2012 has arrived, and bears the hope of economic recovery. It is also the year that the world will end according to Mayan beliefs. To the Chinese people, 2012 is simply the year of the dragon, the 5th year in the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle.

A Chinese dragon, complete with clouds.

Technically, the year of the dragon doesn’t start until the first day of the lunar calendar, which falls on January 24th this year. However, since no one really uses the lunar calendar in China anymore, the turning of zodiac has been moved to January 1st. If you would like to learn more about the Lunar New Year, check out our blog post from the Year of the rabbit for a comprehensive All You Need to Know guide.

What’s so special about year of the dragon?

The first and most obvious reason, it is special because it’s the year of the dragon. The dragon is the one and only mythical creature in the Chinese zodiac cycle. This reason alone makes it much cooler than any other year.

Unlike in western culture, where dragons are considered evil, huge cousins of lizards, Chinese dragons are actually cousins to snakes, and their alignments (borrowing a Dungeons & Dragons term here) range from neutral to good. It’s quite rare to find an evil dragon in Chinese folklore or myths. These beasts are highly magical and vastly powerful. It’s even appropriate to call them demigods.

A Chinese dragon can be very colorful, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s beautiful.

In general belief, dragons live in huge bodies of water (usually seas), and move around the world by flying. Unlike western dragons, it’s impossible to find any Chinese dragons on land, not to mention in remote caves. They are either enjoying the water or soaring the sky, or being briefly summoned by sorcerers. A painting of a dragon coiling around a mountain or sleeping in a cave will strike Chinese people as weird or ridiculous.

According to folklore stories, Chinese dragons create clouds with their breaths or even mere presence. If you are trying to create new year art with authentic Chinese feelings, wrapping your dragon in clouds is a safe and sound idea.

Chinese dragons can also be quite colorful creatures. When designing your new year art, feel free to be creative. Bear in mind that dragons in two specific colors do have special meanings: those in a “qing” color (greenish blue or blueish green hues) are considered guardian gods of the east (and wood), and those in a yellow color are guardian gods of the center (and earth).

The number of claws on a dragon can bear significant meaning if you are trying to be very authentic with your art. Through the Chinese history, the number of claws on a dragon varies from none to five. During the Ming Dynasty, the law dictated that a dragon with five claws is exclusively the sigil of the emperor, and everyone else could only depict a dragon with four or fewer claws, provided they were allowed to use the image of a dragon at all.

It’s even easier if you are pondering a cartoon-ish cute dragon. All sorts of Chinese companies are busy inventing their new year mascots. Draw inspiration from their published work! “Cute Chinese dragon” also brings up plenty of results in a Google image search.

What can we expect from the year of the dragon?

We will see an increase in the number of babies being born. The reason for this is quite simple: Dragons. Sound. Cool. People tend to relate many desirable qualities to babies born in years of the dragon, and would even try to hold back the birth (I don’t know how one would do that), or rush it (with C-section) just so they can have a dragon baby. Dragons symbolize character traits that include dominance and ambition, and are said to be blessed with luck and strength. According to a survey done by the Hong Kong newspaper Wen Wei Po, 85% of sampled parents (mainland and Hong Kong Chinese) tend to believe that dragon babies are smarter than others. Although there is no scientific or mythical proof about these babies being smarter, this “baby rush” does means a number of things: A) babies born in 2012 will face a lot more competition in school and their careers; B) if you are thinking about starting some baby-oriented service such as babysitting or early childhood education, 2012 might be an especially good year to start.

Chinese brands generally tend to employ the current year’s zodiac as a key element in their advertising and straplines. They do that every year rotating through the Chinese zodiac cycle. In 2011 there were plenty of rabbit adverts, a massive gang of tigers in 2010, and mobs of oxen in 2009. As we’ve already established, the dragon is the mightiest creature of all the zodiac, and chances are that they will be abused for marketing purposes with an extra dose of passion. Staying away from these grand flying snakes or using them less explicitly will make your marketing efforts stand out from others.

Article by Kane Gao, Allegravita’s head of research