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What is a Dragon Turtle?

Alan Rankin
Alan Rankin

A dragon turtle is a Chinese mythological creature. It has the body of a turtle and the head of a dragon. Such creatures often bear powerful symbolism in Chinese mythology, and the dragon turtle is no exception. The creature is sometimes represented in the Oriental design philosophy called feng shui. It has also appeared in comic books, video games, and popular entertainment on both sides of the Pacific.

Just as Western culture devised astrological symbols to represent the visible constellations, ancient Chinese culture created its own astrology. In ancient China, the eastern sky was dominated by a dragon, while the northern sky was the realm of the black tortoise. Each of these creatures was associated with seasons, elements, and human characteristics. The tortoise, a famously long-lived animal, was thought to represent longevity, while the dragon meant success and good fortune. Combining these two creatures, the dragon turtle was thought to bring long-term success in work, relationships, and politics.


To this end, representations of the dragon turtle often appear in Chinese art. Feng shui, the Chinese design tradition, maintains that the strategic placement of such art can benefit members of a household. For example, placing coins in, near, or under a dragon turtle figurine supposedly assures an increase in income. Positioning such a figure near a seating area is said to be beneficial to relationships, while placing one in a northeastern part of the house aids educational pursuits. Feng shui practices became fashionable in the Western world in the late 20th century, although their spiritual meanings were often lost in translation.

In the 21st century, feng shui was only one of many aspects of Eastern culture embraced by the Western world. China’s emerging presence in the global market was a factor in the increasing fascination with Oriental culture, history, and art. Comic books, movies, and animation were imported to the Americas and Europe, while China became a popular tourist destination for Western visitors. Thus the dragon turtle, once a symbol with meaning only in China, now appears in mass media around the world. Observers are often ignorant of its original meaning and symbolism.

The dragon turtle has been represented in Chinese art for centuries. One such example, an enamel figurine displayed in a traveling museum exhibit, dates to the Ming dynasty of the 14th century. In more recent times, the character Bowser in the Mario Brothers video games is a dragon turtle, a fact often overlooked because of his stylized design. Another such creature appears as a monster in the Dungeons and Dragons role-playing game, again without its significance as a bearer of good fortune.

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