On the 10th of February 2024, millions across the world came together to celebrate Chinese Lunar New Year, this year is special as it is the famed year of the dragon, perhaps the most sought after sign of the Chinese zodiac.

With numerous celebrations set to be held across England as the holiday continues, it is a perfect time to delve into the history and culture surrounding the Chinese dragon and the zodiac.

Dragons, called ‘long’ in Mandarin, have their origins traced back thousands of years before China became a nation as we know it today. Some of the earliest depictions in the form of paintings and jade carvings or sculptures have origins dating back to 6200 BC, in the Xinglongwa culture. The creatures have become a symbol of Chinese culture throughout the centuries. Chinese emperors were thought to have descended from dragons and the beast has been depicted on numerous flags, such as the azure dragon on the flag of the Qing dynasty, China’s last imperial dynasty.

The Chinese zodiac can also find its origins thousands of years in the past, rising to prominence in the Han dynasty almost 2000 years ago. The original myth of the zodiac involves twelve creatures in a race to the finish line. Surprisingly, although the dragon is the most valued creature of the zodiac, it came 5th in the race behind the first place rat.

An explanation for why the dragon is so valued may be its mythical nature as well as the qualities those born in the year of the dragon are thought to possess.

‘Dragon babies’ as those born in the dragon years such as 2012, 2000, 1988 and beyond are known as, are thought to be intelligent, confident and naturally lucky, as well as prone to being brash or overly aggressive. Due to the (mostly) positive characteristics associated with those born in the year of the dragon, historically, birth rates have boomed in the years of the dragon, with many parents hoping that their children will have an inherent predisposition for success.

Dragons have also made their way into numerous decorations and celebrations held on the lunar new year. For instance, the dragon dance, which originated as a practice in ancient times to worship deities such as the rain dragon Yinglong in hopes of a good harvest and weather the following year, has become a form of entertainment in festivals, especially during lunar new year.

The dance involves several dancers holding up a dragon that chases after an orb of wisdom, representative of the pearl many dragons are depicted with thought to symbolize knowledge, power and the Earth, sun or moon. The event usually involves music and sometimes firecrackers. The longer the dragon, the more luck it is thought to bring.

Rebecca Whiter, a local Guildford school student provided insight into how families make use of decorations during the new year, saying “One of the many aspects I love about Chinese new year is putting up the decorations, it really makes it feel like there’s a festival in the house. I especially love the little dragons we brought this year!”

Events are being held across the south of England to celebrate the new year in the run-up to the conclusion of the holiday at the lantern festival on February the 24th, so there is still time to welcome in the year of the dragon – Happy New Year!