The dragon year began on 10 February. The dragon is the only one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac that is mythical, and so it’s very special. In Chinese mythology, dragons are positive. They are powerful, all right, but represent benign power. People born in years of the dragon are perfectionists, intelligent, charismatic and self-willed. They usually get what they want. The dragon comes next after the rabbit. Rabbits may be sma

rt, but they are the opposite of dragons in many ways. They are small, weak and tame, and often lack self-confidence. What could be more different from a dragon than a rabbit? One mythical, one real, one powerful, one weak, one fierce and pushy, the other tame.

Portrayals of dragons in China are very different from the West. Both are powerful, but the Western dragon is often, even usually, brutal or evil. One thinks of the dragon killed by the brave St George, patron saint of England and quite a few other places. Legend has it that the dragon was terrifying the people of a town, eventually even eating its children. So, St George the dragon-slayer is obviously a hero.

In China, the dragon is associated with the power of the emperor and positive forces. They will save people, they are not beasts from whom people need to be saved.

Famous people born in a year of the dragon include, in ancient times, Julius Caesar (100 B.C.E. to 44 B.C.), and in modern times, Martin Luther King (January 1929, the dragon year didn’t start till February that year, died 1968), John Lennon (1940 to 1980), and Vladimir Putin (born 1952). These are all famous and distinguished, for very different reasons. They all made a mark on the world, perhaps the first of them most of all. They were certainly self-willed and charismatic.

You might notice the three no longer with us were actually and famously assassinated. Perhaps it is dangerous to be a celebrity, rather than to be a dragon. There are those who would like Putin to go the same way, but I think his security apparatus may have their ways and means to prevent that.

How about years of the dragons? You’d expect them to be significant in the big picture of things. Obviously, we can’t go through all the dragon years. But I’ll select one from the history of the People’s Republic of China, namely 1976. I’d also nominate it as standing like a chasm in the PRC, with things very different after than before. In essence, this was the year that saw out the revolutionary wave of Mao Zedong (1893-1976), and the introduction of policies of economic competition, that are pretty well still with us.

The year saw the deaths, not only of Mao Zedong, but also of famous premier Zhou Enlai (though in January and actually in the year of the rabbit) and Zhu De (1886-1976), who had been so closely connected with Mao. In July it saw the great earthquake in Tangshan (Hebei Province). In terms of casualties, this was among the most catastrophic in human history, killing some 240,000 people (official figures), with unofficial going much higher. Finally, in October, that year saw the fall of Mao’s four most ardent supporters, and thus the end of the revolutionary clique that had, in essence, ruled the PRC since 1949. By the end of 1976, China was very different from, and in my opinion better than when the year began.

I’m very ambivalent about making predictions from the zodiac, Chinese or otherwise. I know many people do make such predictions. For example, many Chinese want their baby to be born in a dragon year, because that’s good luck, with dragon people likely to be charismatic and likeable, as well as intelligent. However, I’d just note that there could be reasons for a baby’s birth to bring good luck in other years too.

On the basis of my reading of what’s happening in the world, and taking Chinese zodiac wisdom into account, I sense that 2024 will be a significant year. There could be natural disasters, which have grown in number lately as global warming gathers momentum.

We do know that over 60 countries have already held or are scheduled to hold elections. This is a record number that reflects well on democracy. Unfortunately, in some very important countries, the signs are rather negative, including the world’s two largest democracies the United States and India. The United States seems to me to become more and more divided and neither major party can find a good candidate. In India, Hindu nationalism and Islamophobia are among forces that pose difficulties for democracy.  In its Global State of Democracy 2023, the Stockholm-based Institute of Democracy and Electoral Assistance Secretary-General Kevin Casas-Zamora said: “In short, democracy is still in trouble, stagnant at best, and declining in many places.”

The ongoing Ukraine War and the widening war in the Middle East feed a sense of pessimism. As for Taiwan, we know that the Chinese government claims it as part of China, and also that the international community accepts this claim. It is the People’s Republic of China, not the Republic of China, that represents China in the United Nations while Taiwan is not a member, either as the Republic of China or as Taiwan. Will China try to solve the issue by force? I don’t expect that to happen and suggest that China is willing to accept the status quo, at least for the time being. The government and party may be nationalist, but they are rational, and the record shows that war is the last thing they want.

We can find various good omens for the year of the dragon. We hear bad things about the Chinese economy of late, but its growth in 2023 (5.2 per cent) was more than twice that of the United States (2.1 per cent). Perhaps it will be marked in 2024 by growth and innovation, as appropriate for a dragon year. I hope so and refuse to count China out.


Colin Mackerras AO FAHA is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Business Strategy and Innovation and the Griffith Asia Institute.