Monday, September 17, 2012

Chinese Dragons, Mermaids, and Unicorns

It's fairly well known that the Western legends of dragons differ greatly from the Eastern mythology. Westerns dragons are evil fire-breathing monsters that tend to covet treasure and fair maidens; and are usually heroically killed. Eastern dragons are awe-inspiring, lucky protectors that can rule the clouds or the sea. However, without a doubt, both creatures are referred to as dragons. The differences that a cultural lens create have always been fascinating to me.

Because it is not only with dragons do the East and West have a common creature with conflicting mythologies.  There are mermaids. In the west, mermaids are beautiful, fish-tailed females that lure men to watery deaths.

In Chinese mythology, there is a famous mermaid and she, ironically, brought men to life. Nu-gua, a goddess with a fish tail, was bored  with the earth having only dumb beasts. So, with a lovely clean batch of mud she began to fashion little beings that looked like her--only giving them legs for fun. She was quite pleased with her little people but it took so long to make them and earth was so large and empty. So, to speed things up she took a rope and dipped it into a large batch of mud that was conveniently located (not that nice, and were three different colors of it, black, brown and yellow). This mud-covered rope she spun over her head, the drips and spatters of mud becoming new people.  These new people were, of course, not as well-formed and refined as Nu-gua's original batch but there were a lot of them. So Nu-gua had the people made from mud-drips into commoners and peasants while her hand-formed people became the aristocrats. Thus, the Chinese class system was formed! Not very politically-correct, but it is a contrast to the languid, lovelorn mermaids of the west.

Another same-but-different mythological creature is the unicorn. The Chinese unicorn or the qilin is a symbol of longevity and good omen, just like the Western unicorn. However, the qilin  has the skin of five colors and scales like a fish. It walks on water and its horn is fleshy, to signify that the qilin is an animal of peace--its horn could never be used as a weapon. Very different from the pure white unicorns that I drew on my notebooks in 7th grade!

Other then curiosity, why does this matter? Well, as authors, our jobs are to write stories with a fresh perspective. In all the stories of the world, they say there are only really two plots (hero goes on a journey or stranger comes to town). All the rest is texture and layers--so why not look at a different cultural fabric for inspiration? For all their differences,  the creatures are the same.

Grace Lin is the author and illustrator of picture books, early readers and middle grade novels. Grace's newest novel, STARRY RIVER OF THE SKY, a companion novel  to her 2010 Newbery Honor book WHERE THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON comes out in October! 


  1. I loved reading about Chinese mythology. Thank you Grace for a new perspective in these mythological creatures!

  2. I've always been in love with Chinese Dragons and eastern mythology! Ms. Lin's novel is definitely going on my shelf.

  3. Interesting post!!

  4. Great post! I know a little bit about Chinese dragons from reading stories and myths, and I've run into qilins while doing some research on Zheng He. But I'd never heard of Nu-gua before. As you say, she isn't exactly PC, but it's interesting to read about a mythological woman who is a creator, rather than a lovesick maiden.

  5. Love this post! And it is so fascinating to see how different the cultures portray mythological creatures!

  6. So interesting to see how the West and East portrays dragons and unicorns so differently. I love the mythology behind the Chinese dragons and unicorns better.


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