Year of the Dragon is now Year of the Loong, according to China
As many celebrate the Lunar New Year this week, the English use of the word “dragon” has struck controversy in China, including its most international city, Hong Kong.
Chinese state media like CCTV and CGTN have abandoned the use of “dragon” for a phonetic transliteration “loong”. “Loong” doesn’t follow the official romanization system used for Chinese in the country, hanyu pinyu, which would write it as “long”.
CGTN also released a video about the “Long History of Loong,” in which the “dragon year” became the “loong year” and “dragon dance” was “loong dance” in English.
In Hong Kong, which in recent years has embraced sinicization rapidly, Chief Executive John Lee also followed Beijing’s example when he made his remarks at the opening of the 2024 International Chinese New Year Night Parade.
“We are all here to welcome the Year of the ‘Loong.’ In Chinese culture, the ‘loong – people usually call it the dragon – symbolizes nobility, good fortune and vitality. It is going to be a year of auspicious opportunities, and dragon-sized blessings for us all!”
Some commentators believe that the move reflects China’s lack of cultural self-confidence and that it wants to regain the right to speak culturally by changing the word into Chinese.
It isn’t the first example of transliteration. Beijing has also replaced the use of the term “Tibet” with “Xizang” as the romanized Chinese name on official diplomatic and foreign affairs ministry documents. The change comes as Chinese Communist Party scholars advocate an amendment to the translated name which they claim will prevent the Dalai Lama from reestablishing the right to speak about Tibet.
The use of “loong” for “dragon” has aroused online discussion among netizens in mainland China and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, many ridiculed “loong” as sounding like being burnt in Cantonese, and loan – indebted – in English. That is, the year of being burnt, or the year of the loan, neither being auspicious.
On China’s Weibo, some comments pointed out that “dragons in Chinese culture bear positive meanings such as good luck, while dragons in the West are mostly regarded as symbols of evil.” Some netizens said, “Let’s use ‘loong’ first, and we can invent better terms later.”
Chinese netizens also corrected the New Year greeting posted by Tesla CEO Elon Musk from “The Year of the Dragon” to “The Year of the LOONG.”
Cultural discourse power
UK-based Hong Kong historian Hans Yeung told Radio Free Asia that the West holds a one-sided view of the dragon, perceiving it to be hostile to people and vicious while the Chinese believe that the dragon is a beautiful and auspicious object. He said the Chinese Communist Party’s move is to regain the right to speak culturally.
“It now feels that it is a big cultural country, and it hopes that everything will only tell good Chinese stories, and doesn’t want others to think that Chinese dragons are evil.”
Yeung noted that, to a certain extent, China is whitewashing its own culture to promote its good side, “a kind of cultural hypnosis.”
Current affairs commentator Chip Tsao said the incident reflected China’s lack of cultural self-confidence, using trivial matters to hype up issues.
“[China] feels a sense of inferiority, but changing the name is useless because the word ‘loong’ is illogical and the meaning cannot be conveyed to Westerners at all,” Tsao said.
“Of course, ‘dragon’ cannot be used, but the dragon character in Chinese culture can be seen as a unity of good and evil, where the evil is Qin Shi Huang.”
Symbol of imperial power
In Chinese history, the acquisition and consolidation of royal power was closely related to the dragon. The dragon was a symbol of imperial power. The emperor was also called the “The True Dragon” or “Son of Heaven” and items used in the palace were decorated with dragons. The dragon is worshiped by the Chinese people and represents nobility and good fortune.
However, the dragon has also been seen as degenerating into a symbol of cruelty in Chinese culture. Tsao noted that the largest dragon in China is the “ancestral dragon”, the first emperor of the Qin dynasty Qin Shi Huang who ushered in tyranny. Dragon does not symbolize peace; “dragon war” is a war between separatist regimes and the struggle to become emperor.
In Western societies, dragons are used on flags, including that of Wales. There is a red dragon in the center of the flag, which was historically used in battles against invaders.
Translated by RFA staff. Edited by Mike Firn.