- Language Tips
Astamp is a stamp is a stamp. But this is not true of all stamps. For us, the stamp that heralds the beginning of the Chinese lunar new year means a lot, though symbolically.
China Post issues a stamp with one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac - the rat comes first, followed by ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig - at the beginning of each lunar year.
The dragon on the stamp issued for the Year of the Dragon, which begins on Jan 23, has upset many people. It looks ferocious with its fierce stare and wide-open mouth, and doesn't appeal to the eye or the mind.
Such an image of the dragon is thought to be frightening and aggressive, not in accord with the perception of a dragon that Chinese people have.
But why are we making a fuss over a legendary creature like a dragon? Simply because the animal is highly respected and revered by Chinese who, be they in or outside China, call themselves the "descendants of the dragon".
Typically, people born in the Year of the Dragon consider themselves lucky. Even those who are born in the Year of the Snake prefer to call themselves "small dragons".
The dragon is often portrayed as having aspects of other animals such as deer's antlers, carp's scales, tiger's eyes and eagle's claws. In folklore, dragons are viewed as godlike figures because they control the weather, especially rain and floods. That's why ancient Chinese society depended on the dragon to open the skies for a good harvest.
Chinese people as well as foreigners see the dragon as a traditional Chinese icon.
Searching for "dragon and China" in the books section of American online retailer Amazon's website, I got 2,854 results. In many books authored by foreign writers, China is referred to as the dragon. A lot of times we dislike the dragon tag that Western scholars use to refer to China because they see it as evil.
In total contrast, Chinese think the dragon gives life. Hence, its breath is called sheng qi, or divine energy. It is essentially friendly, benevolent and wise, and associated with abundance and blessing.
Our dragon is believed to be capable of performing almost any feat. No wonder, ancient Chinese emperors called themselves the "avatar (reincarnation) of the dragon" to facilitate their rule over the people. Their bodies were known as "dragon bodies" and their children were called "dragon babies". Their formal dress was the "dragon robe" with golden dragons embroidered on the front and back. And people they ruled over worshiped them as heavenly dragons.
Though a mythical creature, the dragon is still revered by the Chinese. Among the events that still honor the dragon is the Dragon Dance, which was originally performed as a ceremonial offering to please the "Dragon King" to help bring rain to the fields. The Dragon Dance today is a popular form of entertainment. But it illustrates the importance of the dragon to us.