In the west, it is a greedy, fire-breathing, cave-dwelling, and fear-inspiring creature that jealously guards its hoard of gold. In the east, however, it symbolizes something far different. In fact, Occident and Orient couldn’t be further apart than in their interpretation of one of the most powerful of all mythic creatures and tattoo designs, the dragon.
Although they do not have wings, as in the west, Oriental dragons are equally at home in the air or in the water. In fact, the Chinese imperial dragon was the emblem of the emperor himself, symbolizing his power and authority to intercede between heaven and earth. Like the dragon, the ideal emperor embodied wisdom and strength, manipulating the very forces of the universe for the benefit of the people. Often times in Oriental designs the dragon is seen wielding the pearl of wisdom, essentially the essence of the universe, in order to control the winds, rains, and even the planets.
As early as the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E. – C. E. 220) the phrase “dragon’s pearl” referred to the perfect thoughts and commands of the emperor while “dragon’s face” was used to refer to the emperor’s face. But the face of the oriental dragon is not actually the face of one creature but rather many. The eyes are those of a demon while the ears are those of a cow. Although the neck is that of a snake, the dragon wears the horns of a stag. Finally, it has the overall head of a camel but with a sort of lump on the top, without which it could not fly. With saliva that was like perfume and a voice like the musical ringing of a copper basin, the Oriental dragon was the bearer of profound blessings. Like other Oriental tattoo designs, the choice of a dragon is sometimes an aspiration to these same qualities of great goodness, wisdom, and power.