English: Yellow banner depicting a blue dragon.

Happy (Chinese) New Year!  Today begins the Year of the Dragon.  It is also – for the first time in Philippino history – a national holiday here. Perhaps this is significant – a testament to the growing influence of China and Chinese ‘soft-power’ in the Pacific Rim?  The US has exported is soft-power (cultural influence) through McDonalds, Coca Cola, Denim Jeans, Hollywood all over the world …. even the UK punches above its weight particularly with Music (Adele and Jessie J are always on radios here!) Film and TV, (I was amazed to see how popular Johnnie English is here!). The success of  British historical drama and comedy is well documented, but I’m not sure we should be so proud of our new global export – reality TV formats and talent shows! China as an emerging super-power, has a growing desire to project its image and increase its influence abroad. The lack of Chinese soft power has been analysed brilliantly in the Economist – click here.  The Chinese are looking for a figurehead – Confucius or Sun Tzu?

Today millions of Chinese – and Vietnamese and Koreans –  say goodbye to the year of the rabbit and welcome the year of the dragon.  The dragon is considered to be a symbol of power from heaven. Associated with the element of Fire – confidence, passion, intensity, excitement and unpredictable nature. But don’t be alarmed if you are an introvert – I was assured this morning by a sinologist that each year is ‘qualified’ by one of the 5 chinese elements – and this is a Water Dragon year – the element of Water will temper the fire of the dragon. It opens ‘dragons’ up to listening to others, which gives them the perspective to be better leaders! Good year for a US presidential election then….The twelve animals in the zodiac calendar ensure a 12 year cycle – so it is a special year in Asia for 12, 24, 36, 48 year olds etc  Fireworks and firecrackers are purchased,  homes are cleaned and dumplings prepared. This will be a fourteen day celebration, welcoming wealth, longevity, and prosperity, and releasing any negative ‘chi’ from the past (new years resolutions!).

I predict that this year will also be a good year for Dragons in other ways – the Christmas release of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit – will introduce a new generation to Smaug the dragon.  But also the phenomenally popular George R R Martin‘s Fire and Ice series will surely grow, and with it the popularity of the great character Daenerys Taegerean – Mother of Dragons.  Perhaps this is the year to buy shares in companies that make Dragon memorabilia – you heard it here first!

Geek alert : I confess that I am already on the third book of Martin’s seven book cycle ….. one thing is true is that both Tolkien and Martin project huge cultural influence, fanatical fan bases , both entertaining, but soft power is about values and culture . ASoFaI is much bleaker than LOTR and so far I think lacks its nobility and depth – but I would still prefer it to Harry Potter (sorry!).

But all this talk of Dragons is fantasy right? it’s all myths… children’s stories in Tolkiens case or Adult stories in Martins case?  ………… Well think again.  I was riveted last night,  cradling a small glass of whisky to celebrate the Chinese New Year, as I listened to an Indonesia Jesuit tell me all about his encounters with the Komodo Dragon.  That is one scary beast ….. can grow up to 3m’s long due to the evolutionary phenomenon of Island Gigantisism  ….. is pretty fast…. has poisonous saliva (no fire breathing) …. can smell prey 6 miles away… even crocodiles are afraid of it!  The ‘pièce de résistance’ :  they seem to be Parthenogenic (i.e. can reproduce asexually) – as was demonstrated by Flora of good old Chester Zoo! (according to this Wikipedia entry!).