By Pyo Kyung-min
Said to have a camel’s head, a deer’s horns, a rabbit’s eyes, a cow’s ears, a snake’s neck, a clam’s belly, a carp’s scales, a hawk’s claws and a tiger’s paws, the dragon is an imaginary animal, but it is often depicted as real in East Asian culture.
The year 2024, marking the Year of the Dragon, is distinguished for its association with the only mythical entity of all the 12 Chinese zodiac signs. This coming year, represented by the formidable dragon, is anticipated to be a time of wonder and fulfillment of long-awaited aspirations.
The dragon, a symbol of strength, authority and success, holds a special place in East Asian cultures. While the Western dragon is often perceived as a menacing creature dwelling in caves, Asian dragons hold a sacred status, believed to wield control over the weather.
Historically, dragons were central to East Asian cultures, especially in agriculture-based societies, where the dragon emerged as a symbol of royalty. Emperors frequently adorned their clothing with intricate dragon motifs, not just as symbols of regality but also to convey associations with prosperity and power.
Gahoe Museum director Yoon Yeol-su emphasized the majestic nature of dragons.
“Given its characteristics as an imaginary animal — the grandeur of its appearance and its ability to control water — the dragon often has been likened to a great, yet mysterious being, such as a hero or king,” Yoon said.
Especially in Korea, dragons, known as “yong,” have long been cherished with unique reverence since ancient times, reflected in sayings such as “Cloud follows storm and dragon follows cloud.”
Korean ancestors often invoked dragons when praying for rain, bountiful fishing hauls and safe journeys at sea.
This respect for the dragon extended into daily life to keep the dragon’s spiritual power close. Dragon motifs were incorporated into clothing, architecture and ceramics, symbolizing a desire for success and protection.
To ward off the threat of fires, they integrated dragon-shaped elements into ceilings and rooftops as decorative features. Dragon paintings were also put on gates to ward off misfortune. Even tools for success, such as brushes and inkstones, were embellished with dragon patterns, reflecting a desire for achievement.
In the sexagenary cycle, a system that combines 10 celestial stems and 12 earthly branches, 2024 corresponds to the Year of the Wood Dragon. The wood stem in this cycle is associated with the color blue, making 2024 also the Year of the Blue Dragon. This connection is the inspiration behind the surge of blue dragon-themed products for New Year celebrations.
In Korean culture, the blue dragon holds a special place, evident in its association with the country’s first roller coaster. Known as the Blue Dragon Train, this roller coaster began thrilling visitors at Seoul Children’s Grand Park on May 5, 1973, until its retirement in 2012.
“Cheongnyong,” the Korean term for blue dragon, was famously used as the name for the now-defunct MBC Blue Dragons baseball club, one of the original teams of the Korea Baseball Organization in 1982 that later evolved into the LG Twins.
Korea’s deep-rooted affection for dragons extends to numerous locations across the country. According to 2021 statistics from the National Geographic Information Institute, a notable 4,109 locations had names associated with animals from the 12 zodiac signs, with 1,261 specifically linked to the dragon, making it the most popular zodiac animal for location names in the country. Examples include Seoul’s Yongsan District, Busan’s Yongdu Mountain and Jeju Island’s Yongdu Rock.
The Year of the Dragon also holds special significance in the hearts of K-pop enthusiasts.
Renowned K-pop idols born in the Year of the Dragon include TVXQ! member Changmin, Super Junior’s Kyuhyun, 2PM’s Ok Taec-yeon and Nichkhun, and Big Bang’s G-Dragon and Taeyang. The list also extends to include Kim Chae-won of Le Ssserafim, NCT’s Jaemin, Jeno, Haechan, Renjun, aespa’s Karina, (G)I-DLE’s Shuhua and ITZY’s Yeji and Ryujin — all born under the auspices of the dragon.
To commemorate this auspicious year, the National Folk Museum of Korea is currently hosting its “The Blue Dragon” special exhibition until March 3. The exhibition sheds light on various cultural symbols and meanings associated with dragons, offering a platform to explore diverse dragon-related stories.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the National Folk Museum of Korea has published the “Encyclopedia of Korea Folk Symbols: Dragon” to honor the Year of the Dragon. The dictionary delves into the symbolic meanings of dragons deeply embedded in Korean folk culture, providing a rich resource for cultural aficionados.