In myths and fairytales, dragons may breathe fire and hold fair princesses captive until they can be rescued by their handsome heroes.
But when the dragon of Chinese astrology arrives with the Lunar New Year on Monday, the mythical creature will bring with it optimism and hope for better times ahead in 2012.
The dragon is the most auspicious and powerful of the 12 signs of the zodiac, one associated with high energy and prosperity. It's also the only mythical creature in the Chinese astrological stable that includes horses, rats and pigs. This year is considered especially auspicious because it is the year of the water dragon, something that happens once every 60 years.
"The dragon is a symbol of power and superior control," says Stephen Chu, president of the Mississauga Chinese Business Association, west of Toronto. "It's not evil. The dragon is a good symbol."
It also represents change and mobility.
"Dragons seem to be a change year, and usually from bad to good," says Paul Ng, a feng shui master in Richmond Hill, Ont., north of Toronto.
"In general, in the dragon years, the world economy does a little better."
Given how the world economy has been getting along, that wouldn't be a bad thing.
And with this year of the dragon coming after 2011's year of the rabbit, a symbol which Ng says usually represents instability, he sees the potential for an economic rebound similar to the pattern that emerged in 1987 (a bad — and rabbit — year), followed by a better (and dragon) year in 1988.
'If you're a dragon, you're everything'
In Chinese mythology and folklore, there are many dragon tales.
Ng points to a time about 5,000 years ago, when tribes were fighting one another. The tribe of the Yellow Emperor succeeded, and combined the totems of other tribes, including the phoenix, the lion, the snake, the scorpion and the tiger, to form the dragon totem.
"So that's why when you look at the dragon claws, they are like claws of the lions and tigers mixed.
"The tail is almost like a scorpion. The body is like a snake being flexible … and the head would be just like the big lion head," says Ng.
"In other words, they combined totems of many powerful animals into one that flies like the fiery bird, the phoenix. It's quite a mixed basket. It incorporates the most powerful things of all kinds of creatures into one. That's why people love it, because if you're a dragon, you're everything."
So much so that people throughout much of Asia often do what they can to make sure they are married or have a child during a year of the dragon.
Officials expect a baby boom not only in China and Taiwan, but in other Asian countries and territories that observe the New Year festival, including Japan, South Korea, Vietnam, Hong Kong and Macau.
Most have extremely low birth rates, reflecting a preference among young couples in these prosperous or rapidly developing societies to choose quality of life and career advancement over the responsibilities of child rearing.
But this year of the dragon looks to be breaking the mould.
A poll in Hong Kong showed that 70 per cent of couples there wanted children born under the dragon sign, while South Korea, Vietnam and China all report similar enthusiasm about dragon-year childbearing.
The year of the dragon has long proved to be an impetus for births. In 2000, the last dragon year, the rate increased to 1.7 children per Taiwanese woman of childbearing age from 1.5 the previous year.
A second child had not been in the plans for Austin Tseng, a 32-year-old office worker in Taipai, but she is now eagerly awaiting a new baby.
"I had thought one child was enough, but then comes the year of the dragon and I'm happy to have another one," Tseng said after an ultrasound check on her 20-week-old fetus.
Full of energy
Ng says people who are born in dragon years (which include 1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988 and 2000) are imaginative and full of energy.
"They believe they can conquer the world."
Ng does acknowledge a certain skepticism some might hold toward the ability to connect so many positive traits to a person's birth in a dragon year. After all, it's "not really scientific."
And maybe there are other interpretations of just what a dragon might be.
"Dragons have their weaknesses, too," Ng says. "They are not very practical people."
Political change on the horizon
With the idea of the change the year of the dragon could represent in mind, Ng has a long list of predictions for 2012.
He sees a lot of political change coming — there are many elections set in countries from the United States to Russia.
Closer to home, he sees a lot of "political hassles" in Toronto.
"There will be a lot of political union issues in the City of Toronto this year. That's not avoidable, so making Mr. [Mayor Rob] Ford's job quite tricky."
While he sees stability with the federal majority government in Ottawa, he does predict it may shift its international focus.
"They will pay far more attention to Asia than ever before this year. In the past, they treated the U.S.A. as the major trading partner."
'Snake without a head'
And as far as the federal New Democratic Party is concerned, Ng doesn't forsee an easy time. He predicts there will be more defections. (NDP MP Lise St-Denis jumped to the Liberals earlier this month.)
"The NDP is like a snake without a head right now."
Not a dragon, or at least not a dragon of the Chinese zodiac, which would be a far more optimistic outlook.