Eastern Dragons: Descriptive Overview

Eastern dragon is an umbrella term for dragons found in the mythologies of some eastern Asian countries, including China, Japan, Korea, and Vietnam. Over the centuries, Eastern dragons have transformed in description and artistic representation through geographical diffusion, which makes it difficult to pin down the precise description from which to begin. To simplify this, this article will focus on the Chinese dragon.

The modern inheritance of Chinese Dragons is that they are composed of nine animals: a camel's head, a rabbit's eyes, a cow's ears, a deer's horns, a snake's neck, a frog's belly, a carp's scales, a tiger's paws, and a hawk's claws. [1]

It is clear that many, if not all, of these attributes from other animals are symbolic connections that Chinese dragons have been granted as part of their overwhelming power and influence.

Body Part Animal Symbolism
Neck Snake Keenness, cunning [9]
Intelligence [9]
Wisdom [9]
Belly Frog Immortality [3]
Healing/Medicine [3]
Wealth [3]
Scales Carp Wealth [8]
Determination [8]
Perserverance [8]
Accomplishment [8]
Head Camel Humility and simultaneously obstinacy [5]
Camels bear heavy burdans for long distances, but their symbolic meaning is not strong. Instead, they have an implicit signification of an animal of survival and of aid to humans
Horns Deer Endurance, grace, and prosperous long life [4]
In art, often associated with court officials [4]
Eyes Hare/Rabbit Hare is often used interchangeably with the animal Rabbit
Born with its eyes open
Often attributed the role of trickster
Naturally 'street smart'
Ears Cow/Ox/Bull The terms cow, ox, and bull have been used in various sources to describe the dragon's ears, so the symbolism of all these animals will be covered.
Cow: Earth, Procreation, Nourishment [6]
Ox: Strength, Faithfulness, Forcefulness [6]
Bull: Beneficence, Procreation, Kingship [6]
Paws Tiger Associated with Tsai Shen Yeh, god of Wealth [2]
King of All Beasts / Royalty [2]
Powerful Energy [2]
Protector of the dead [2]
Generosity [2]
Illumination [2]
Unpreditability [2]
Claws Hawk Hawk is often used interchangably with the animal Eagle
Hero, Heroism [7]
Profit [7]
Peerlessness [7]

Table 1. The nine components of a Chinese Dragon. Modern Chinese Dragon attributes and parts described in terms of other animals and their associations and symbolic connections.

This particular summary provides the understanding that the description of an Eastern dragon would not be simply descriptive, but symbolic. Therefore, no limitation is placed on exploring other explanations of Eastern dragon anatomy, since the descriptive quality of the animals attributed here is a demonstration of power and strength, rather than a true biological description of the creature in question.

Since the description does not limit exploration, other considerations are needed to help formulate an appropriate attribute list for Eastern dragon anatomy. Of course, due to the ancient history of the Eastern dragon and its widespread geographical sphere, no list of attributes could possibly be all-encompassing. Instead, the list below is a collection of the most common attributes of Eastern dragons in myth and folklore.

  1. Abide in the water in palaces under the sea
  2. Ability to fly
  3. Appeals are made to dragons for rain
  4. Have long, slender bodies with four limbs
  5. Mane-like hair or beard-like hair
  6. Horns or antlers

Flying without Wings

No known species can fly without wings; however, the serpents in the genus Chrysopelea can glide without wings. In Chrysopelea gliding, the snake flattens its body by puffing out its ribs while in mid-air, its body establishing a rough C-formation. This allows the snake to whip itself through the air with considerable control. [10]

Alternatively, the Common Flying Dragon has specialized ribs that manipulate a membrane for gliding. [11] While it is not true flying, a gliding eastern dragon would still be quite formidable.

Eastern Dragon Anatomy Modeled on Chrysopelea

Eastern Dragon Anatomy based on Chrysopelea and Sphenodon anatomy.

Illustration 1. Eastern Dragon anatomy based on Chrysopelea anatomy. © Kylie 'drago' McCormick

Omitted from the above graphic: The ribs that run the length of the dragon's body via the vertebra on the spinal column.

One of the most difficult issues with Chrysopelea is that there is no breastbone. Without an appropriate sternum, the respiratory and circulatory systems would be subject to serious compromise. The heart, lungs, and other important organs usually lie in the thoracic region of the organism's body. Without a sternum and surrounding ribs, however, these major organs and muscles could be compromised. Furthermore, since the Chrysopelea anatomy relies on being able to transform itself into a rough-C formation, the organs and tissues need to be compressible or moveable during gliding.

Taking this into consideration, an Eastern dragon modeled off of Chrysopelea's anatomy would need a reduced breastbone, likely comprised of cartilage instead of bone. Size would be limited to a large or medium serpent, roughly 5 - 8 ft. (1.52 - 2.44 m) long.

Chrysopelea do not have appendages, so an Eastern dragon would need to have a patagium, or membrane made of foldable skin, which runs along the length of its body. This would expand when the dragon puffs out its ribs and holds out its arms and legs, similar to Draco Volans or even a flying squirrel.

This particular dragon might not seem to emulate Eastern dragons, but their appearance would actually be quite similar. The patagium can fold up when not in use, resembling a mane.

Eastern Dragon Anatomy Modeled on Crocodylia and Draco Volans

Eastern Dragon Anatomy based on Crocodylia and volans lizard anatomy.

Illustration 2. Eastern Dragon anatomy based on Crocodylia and Draco Volans anatomy. © Kylie 'drago' McCormick

Alternatively, an Eastern dragon can be similar to a crocodile. Like Draco volans, the Eastern dragon would have elongated ribs for a patagium membrane for gliding. Since the crocodile is considerably larger than the average Draco Volans, there would need to be more elongated ribs, and they would need to be considerably longer in order to be effective.

Unlike the elegant beauty often displayed by Eastern dragons, this particular anatomy legs itself to prehistoric monster or dinosaur. Since Draco Volans glides differently than Chrysopelea, which undulates throughout the air, this particular dragon design would be more like a gliding mammal.

In short, the crocodile and draco volans combine to make a ferocious and swift water monster; however, it is unlikely to represent the Eastern dragons of the sky.


  1. Roberts [Chinese Mythology] 44
  2. Chinese Animal Symbolism of the Tiger
  3. Significance of Frogs in Chinese Culture
  4. Chinese Symbol for Longevity
  5. Animal Symbolism: Camels
  6. Animal Symbolism in Many Cultures
  7. Welch 73
  8. Welch 97
  9. The Snake
  10. Socha, John J., Tony O'Dempsey, and Michael LaBarbera
  11. Owen 265

For more information on footnotes and references, please see the bibliography.