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Quick Kanji 2 – 竜 & 龍

2 Mar

Consider the following two kanji 竜 and 龍. Both are read as リュウ (ryuu) and both pertain to the giant, fearsome mythical creature known in English as simply the dragon. In modern Japanese both kanji can be found fairly easily, though 竜 is more popular (more on that in a bit).

So you might be thinking why are there two kanji for dragon…well, 竜 is considered to be the simplified and more popular form of 龍, which is said to be the more archaic of the two (known in Japanese as 旧漢字. There are quite a few kanji like this – 国 & 國, 黒 & 黑 and 舟 & 船). The modern, simplified version is the most accepted version, though 龍 is also allowed to be used in names. Strictly speaking in Japanese they actually have the same meaning, though further investigation does uncover some differences in their etymology and the nuance that they both convey.

For the sake of everyone’s sanity let’s start off by stating the obvious – dragons are NOT real – but you could say that there are actually two types of dragon. First we have the dragon that existed in medieval Europe and soared through the skies indiscriminately roasting innocent townsfolk, knights in shining armour and anything else that moved. Think the Welsh flag and Harry Potter.

The second type of dragon we have comes from the East, that is, China. More serpent-like than its European cousin and supposedly more placid, Chinese dragons are more likely to live around water and frolic in waterfalls in their spare time. Their heads are more crocodilian with a couple of deer-like antlers on top with short stocky legs.

The general consensus seems to be that 竜 is associated with dragons from the West whereas 龍 tends to refer to oriental dragons. A quick search of either kanji in Google Images also gives you a similar result (although not exactly academic…). However there really isn’t a need to make this kind of subtle distinction in your use of the two kanji. It’s actually best to use 竜 given that it is the most widely accepted form, unless the situation governs that you should use 龍 instead. As an example, consider the following words; 青龍 (せいりゅう – blue Chinese dragon), 烏龍茶 (ウーロンちゃ – oolong tea) and 恐竜 (きょうりゅう – dinosaur).

So while we don’t recommend losing sleep over whether you should be using 竜 or 龍 (if you see either in the wild, RUN!) it is important to recognise the history and unique stories that kanji have to tell. Understanding this background knowledge is not only interesting but can really help you to appreciate the language you are learning.