Enter the Dragon: The Imperial Beast in Popular Culture

Enter the Dragon: The Imperial Beast in Popular Culture

As we welcome the Year of the Dragon, Nicholas Stephens explores the bold and powerful dragon as portrayed in popular culture, leaping from the robes of emperors into the realms of anime, computer games, films and television.
As we welcome the Year of the Dragon, Nicholas Stephens explores the bold and powerful dragon as portrayed in popular culture, leaping from the robes of emperors into the realms of anime, computer games, films and television.

W hen playing a computer game, the possibilities are endless. Do I feel like taking to the skies, Top Gun style, to make victory rolls in the heavens, or jumping into a Formula 1 car to skid through the wet streets of Monte Carlo? However, if possibilities are truly infinite, and all fantasies are within reach, what creature best sums up this dream scenario of limitlessness, unrivalled reach and sheer strength?

Certainly, the dragon. After all, its primary association is with power, Drawing its force not only from its own form, but from the natural world and the cosmos, the dragon is a hybrid, composite of the features of other animals, and the essence of adventure and strength. Small wonder then that dragons are the star attractions of action role-playing fantasy platforms such as Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, Baldur’s Gate and Dark Souls, forging an immersive experience that merges the dragon with a sense of adventure and possibility. Dragons may be battled; some, such as Onaga in Mortal Kombat, appear as a nemesis, or an adversary to overcome. Some appear as powerful overlords of their realms: Genshin Impact, which is set in an anime style environment, takes inspiration from Chinese folklore. Dragons are given respect and homage as forces not to be underestimated.

Matt Gondek, Deconstructed Dragon Ball, 2018 | Estimate HK$50,000 - 80,000

Dragons retain their power to inspire all generations, and few adaptations were as far reaching as Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball, a hugely popular manga and anime series that made its debut in 1984 and has since become a media franchise of global phenomenon. Loosely inspired by the classic Ming dynasty novel Journey to the West, protaganists Son Goku and Bulma travel the world in search of Dragon Balls, which will call forth a dragon to grant them a wish. Who wouldn’t want wishes, or to meet a dragon?

The dragon gives an instant jolt of excitement to whatever visual culture its name adorns, and film is no exception. Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon (1973), his final film, has a title to conjure up the power of martial arts, and the cross-cultural clashes that the film portrays. Regarded as one of the most influential films of all time, it would later inspire early brawler computer games such as Double Dragon (1987) and even Dragon Ball from which it draws various martial arts elements.

Amidst all this power, some writers have looked for the dragon’s cuter side. In the English comic strips by Mary Tourtel which first appeared in the 1920s, Rupert Bear has a friend called Pong-Ping who has a gentle pet dragon called Ming. Disney’s Mushu character in its 1998 version of Mulan was similarly small in stature but large in personality, with the addition of wise-cracks. The Dreamworks animation How to Train Your Dragon (2010), featured the adorable dragon Toothless, complete with a scene where dragon and human bond over a fish dinner. It was so popular with children and adults it inspired two sequels (2014 and 2019) and a live-action film scheduled for release in 2025.

Mary Tourtel's Rupert Bear with Pong-ping and Ming.

The dragon’s appeal is universal and, for many, is emblematic of their first foray into Chinese culture. Visitors to Hong Kong, for example, are surrounded by dragon imagery both visible and invisible. Kowloon (九龍) is the transliteration of “nine dragons”. The name alludes to eight mountains in the territory and the last emperor of the Song dynasty – who, according to legends, fled to Hong Kong to escape the army of the Mongol Empire. On Hong Kong Island, the immensely popular hiking trail known as Dragon’s Back (龍脊) derives its name from the ups and downs of the trail similar to the undulating body of a dragon, and nearby in Repulse Bay, the story of allowing the mountain dragon to access the sea through a gaping hole in the luxury apartment complex (an architectural quirk) became local lore inspired by Chinese feng shui.

In art and antiquities, objects held in museum collections of Chinese art are a reminder of the historic importance of the dragon’s appeal. Its power is such that it is both of our world and beyond it. In dynastic times, the strikingly rendered five-clawed dragon became the privilege of the imperial court, reserved only for the emperor. Unsurprisingly though, the dragon would not be boxed into one single interpretation and we see three-clawed dragons a mainstay of wider Chinese culture.

In today’s world, the dragon is to be found in some of the most popular anime, TV series and films around the world. Eternal Love (2017), a Chinese TV series which is said to have been viewed 50 billion times, is based on the 2015 novel by Tang Qi Gong Z. It features dragons who can retain human form and fall in love as humans. Appropriately enough, the series was first broadcast on Dragon TV.

Walking around the shopping malls in early 2024 is to be inundated with dragon imagery from countless brands. The fascination isn’t merely seasonal, although the beginning of the year of the dragon is the catalyst. The dragon taps into the yearnings within us. The ultimate fantasy of all of us may be to become bold, powerful dragons and yet to hold on to the eccentricities and essence of what makes us ourselves.


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