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Chinese Dragon: A Powerful Metaphor in Chinese Cultural History   Tags: china, chinese dragon  

A Curriculum Unit Developed to Support the Grade 4 Gifted and Talented Program By Judy Botsford, Librarian (Retired), Runkle School, Brookline, Massachusetts
Last Updated: May 27, 2015 URL: Print Guide RSS UpdatesEmail Alerts

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The Chinese Dragon


Goal for Unit

Students will explore the history, culture and geography of China in a variety of periods using the folk motif of the dragon as a focal point.



1. Through the shared reading of nonfiction readings, tales and longer works of fiction, students will identify some of the ways in which dragon imagery reflects life in China at various periods in her history.

2. Through the shared reading of the above, students will identify historical and cultural information about life in China as experienced by the characters.

3. Students will identify story conventions(beginning, middle, end, setting, plot) and folk tale motifs (numbers, characters).

4. Students will recognize how understanding of a metaphor or symbol enriches one’s understanding of art and literature.


Key Questions

  • How and why do artists use symbol to express themselves?
  • Why is the dragon such a powerful Chinese cultural symbol?
  • How do cultural celebrations and practices evolve?
  • What was the relationship between the emperor and his subjects in Early China?
  • How does cultural belief evolve into metaphor?

Equipment Needs

These materials should be available for every meeting period

  • Easel with chart paper to record student observations and compare observations
  • In-Focus projector & computer (or slide projector if using the slides included in the full Primary Source unit) and screen or blank wall.
  • A large wall map of China
  • Sets of readings (1 for each/student) depending on which clusters are to be completed.
  • Flags or post-its to mark important passages in the readings.
  • Student folders for the storage of readings and assignments.
  • Student and teacher self assessments after each session. The author used the evaluation forms available in Beyond Book Reports, published by Scholastic Inc.


The folk literature of China could be said to provide a kind of “Natural History” of this huge country throughout its 4000 year history. These stories, which have survived the vicissitudes of succeeding dynasties, invasions of barbarian tribes and the immense upheaval of the Communist revolution, have done so because their themes continue to engage the Chinese people reflecting the reality of their lives and the stuff of their dreams as vividly today as they did centuries ago.

Chinese folk tales have a long history. Collecting and using songs and tales must have begun as early as the time of Confucius (561-479 BC) who is said to have chosen from a harvest of 3000 about 300 of the best folk songs and ritual odes for the Book of Odes (Shih ching) . The Han government (3rd C. BC) appointed officials to investigate and report on the legends and stories heard in the marketplace so that the mood of the people could be judged and the effectiveness of the administration accurately evaluated. In time these same tales became the sources for the composers of the classical fiction and poetry of the period. Fiction began in the Han dynasty from the models of oral tales (Eberhard, p.xi).

The collection and utilization of folk literature was undertaken with great enthusiasm during the early years of Communist state (perhaps influenced by the Russian folklore movement) by men such as Chung Ching-wen, a professor at Peking Normal University. Chung believed that folk literature “originated and developed with the masses of the people during the long process of their social existence and social struggles. Through their powers of artistic creation, the masses have genuinely and fruitfully preserved their own historical record and world-view ...without knowledge of the oral tradition of the people, no one could understand the real history of the laboring class.” (Eberhard, p.xiii). Mao himself encouraged the recording of bandit and peasant revolt tales both because he had accepted the support of bandits in his struggle with the Kuomintang armies and had adopted their tactics in attacking the rich landowners and Nationalist troops to feed his followers.

School children in the early grades have a natural affinity for folk tales and literary tales with folk elements. The clear division between good and evil, the one dimensionality of characters, the effective resolution of plot and the lack of ambiguity satisfy their sense of social justice. The tales, in turn, have much to teach them about the shape of story. Simple literary conventions and clear demarcations between the beginning, middle and end of a tale reinforce the teaching of writing in the classroom as they begin to compose their own stories. In reviewing these takes, older elementary children revisit story structure and prepare for the writing of more complex pieces. For the purposes of this unit, however, what may be most important is the amount of information these folk tales reveal about the concerns, fears, ambitions, injustices, natural disasters, occupations, food, housing, clothing, customs, amusements and hopes which fill the lives of the people in them.

One caution: The major difficulty in using written folk tales, either a compilation or single tale, is that they often reflect the values or agenda of the recorder as much as, if not more than, the folk who have passed them on orally. This concept may be difficult for early elementary students to grasp, but shouldn’t detract from its importance in understanding folk literature.


Audience and Readings

Love of story engages the child in the process of history in ways which nonfiction cannot. It is the purpose of this unit, therefore, to introduce students in the middle elementary grades (3-4) to some of the history and geography of China through an examination of the dragon motif as it appears in folk literature and fiction. As reading in the content areas is also crucial in these middle years, students will also be given practice reading and analyzing nonfiction readings which will acquaint them with various aspects of Chinese dragon lore.

Conducted by the librarian, each thematic cluster will have background information and several lessons which extend the student’s understanding of the metaphorical use of the dragon motif. Assignments will encourage them to extract information about the history and geography of China from the reading of folk tale and fiction . Because this unit is designed for specific use with gifted fourth grade gifted readers, each section will be extended by the reading of a longer work of fiction in which some aspect of dragon folklore is included. Students should develop a fuller understanding of how writers use metaphor to enrich and deepen their writing. Several extension activities, which are optional depending on the time and inclination of the cooperating staff. Bibliographies are included with each section to extend the theme even further. This unit can supplement classroom curriculum materials provided by a system for the teaching of Early or Ancient culture, but it is designed to provide the Library Media Specialist or Gifted and Talented Teacher with a self-contained unit on Chinese Folklore which will extend the thinking of able readers.

The library media specialist occupies a unique position in the school. Some see scheduled classes on a regular basis, some schedule flexibly, some work in close association with teachers and can schedule cooperatively with an art or music teacher. Others share responsibility for several buildings and are in a single school only part-time. For this reason, the unit is intended to be flexible allowing for the teaching of a single cluster or several if time allows. The web version of this unit contains only the first two of four clusters: The Mythology of the Dragon and The Emperor and the Symbol of the Dragon. The remaining clusters can be obtained from the Primary Source Library.


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