Of Chinese dragons, black cats, snakes and superstition

Chinese dragons traditionally symbolise potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricanes, and floods

Chinese dragons traditionally symbolise potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricanes, and floods

Ignatius Mabasa Shelling the Nuts
When I was a young man, my grandfather taught me how to fish such that by the age of five, I had become very skilled at using a fishing rod. Although I continued fishing several years later, there is a legendary fish that I really wanted to catch, but never did.

My grandfather and other fishermen used to talk about a fish with snake-like body called hunga or mukunga. They said this fish is different from an eel and is hard to take out of water because it can “grip” the water and break fishing lines.

It is also said if you succeed in taking it out of the water, you must quickly cut off the head and throw it back in the water because it will heal and grow a new body.

I was visiting the local Chinese Longcheng Plaza Shopping Mall recently when I saw a fish that had a snake-like body and a mouth with lots of tiny sharp teeth being sold. It immediately reminded me of the legendary hunga fish.

The fish I saw in the Chinese shop also reminded me of the several dragon images in the Chinese culture.

Coincidentally, my son had pointed out some hideous sculptures of lion-like beasts that welcome you to the Chinese mall. He asked me what they were, but I could not give him a satisfactory answer.

The sculptures look like lions morphing into snakes or dragons.

My son’s question challenged me to do some research. We talked about Chinese architecture and the little that I know about China. When we were inside the shopping mall, my son again pointed out more dragon images on a lot of other items. He remarked that the dragons looked hideous and terrible.

I am now trying to understand why even in a foreign country the Chinese will still maintain their branding of dragons and snake-like creatures.

Often we don’t invest time into researching and understanding – we don’t have inquisitive minds. Ever since the fish with a snake-like body incident, I have been to Longcheng Plaza several times and exploring the place has allowed me to engage in some serious intercultural dialogue.

I think the Chinese are also missing an opportunity to sell and educate locals through tours about the meaning of their symbols, culture, literature and music. I guess a lot of Zimbabweans don’t know the difference between the Chinese, Japanese and Koreans. What we probably know about the Chinese is rice, chopsticks, the Great Wall and Kung Fu.

Now that there are dragon images welcoming us at Longcheng Plaza, we will add dragons to our list of the things we know about the Chinese. But what is the story behind those dragon images? Are the dragons evil? Why are the Chinese so fond or even obsessed with them?

Generally, we are a superstitious and suspicious people. We love gossiping because we want to confirm our suspicions. We want to know the why and the wherefore of things, of neighbours, of strange characters. Some writer once said suspicion is the natural result of having your fingers burned by something or someone else.

Tracing our history of wars for land and resources, of subjugation and oppression, fighting and losing, reorganising and fighting again, winning and fighting more wars after independence – it is generally hard to trust foreigners, their culture but what we don’t realise is that the presence of the Chinese presents an opportunity for some of us who cannot travel to China to get a glimpse into their lifestyle, architecture, technology and culture.

From what I have gathered, Chinese dragons are symbols of wealth, wisdom, power and nobility. The dragon was the symbol of the Emperor in ancient China just like King Lobengula’s symbol was an elephant, which symbolised power.

In China, dragons are wise, welcoming and a sign that good things will happen. Take, for example, the depiction of the Dragon Warrior in the movie “Kung Fu Panda”. The Dragon Warrior is a Chinese folk hero – easily understood and loved by all because dragons are found everywhere in everyday Chinese life.

According to Wikipedia, Chinese dragons are legendary creatures in Chinese mythology and Chinese folklore. The dragons have many animal-like forms such as turtles, fish, and imaginary creatures, but they are most commonly depicted as snake-like with four legs.

Chinese dragons traditionally symbolise potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, hurricanes, and floods. The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck for people who are worthy of it. With this, the Emperor of China usually used the dragon as a symbol of his imperial power and strength.

In Chinese daily language, excellent and outstanding people are compared to a dragon, while incapable people with no achievements are compared with other, disesteemed creatures, such as a worm.

A number of Chinese proverbs and idioms feature references to a dragon. In European-influenced cultures, the dragon has aggressive, warlike connotations and it is conjectured that the Chinese government wishes to avoid using it as a symbol. In Chinese culture today, the dragon is mostly used for decorative purposes. It is taboo to disfigure a depiction of a dragon.

I hope the Chinese will take advantage of their cultural symbols at Longcheng Plaza and give locals an opportunity to know China better. It is easy to send the wrong messages when there is no accompanying information or explanation, especially among a suspicious people.

I will illustrate what I mean. Recently, I was looking for a good luck card for my son who will soon be writing exams. As I was skimming the many cards on the shelf, I saw some good luck cards that made me shake my head. I shook my head in disapproval, but also at the poor judgment of whoever selected or bought the consignment.

These good luck cards had images of a sitting black cat with the good luck inscription weaving in and out of the cat.

As a colour, black is associated with evil, and black animals, especially cats, are generally believed not only by Africans, but by Europeans too, to bring bad luck or to be associated with witches and witchcraft. Edgar Alan Poe wrote a remarkable and bone-chilling story called the Black Cat.

Black cats, black birds like ravens, black goats, black dogs and black snakes are believed to be familiars of witches. Last week a man was allegedly caught with a black Egyptian cobra in his laptop bag and he claimed that he inherited it from his mother and used it for purposes of witchcraft. So, one can never trust these bags that people carry – some of them are harbouring horrors.

I really pity the snake, it has made headlines but it will not be able to read and talk about the “fame”. But one thing must be good for the poor snake, it is now enjoying some fresh air after years of being stuffed in a bag with a plastic lining even in this hot weather.

Anyway, I am digressing, so I will go back to the colour black. Black colours are associated with mourning and sadness, while blackness or darkness in life is generally not a good omen. Of the four divining bones used by n’angas, one is specifically called “chitokwadzima” – kudzima being a verb for putting out light. If a diviner, and lately some prophets, tell you, “Ndiri kuona rima,” meaning, “I am seeing darkness,” it means they are seeing sickness, affliction, evil, trouble or death.

Thomas Mapfumo sings in one of his old songs, “Mbudzi nhema handidye nyama, ndinozodya neyakadirwa ngozi.” By this he is saying he will not eat meat from a black goat because the meat may have been sacrificed to avenging spirits.” In Shona, a person who has bad luck is considered to have a “black curse” and they will say “ane munyama”. And “munyama” is actually borrowed from Ndebele and Zulu, and it means black or darkness. So, if a person has “munyama”, it literary means he is shrouded by dark- ness.

It is poor understanding of cultures for one to expect Africans to buy a good luck card carrying an image of something that is viewed negatively and is even feared. The same with the Chinese, unless their dragons are unpacked, local people will view them as a form of spiritual colonialism or something worse.

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