fly, spewing flames from their mouths, while Chinese dragons can ascend through the clouds (without wings) and bring forth wind and rain.
Further, these dragons represent opposing ideas. In the ancient Near East, ancient Greece, and historic Western culture, dragons symbolize evil, violence, disaster, and destruction. But in China and East Asia, dragons symbolize sacredness, nobility, auspiciousness, and blessing. William E. Soothill, a missionary to Wenzhou, China, and professor of Sinology at Oxford University, noted that in China, the dragon is always doing good, while the Western dragon is almost entirely seen as evil—harming people, stealing princesses, and provoking heroes, such as St. George, to slay them.
From the 13th century to the present, various Chinese and foreign scholars have suggested not translating the Chinese character as dragon but instead using phonetic transliterations such as loung or loong. Similarly, Soothill suggested using lung. (In this article, I use the modern Pinyin long.) More specific and accurate translations for the Revelation dragon include e long (“evil dragon”); du long (“poisonous dragon”); and mo she (“demon snake”).
‘Descendants of the dragon’
The first dragon imagery appears in Chinese culture during the Neolithic period (around 8,000 B.C.), made from piles of stones or painted onto pottery. Since then, the dragon has come to be associated in four distinct ways in Chinese history.
First, in prehistoric times, it served as a tribal totem. Then, following the Qin (221–206 B.C.) and Han (202 B.C.–A.D. 220) dynasties, it became a symbol of imperial power. The late Qing dynasty (1644–1912), for example, represented itself with the “Yellow Dragon Flag,” the first national flag of China. Henceforth, the dragon symbolized China as a nation.
Today, the dragon has become a unifying identity marker of Chinese people worldwide, who all regard themselves as children of the long. The song “Descendants of the Dragon” played a pivotal role in shaping and popularizing this understanding.
In 1978, the Taiwanese campus folk singer-songwriter Hou Dejian composed this song to articulate the shared heritage of the people on either side of the Taiwan Strait. As China opened its arms to the world again in the 1980s, embracing reform and progress, the song gained prominence.
In 1988, Hou performed “Descendants of the Dragon” at the CCTV Spring Festival Gala, giving voice to the sentiments of hundreds of millions of Chinese people: “In the ancient East, there is a dragon, its name is China; in the ancient East, there is a group of people, they are all descendants of the dragon.”
This assertion of Chinese identity was far more significant than any religious superstition or idol worship. From the “century of humiliation” to its economic and political rise, the image of the Chinese dragon has evolved dramatically from a “sleeping dragon” to an “awake dragon” to a “mad dragon.”
Putting the dragon in his place
Our dragon discussion gives us the opportunity to consider three of philosopher H. Richard Niebuhr’s five different modes of interaction between the gospel and culture.
The first paradigm posits that the gospel can only be understood by a culture within its specific context. To that end, Christian evangelists seeking to share the gospel in a Chinese context should study the importance of dragons. As the Chinese/Taiwanese Buddhist scholar Nan Huaiji writes, “Chinese culture is a dragon culture. ... Our dragon is revered by heaven and man, and represents God in religious concepts.” While this view may be slightly inflated, Christians should try to understand the sanctity and transcendence symbolized by the Chinese dragon.
Similar to the “four living creatures” mentioned in Ezekiel 1 and Revelation 4, dragons are a mashup of various animal forms that represent all creatures and lead people toward transcendence. In the same way, understanding how dragons function in Chinese culture can help create more space for conversations and evangelism.
A second mode of interaction identified by Niebuhr states that the gospel can be at odds with culture. The evil dragon in Revelation 12 originates from the Leviathan in the Old Testament, which often symbolizes gentile powers like the pharaoh of Egypt (Ps. 74:14) and the nations of Assyria and Babylon (Is. 27:1), who are often set as antagonists to the people of God. Similarly, many scholars see the evil dragon and the beast of the sea in Revelation as representing the rule of the Roman Empire and its persecution of God’s people (Rev. 12). As aforementioned, the Chinese dragon also stands for imperial power. Moreover, considering the Chinese authority’s ongoing persecution of the church, Chinese Christians can easily and legitimately identify the “evil dragon” with a hostile political power.
Finally, a third perspective from Niebuhr maintains that the gospel transforms culture. Similar to the Jews’ dream in the first century to revive Israel, the Chinese dream of the 21st century is the grand revival of the Chinese nation, like a dragon soaring. However, as Christians, we know that real revival comes from a revival of faith.
In the words of the classic Chinese text I Ching, “even if the dragon soars in the sky” (飞龙在天), it will eventually become “the mighty dragon who regrets being too aggressive” (亢龙有悔). The Bible says that “every family in heaven and on earth” is named after God (Eph. 3:15). Through faith in Jesus Christ, Chinese people can become descendants of Abraham, the “father of faith.”
By God’s grace, the descendants of the dragon can be adopted by the heavenly Father, become heirs of God in Christ, and receive the abundant inheritance of God’s family. Therefore, the deepest form of love for one’s people and nation is to emulate the apostle Paul, striving to bring the gospel of Christ to his fellow Jews (Rom. 9:3).
“Jews demand signs and Greeks look for wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22); Americans desire freedom and Chinese people pursue wealth and power. The gospel, which concerns all nations, both challenges and fulfills the pursuits of different cultural groups. The Cross may seem “foolish” and a “stumbling block,” but it is the true miracle, wisdom, freedom, and strength.
Heirs of God by grace
After being ordained as a pastor in 2017, I did not change my surname. Instead, I changed my first name in Chinese to 降恩 (Xiang’en), which means “surrender to God’s grace.” I also decided to reclaim and reinterpret the idea of “descendants of the long” for the Chinese church.
To that end, I have organized and promoted a youth missionary movement in mainland China with the theme of “Heirs” (传人) and written a theme song for it called “Song of the Heirs”:
In the land of God,
the descendants of the gospel advance in waves;
To the nations,
Those who preach the gospel rise up for the Lord.
Chinese Christians are not only receivers of traditional culture but also reformers of contemporary culture and creators of emerging culture. When reflecting on the complex relationship between the gospel and culture, we need a grand and holistic Christian worldview, capable of carrying the gospel’s tolerance of, challenge for, and renewal of culture.
Before Hou Dejian delivered his performance of “Descendants of the Dragon” in 1998, he proclaimed, “Among the 12 zodiac signs, the Chinese hold a special affection for the dragon. This is because, while God created the other 11 animals, the dragon was invented by the Chinese people.”
Whether this is true or not, it is true that the Chinese were created by God and that God’s love encompasses all people. Naturally, the Chinese can appreciate the imagination and culture we have crafted around the long, but if this blinds us to God’s love, then we are prioritizing the trivial over the essential.
In the new heaven and new earth, the imaginary dragon will not make an appearance. But the descendants of God in China will be present, standing among the worshippers from all nations (Rev. 7:9).
Sean Long is a Chinese house church pastor currently pursuing doctoral studies at Wheaton College.