In 2004 Nike ran into some trouble with its commercials in Asia. It hit the first hurdle in Singapore where over 700 hundred street-art posters had to be pulled down, after 50 or so citizens complained that graffiti hooligans have vandalized their sanitary clean bus stops.
This little glitch was nothing though, compared to the fate of a multi-million dollar commercial starring the basketball prodigy James LeBron. The Hong Kong movie spoof “Chamber of Fear” featured LeBron fighting a number of opponents, Bruce Lee-style – culminating with him knocking out the ultimate enemy, “self-doubt”. The trouble is, much as the spot strived to imitate the martial arts B-movie classics, its Western creators have completely missed the point. When Chinese authorities banned the commercial for “insulting national dignity” and disrespecting “the motherland’s culture “, the Western media thought this had to do with Le Bron roughing up a grey haired sifu in the first round. They still did not get it. The real trouble was the fourth challenge, where Le Bron beats up a dragon.
If we were to look for one symbol, one single archetype to best summarize the distance that separates the West and the East, the Dragon would certainly make the shortlist. In Western mythology he is one evil spirit, spitting fire from its many heads. The hero’s task is to fight him, tame him, and eventually slay him with a nice thrust of a spear.
In China the Dragon is a whole other creature. It is magnificent. It represents prosperity, its presence is auspicious, and much time is spent in architecture and life-style design in efforts to align oneself with the dragon’s energy. To quote a Feng Shui manual: “the dragon is the most favorable and sacred of all the other celestial creatures and to be treated with great respect. Through generations, the dragon has been the ultimate symbol of luck, fortune, harmony, well-being and honor. In ancient times, Emperors of China regarded themselves as dragons and the symbol of dragon could only be used by them and no one else. The Dragon’s cosmic breath is believed to have created the chi.”
So important is the Dragon’s energy in the East, that even in the most expensive real estate areas in China a building might have a hole in it, so as to let the Dragon’s breath through, and not obstruct his pathway to the water. This is not to say that Dragon cannot cause trouble when you bother him. The I M Pei designed Bank of China in Hong Kong caused much uproar because of its pointed corners which pricked the Dragon and cast misfortune on the building’s neighbors, including the Legislative Council, HSBC and the American Consulate. Ironically, it was the American Consulate that immediately put up mirrors to counteract the bad vibes , which shows that even Westerners can learn to negotiate with Dragon, once exposed to its powers.
All of this is really to wish you a Happy Year of the Dragon, starting on the 25th of January. Obviously you choose which myth you follow. Either way, as the “Power of Myth” author Joseph Campbell once said: “The ultimate dragon is within you”.