Happy Chinese New Year

Today, January 26th marks the start of the Chinese New Year.  In China and in Chinese communities throughout the world this important date is marked by celebrations and festivities.  In the Chinese calendar, years are symbolised by animals, for example 2009 is the year of the Ox.  During this important festival and in the days following New Year a number of dragon dances are performed.

Dragons are synonymous with Chinese mythology.  The colourful dragon dances, featuring lines of dancers, the dance leader wearing a dragon head costume; are very noisy and there is lots of drum banging and cymbal bashing.  The idea behind most of the dances is to drive evil spirits away, with the fierce dragon and loud noises frightening away any evil presence that may persist in the area.

In this way the local Chinese can help to guarantee themselves a peaceful and prosperous New Year.  Given the current state of the world’s economy, perhaps everyone should indulge in such practices.  However, it is also worth considering the implications on palaeontology of the Chinese dragon myths.  It is believed that when the Chinese came across the large fossilised bones of ancient animals they deduced that these were the bones of dragons.  This may be how the dragon myths came about.  Ironically, if the fossils found had been those of dinosaurs then the ancient Chinese were quite accurate.

In the west, dragons are mostly regarded as evil, but in oriental cultures dragons can represent both good and evil.  Some dragons can even be seen as benevolent.  Given the huge contribution to palaeontology made by Chinese scientists and institutions such as the Institute of Vertebrate Palaeontology and Palaeoanthropology in Beijing we have a lot to thank the Chinese for.

Studies of amazing fossil finds in provinces such as Szechuan and Liaoning have advanced our understanding of ancient life in the Mesozoic considerably.  We predict that Chinese scientists will remain at the forefront of palaeontology for many years to come.

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