Gyarados: The Chinese Dragon?

On right: Flag of the Qing dynasty

Gyarados is a Water/Flying type in the Pokemon video games, yet it is often thought of as a dragon-like Pokemon. This is in part because of it’s resemblance to Chinese Dragons. It also learns Dragons Rage, a move which was showcased prominently during it’s first major appearance in the anime (that one where Ash Ketchum and crew almost died. Fun times.).

Gyarados is not the only Pokemon that should be a dragon type but isn’t.

The prevailing theory for why Gyarados, and also why Charizard (the literal fire-breathing dragon) were not dragon types in the game is for balancing reasons. Making them technically dragon type within the game’s mechanics would have simply made them too powerful and therefore made the game too easy

A combination of the water and dragon types in Gyarados would have only had one weakness: other dragon types.

In my last post, I wrote about Magikarp’s connection to the Dragons Gate legend where carps in China are said to transform into dragons if they can make it to the top of certain waterfalls. Today, it’s Gyarados’s turn, and I’m going to address Chinese Dragons themselves at length, along with other similar mythical water beings.

Dragons, like any fictional entity, transform through time and when brought into different cultures.

Dragons and other fictional entities could also have been developed in different cultures on opposite ends of the earth independent of each other if there is a shared experience from which the similar myths were inspired from.

For dragons of all kinds around the world,

The shared experience in question that would have inspired them could have been the discovery of giant bones of creatures we now know as dinosaurs. [Source: Science Channel 1]

(I see what they did there by making this Pokemon, Tyrantrum the dinosaur Pokemon a dragon-type.)

The FIRE-breathing variants of dragons we most often associate with the word ‘dragon’ have their roots primarily in Europe in part because christian priests associated dragons with hell, and therefore with fire. This version of the dragon has become popularized by modern cinema in titles such as Lord Of The Rings.

Yet not all dragons breathe fire…

… in fact, traditional Chinese and other Asian dragons are very different from the fiery Charizard archetype. Their primary element is water, not fire. They are also usually shown without wings… yet they can still fly anyways because mythical creatures can do what they want.

Carved imperial Chinese dragons at Nine-Dragon Wall, Beihai Park, Beijing. Photo by splitbrain. Image license: CC BY-SA 2.0

Dragons in China are said to live underwater, in rivers, lakes or the ocean (so they can swim too). Each body of water is said to have it’s own guardian dragon, which means they’re lots~ of them.

People can’t even agree on how many rivers there were in China before the environmental changes which caused many rivers to disappear… there were so many rivers people could not even count them all until recently. 20 years ago the estimate was around 50,000 rivers, not including lakes. [Source: Hsu]

Rather than being seen as synonymous with evil as dragons were seen in Europe, Chinese dragons are respected and revered as entities who can help humans as well as harm them.

Imagine over 50,000 of these fellas (thank god most of them aren’t bloodthirsty). Image from the DragonBall anime depicting Shenron the wish granting dragon.
Some dragons are friendly~

In some versions of a particular legend, a dragon is said to have even helped Yu save humanity from the mythical Great Flood. [Recommended Reading: Holloway] [Source: Theobald]

Across many stories in China dragons can be seen either helping humans or causing various levels of mischief or trouble. One of the strangest and most random dragon stories I have come across is one where a dragon straight up kidnapped a veterinarian they liked (the vet was known to be able to heal a particular ailment among dragons)… never to be seen again? [Source: Wong]

As mystical beings, Eastern dragons are said to have power over water 🌊, rain 🌧️, and the weather 🌪️.

One particularly important element of the relationship between eastern dragons and humans was that dragons were the ones who brought rain necessary for a successful harvest. If there is too much rain or not enough, that’s all said to have been the dragon’s doing. People held rain-making festivals to keep their local dragon happy and built long boats in the dragon’s image. These festivals may also be the origin of the well known Dragon Boat races. [Source: Chan]

Dragon Boat in Hong Kong. Photo taken by eLjeProks on Flikr.

People build long boats with a dragon’s head at the front, and a dragon’s tail at the back. Competitive races lead along the river or across a lake where the dragon they are paying tribute to is said to live. Each boat has a team of many people who have to work together in order to row the boat in unison.

Taiwan Dragon Boat. Pixabay image.

According to Arlene Chan (she was likely using Chinese-language-only information as reference), these races were possibly held as part of Rain Making festivals since ancient times. Nowadays they are well-known almost exclusively as a key part of the Duanwu Festival (端午节). The Duanwi Festival is a way to commemorate the tragic end of Qu Yuan in the year 278 BC when he drowned in a lake. The boat racing tradition continues to be used because it represents the village’s attempt to find Qu Yuan after hearing the news. Many traditions that were originally used for Rain Making festivals are likely used today for the Duanwu Festival.

Dragon Boat Festival watercolor from the 18th century AD, wikimedia commons.

Some even say the usage of the rice-dumpling known as Zongzi (粽子) to feed Qu Yuan’s spirit originated from a similar tradition to feed a rich rice dumpling to the river dragons as tribute. Perhaps back then the rice was not wrapped in the reed or bamboo leaves as is iconic of the modern Zongzi dumpling, since legend states that the dumplings were wrapped in leaves so that the dragon does not eat them all itself, therefore leaving some for Qu Yuan’s spirit).

Dragons are so closely linked with water that mythology researchers use the dragon head imagery used to refer to Shun as evidence for him being a water spirit, despite being born from a human woman (albeit a human women who got impregnated from looking at a rainbow). [Sources: Lewis, Chen]

However, Eastern Dragons are not the only mythical beings associated with water 💧, and they are likely not Gyarados’s only inspiration. It is a natural part of the creative process to draw inspiration from a variety of sources. After all, it would seem cheap to just copy what we know about Eastern Dragons word-for word in Gyarados’s Pokedex entries…

Yet it still also seems strange for all of Gyarados’s Pokedex entries to be universally focused on it’s violence. It’s true that Eastern dragons can get angry and cause disastrous weather, occasionally even destroying whole towns. While some versions of China’s flood legend tell of a dragon helping humanity, there are also artworks depicting Gun Yu fighting a flood dragon (because remember, eastern dragons can control the weather).

… However these events traditionally do not define an Eastern Dragon’s entire existence the way it does for Gyarados according to the Pokedex. Clearly there is more to the story.

Just a few Pokedex entries from Bulbapedia

First of all, even as far as dragons go, Eastern Dragons are not the only ones associated with water. Although water-associated dragons are far more common in the east than the west.

Ancient Greek mosaic from Caulonia, Italy, depicting a cetus or sea-dragon.

Second of all, there are other ocean monsters such as the Kraken known for attacking boats. In fact, Gyarados’s name in the beta version of the Red/Blue games was Skulkrake, a combination of skull and Kraken. Both Gyarados’s appearance and name have changed since then.

Sea Monsters in-general are often either exaggerated or romanticized forms of real creatures seen by sailors, and/or are developed as a metaphorical warning for how dangerous boating was back then. Boating was especially dangerous in Norse/Scandinavian areas, where monster stories are particularly common. The murky waters of Scandinavia made it impossible to see underwater rocks. [Source: Stefan Sveinsson via Science Channel 2]

“We often find a hint of truth in our monster stories, then our imagination and creativity go to work and we get these amazing beasts.”

Margee Kerr, sociologist on Mythical Beasts: Hunting the Loch Ness Monster via the Science Channel.
Kraken attacking merchant ship, 1810. Public Domain.

Even today the ocean is often said to be our last frontier of exploration, we still know very little about it. In fact Paul Snelgrove, a marine biologist once said that we know more about the surface of the moon and about mars than we do about the floor of our own oceans. To this day, indeed, 95% of the ocean on our own planet is completely unexplored. [Source: Kershner]

The people of the past knew even less than we do now.

Facts, in the traditional scientific sense do not exist until someone of repute writes them down, in 1957 Naturalist Yeager Desteger did just that for Marine Biology when he classified the Kracken as a ‘giant squid.’ [Source: Science Channel 2] There is in fact a species of giant squid that fits some descriptions of the Kraken. (A few other people attempted to catalog the Kraken as it’s own species before Yeager, but Yeager’s description links more directly to a species in our current scientific canon)

The Giant Squid specimen preserved in a block of ice at the Melbourne Aquarium. Image license: GFDL 1.2

A Giant Squid (that’s literally the name of the species) can grow to be as large as 10 meters for males and 13 meters for females. This is pretty big, not quite as big as some of the Kraken stories, but big enough for it’s size to be easily exaggerated or overestimated. Even so, BBC news reported in 2003 that a Giant Squid, which according to witnesses was only half that max size, 7 or 8 meters, had indeed attacked their boat. [Source: BBC]

Did Tentacruel take over beta-Gyarados’s the role as the Kraken Pokemon?

We don’t know why a deep-water creature would come to the surface to mess with a boat, but since this has only been recorded to happen once in recent history (to my knowledge) we can only say that the event is rare, but obviously also terrifying when it does happen.

As a side note, one notable feature of this species of squid is that it has a small beak… a lot like another Pokemon we know (except it’s beak size is cartoonishly exaggerated).

However, the term Kracken through history had been used to refer to many sea-monsters which had no other classification. The appearance of the Kracken could change depending on who you ask, especially perhaps in ancient times before people started trying to categorize things in books. There are still multiple theories for it’s origins debated by scientists (such as Norse sailors falsely believing that a monster had sunk their ship… when it was actually underwater rocks to blame). It’s most likely that the origins of the Kraken has no single truth behind it.

“Yu the Great Fights a Flood Dragon” (Totoya Hokkei/William Sturgis Bigelow Collection)

Gyarados also bears some resemblance to Sea Serpents, which are their own class of dragon-like sea-monsters around the world. The world of Sea-monsters is far deeper (pun intended) than a single blog post could cover.

With all of this information in mind, there are several reasonable reasons for Gyarados’s characterization. Like the Krakens themselves, Gyarados may simply have had multiple inspirations.

It could also be seen as simply a particular kind of Eastern Dragon, such as the flood dragon which Yu The Great fought. There is, after all, another Pokemon which controls the weather while being far more peaceful and less intimidating than Gyarados (or most real-life Eastern Dragons)… that Pokemon is Dragonair. The anime even shows Dragonair living in a lake.

A baby Dragonair, aka a Dratini from episode 35: The Legend Of Dratini.

Dragonair may not look like an Eastern dragon as much as Gyarados does, aside from the surface elements it also fundamentally looks far less intimidating that most traditional Eastern Dragon imagery…. but Dratini and Dragonair do have a serpent-like design.

Dragonair can also fly and swim, while Gyarados can only swim. Dragonair may look less like an Eastern Dragon, but it shares more of it’s abilities.

Perhaps Dragonair represents the peaceful elements of Eastern Dragons while Gyarados represents the dark side.

Chinese dragon in a dragon-dance for Chinese New Year 2000 in Helsinki. Wikimedia Public Domain.

Another particularly clever explanation for Gyarados’s characterization comes from TryHardBloggers on Amino, where Gyarados is a Chinese Dragon fallen from glory.

Thanks for reading! Support my work on Patreon -> (Temporarily on hiatus, leave a tip on Ko-Fi instead for now)

~ ~ ~

Further reading on mythology:

Handbook of Chinese Mythology – Available at some public libraries, a fantastic guide for beginners to mythology in general and contains a good collection of Chinese myths.

Flood Myths of Early China – The free preview provides a good amount of information.

Further viewing on mythology:

Extra Mythology Playlist – A series of YouTube videos about various myths from around the world.

Mythical Beasts: The Dragon’s Inferno – Can be viewed for free since it’s the first episode.


Detailed bibliography (so you can still find the sources if the links don’t work or if the apocalypse happens and some webpages go missing or something):

Science Channel 1: Mythical Beasts. “The Dragon’s Inferno.” Episode 1. Directed by Dan Aldridge-Neil. Science Channel original air-date: October, 2018.

Hsu, Angel and William Miao. “28,000 Rivers Disappeared in China: What Happened?” The Atlantic. April 29th, 2013.

Holloway, April. “Gun-Yu and the Chinese Flood Myth” Ancient Origins. 23 April, 2013.

  • Theobald, Ulrich. “Yu the Great 大禹” China Jan 23, 2010.
    • They cited:
    • Li Jianping 李劍平, ed. (1998). Zhongguo shenhua renwu cidian 中國神話人物辭典 (Xi’an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), 488.
    • Liu Qiyu 劉起釪 (1992). “Yu 禹”, in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, 1420.
    • Yuan Ke 袁珂, ed. (1985). Zhongguo shenhua chuanshuo cidian 中國神話傳說詞典 (Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe), 25, 284.

Wong, K. Chimin and Liande Wu. History of Chinese Medicine; Being a Chronicle of Medical Happenings in China from Ancient times to the Present Period. 2d Ed. Shanghai, National Quarantine Service, 1936.. ed. New York: AMS, 1973. Print.

Chan, Arlene. Awakening the Dragon: The Dragon Boat Festival. April 10, 2007. Print.

Lewis, Mark Edward. Flood Myths Of Early China. 2016. Print and on Google Books. Page 38.

Chen, Lianshan. Chinese Myths and Legends. 2011. Print and on Google Books.

Kershner, Kate. “Do We Really Know More about Space than the Deep Ocean?” HowStuffWorks Science. March 08, 2018.

BBC: “Science/Nature | Giant Squid ‘attacks French Boat’.” BBC News. January 15, 2003.

Science Channel 2: Mythical Beasts. “Hunting the Loch Ness Monster” Episode 10. Directed by Dan Aldridge-Neil. Science Channel original air-date: December, 2018.


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