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Many Chinese believe Dragon babies destined for greatness, but baby booms have unintended consequences


Those born under the Dragon sign are said to be more imaginative, creative, confident and persistent, according to the Chinese zodiac

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A boy was born to Taiwanese parents in Florida in January 1977 just before the Year of the Dragon turned into the Year of the Snake in the Chinese zodiac. As the family story goes, the boy’s father decided to name him Dragon as a result.

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The doctor said, “You can’t name your son Dragon! He’s going to be raised in the United States. He’s going to be made fun of!”

“So my dad thought about this and said, ‘I’ll add a ‘y’ to the name and he’ll blend in, just like all the American kids, like Johnny and Freddy,’” says Dragony Fu, who’s now 44.

And while Fu might have been a surprise to his parents — they already had two daughters, the youngest eight — it is no surprise that there is a Chinese baby boom in the Year of the Dragon, the only Chinese zodiac sign that does not correspond to a real animal.

The Chinese regard the Dragon as the most auspicious sign in the 12-year zodiac cycle and believe Dragon babies — supposedly more imaginative, creative, confident and persistent — are destined for greatness.

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“Chinese people regard themselves as descendants of the Dragon,” says Paul Ng, a feng shui master in Toronto, one of the Canadian cities where the baby boom has been observed.

The Dragon represents China

“The Dragon is the totem of many animals combined together. He has the body of a snake, the scales of a fish, the horns of a rhino and the mouth of a lion. All these powerful creatures’ features are found within the dragon….

“The Dragon represents China, and if you look at China’s geography, all these mountain ranges do look like dragons.”

Demographer Daniel Goodkind, at the time a doctoral student at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, traces the Dragon baby boom back to just 1976, despite the thousands-year history of the Chinese zodiac.

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“When I did my fieldwork, I interviewed some feng shui guys … because I thought that maybe (they) were giving parents this advice. But they didn’t know what I was talking about. They looked at me like, ‘Are you crazy? Why are you asking me this question? It doesn’t relate to what I do,’” says Goodkind.

He offers several reasons for why this phenomenon has developed. Modern contraceptive methods became more widely available. Parents began to focus on child quality instead of child quantity. The world was coming out of the 1973-74 oil crisis just in time to conceive for births in 1976, a Year of the Dragon, and Chinese communities outside Mainland China may have tried to create or revive Chinese traditions that were under threat on the Mainland during the Cultural Revolution.

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There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future, and the Chinese zodiac helps people decide whether they are ready to have a child, Goodkind adds.

His research shows that roughly 25 per cent more babies were born among the Chinese populations of Singapore and Malaysia during the 1988 Year of the Dragon compared with the previous year.

In response, Singapore, three quarters of which is ethnically Chinese, opened nine new primary schools — schools, not classrooms — to accommodate 4,000 of these children. But the number of extra children born that year was closer to 9,000.

This has led to problems that, ironically, mean Dragons are not always more successful than those born under other zodiac signs.

While the Chinese believe Dragon babies are destined for greatness, feng shui master Paul Ng says it isn’t that simple. “You cannot just look at the year of birth. You have to combine that with the month, the day, the hour, and the place of birth,” he said.
While the Chinese believe Dragon babies are destined for greatness, feng shui master Paul Ng says it isn’t that simple. “You cannot just look at the year of birth. You have to combine that with the month, the day, the hour, and the place of birth,” he said. Photo by Peter J. Thompson/National Post

Instead of being more prosperous, a recent study from the National University of Singapore finds that Singaporean Dragons of Chinese descent have an income that is 6.3 per cent lower than would be expected had they been born under a different sign.

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These Dragons are also less likely to be admitted to the more prestigious universities and less likely to be employed in the higher-paying formal sector.

The study gives two reasons for this.

First, Dragons are less prepared for university. Even though universities increased the number of places they made available during the years when Dragons were to enter them, Dragons’ marks were below standard ­­— possibly because after-school tutoring centres did not expand to accommodate them.

Second, there is increased competition in the labour market.

That has had implications for the non-Chinese minority in Singapore, too. One quarter of Singapore is made up of ethnic Malays, Indians and other groups that do not follow the Chinese zodiac. Their salaries also went down by 3.6 per cent if they were born in a Dragon year.

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And there’s another timing quirk in Singapore: Singaporean men must serve two years of military service, which means they usually enter university and the labour market with Singaporean women born in the Year of the Horse.

Tan and her colleagues find that Chinese Horse women (pardon the phrase) in Singapore earn 3.2 per cent less than Chinese women born under other signs. Singaporean Chinese Horse men, who are not faced with increased competition, do not suffer a similar destiny.

Goodkind says the Taiwanese government, so alarmed by its 1976 Dragon baby boom and the havoc it wreaked on finding teachers and shuffling them across grades as Dragons progressed through school, launched a “Think Three Times” campaign in the run-up to the 1988 Year of the Dragon. The campaign highlighted the increased infant mortality during the previous Year of the Dragon and told parents that Dragons were no smarter and no more successful than those born under other signs of the zodiac. (By one measure, Dragons ranked ninth among the 12 signs.) Still, there was an eight per cent jump in the number of babies born in Taiwan in 1988.

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But these paradoxical outcomes ­­– at least regarding educational attainment – are not universal.

Researchers find that in Mainland China, Dragons born in 1988 had higher university entrance scores and were actually more likely to graduate from university.

In Hong Kong, Dragons spent more time studying math and had higher marks in the subject. Researchers couldn’t say whether that was because of greater competition among students, more parental investment in Dragons’ education in books or after-school tutoring centres (maybe as a response to this greater competition), or simply the presence of classmates who were more motivated.

And Chinese-American Dragons are more educated than their non-Dragon Chinese-American peers, although researchers say that is probably related to their family background — Dragons were born to mothers who were higher earners and more educated than other Chinese-American mothers.

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This doesn’t surprise Ng, the feng shui master, who says that other things are more important than simply being born during the Year of the Dragon.

“There is no one sign that is the best or the worst because you cannot just look at the year of birth. You have to combine that with the month, the day, the hour, and the place of birth. The year of birth just gives us some indications about the person’s personality,” he says.

“Dragons tend to be very creative but they can be carried away, too. They imagine too much, failing to put imagination into practice. It all becomes empty dreams….

“I find more successful Snakes than successful Dragons. I think the word is ‘practicality.’”

In fact, each month is itself associated with a zodiac sign, and Dragons born in April are double Dragons, who tend to become pessimistic when things don’t go their way; it is better for Dragons to be born in September and December, says Ng.

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Whatever the reason, Dragons’ prosperity is not guaranteed.

This could have implications in Canada, too.

The York Region District School Board comprises four districts, two of which serve Markham — just under half of which is ethnically Chinese — and Richmond Hill — more than a quarter of which is ethnically Chinese. Those two districts saw a roughly 16 per cent jump in the number of children born in Dragon year 2012.

The other two districts, where roughly eight per cent of the population is Chinese? Just a six per cent baby boom.

That’s roughly 1,000 extra students in just one school district.

And School District 38 in Richmond, more than half of which is Chinese, saw a 12 per cent jump in the number of students born in 2012.

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(These are numbers for the entire student population, not just the population of Chinese descent; such numbers are not collected by school districts.)

You can’t name your son Dragon!

Of course, these are just trends and statistics. Each Dragon baby charts his or her own way through life, and Dragony Fu credits his parents for letting him develop his own interests.

“I was not a straight-A student. I was fine and it made me feel like I was able to be myself more — in that where I am now, I didn’t need that amount of pressure because I could find my interests and develop a career.”

Fu pursued those interests all the way to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he completed a post-doctoral fellowship. Today, he is an associate professor of biology at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.

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And perhaps his parents were wise not to fully heed their doctor’s advice about their baby’s name, unknowingly helping their son achieve the success he was “fated” for as a Dragon.

“When I was a kid growing up, I did not like my name. I wanted to change it. Why couldn’t I be a John?…

“Fast forward to where I am now…. My name has definitely helped me stand out…. I’m applying for a job along with 500 other applicants. Maybe my merit is equal to (that of) many hundreds of (other) people but maybe my name stands out. I think it has helped me in ways I don’t know about.”

The next Year of the Dragon starts in February 2024. If you share this cultural preference, it might be time to start planning for your own baby Dragon or, perhaps, baby Dragony. And even if you don’t, it might still be time to plan for what others might be planning.

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