Chapters 4 – 6

Dragons and Dragon Lore, by Ernest Ingersoll



TODAY, WHEN one hears the word ‘dragon’ one’s mind almost inevitably pictures the fantastic figure embroidered in red and gold thread on some gorgeous Chinese garment, or winding its clouded way about the lustrous curves of a Japanese vase. To Western eyes it is hardly more than a quaint conventionalized ornament, but to Orientals, let me repeat, it is an embodiment of all the significance of national history and ancient philosophy–the natural and supreme symbol of their race and culture. Again, the Western man looks on the dragon as something as mythical as the Man in the Moon, but the great mass of the people in China, Tibet, and Korea, at least, believe in the lung (its ancient name) as now alive, active and numerous–believe in it with as firm and simple a faith as our infants put in the existence of Santa Claus, or the Ojibway in his Thunder Bird, or you and I in the law of gravitation. “The legends of Buddhism abound with it; Taoist tales contain circumstantial accounts of its doings; the whole countryside is filled with stories of its hidden abodes, its terrific appearances; . . . its portrait appears in houses and temples, and serves even more than the grotesque lion as an ornament in architecture, art-designs and fabrics.” So testifies one who knew!

It is generally agreed that the original Chinese came in from the plateaus west and north of the Yellow River by following its sources down to the plains. This river takes its name (Hoang-Ho) from the hue of its soil-laden current, and that may account, in connection with the golden tint of the venerated sun’s light, for the supremacy of yellow in Chinese mythology and political history: it is the national as it was the imperial color until the yellow dragon-flag of the senile empire fell beneath the stripes of the young Republic.

Everywhere the dragon, when first heard of, is associated with the genesis of the arts of civilization in China. Myths relating to it go back to the thirty-third century before Christ, and to the sage Fu Hsi who then (or, as some say, between 2853 and 2738 B.C.) dwelt in the Province of Honan, and from whom dates the legendary as distinguished from a mythical period before him.

One day Fu Hsi saw a yellow ‘dragon-horse’–a horseheaded water-beast of some sort–rise from the Lo River, a tributary of the Hoang Ho, marked on its back with an arrangement of curling hairs expressing somehow those mysterious Trigrams that have survived for the puzzlement of scholars, but are generally considered as the formula or apparatus of a system of prehistoric divination based on mathematics–the theory of the symbolic quality of numbers so widespread and influential in the ancient East. The Trigrams are expounded in that book of unknown antiquity, the Yi King, which is the Bible of the Taoists, and seem to form an attempt at graphic demonstration of the mystical principle at the heart of Chinese philosophy expressed in the terms ‘yang’ and its antithesis ‘yin’. We shall meet these contrasted terms wherever our search may lead us, and shall learn that the sages have found in them, as DeGroot, the foremost expositor of Chinese theology, expresses it, a “clue to the mysteries of nature and an unfathomable lake of metaphysical wisdom.”

Be this as it may, the dragon-horse is a strange feature of the history of our subject, and one still among the possibilities of vision to the eyes of the faithful. A native commentary on one of the Classics, written in the second century B.C., and consulted by Dr. Visser, informs its readers that a dragon-horse is the vital spirit of heaven and earth fused together. “Its shape consists of a horse’s body, yet it has dragon-scales. Its height is eight ch’ih, five ts’un. A true dragon-horse has wings at its sides and walks upon the water without sinking. If a holy man is on the throne it comes out of the midst of the Ming River carrying a map [i.e., the Trigrams] on its back.” Wang Fu, another author of early Han times, says: “The people paint the dragon’s shape with a horse’s head and a snake’s tail. Further, there are such expressions as ‘three joints’ and ‘nine resemblances,’ to wit, from head to shoulder, from shoulder to breast, from breast to tail.” The nine resemblances referred to seem to indicate nine kinds of animals, parts of which are combined in this imaginary beast. Another description mentions particularly a tail like that of a huge serpent; and Wang Kia asserts in his book, written A.D. 557, that Emperor Muh, of the Chow dynasty, once “drove around the world in a carriage drawn by eight winged dragon-horses.” Some kings saddled and rode these prototypes of the classic Pegasus. Certainly horse-like figures with queer little feathery wings and upturned feathery tails appear in art produced under the Han dynasty, and later one finds drawings or sculptures of them showing well-developed wings. Visser quotes a reference, as late as 741 A.D., to the appearance, somewhere in China, of a living blue-and-red example that was heard “neighing like a flute.” The dragon-horse is known in Japanese folklore also.

It seems to me very natural and interesting that these earliest recoverable notions of the aspect of the dragon should have conceived of it as having an equine form, reminiscent of the primitive home and habits of the ancestors of these adventurers in the Hoang-Ho Valley in whose nomadic life horses had borne so essential a part; and it is further interesting to observe that in Tibet representations of the dragon, with little resemblance otherwise to the conventional Chinese model, have the legs and hoofs of the horse instead of those of the lion or the eagle.

Recalling the significance attached by some native commentators to the strange markings on the back of the equine creature which legend says appeared before the sage Fu Hsi, that, namely, they taught him the making and use of the ideographic characters by which Chinese is written, it is worth while to mention a tradition of the legendary emperor Tsang Kie, to whose reign is popularly attributed the introduction of writing as well as other inventions of importance. “One day, the emperor, surrounded by his principal ministers, was thinking of . . . how much had been accomplished, when an immense dragon descended from the clouds, and placed itself at his feet. The emperor, and those who had assisted him in his wonderful discoveries, got upon the reptile’s back, which forthwith took its flight to celestial regions.” Several early Buddhist heroes and worthies were similarly translated.

The interesting point of resemblance in these legends is that they agree in making the knowledge of writing a divine gift–a fact most appropriate to the pride of the Chinese in literary accomplishments.

The earliest example known to me of a dragon in recognizable Chinese form is shown on some ancient pillars In the city of Yung-Ch’eng near Tientsin.

During an archaeological survey of the coastal district of southern Shansi province, China, wherein much of the earliest history and tradition of the Chinese has its source, Dr. Chi Li was led to inspect certain old temples in the city of Yun-Chi’eng, a brief note on which appears in “The Explorations and Field Work of the Smithsonian Institution in 1926,” accompanied by the photograph which the Institution has generously allowed me to reproduce here. Dr. Li’s account is as follows:

In “Shansi-t’ung-chih” (Vol. 52, p. 2) it is recorded that the stone pillars of these temples were formerly the palace pillars of Wei Hui-wang (335-370 A.D.), recovered from the ruined city south of An-i Hsien. Some of them are now used as the entrance pillars in Ch’en-huang Miao and Hou-t’u Miao, and those of Ch’en-huang Miao certainly show peculiar features which are worth recording. Two pillars, hexagonal in section, and carved with dragons coiled around them, are found at the entrance. The left one is especially interesting because in the claws of the dragon are clasped two human heads with perfect Grecian features: curly hair, aquiline and finely chiselled nose, small mouth and receding cheeks. One head with the tongue sticking out is held at the mouth of the dragon, while the other is held in the talons of one hind leg. It is an unusually fine piece of sculpture in limestone. . . . I saw 28 of this kind of pillar in the succeeding two days; but most of them were imitations. It is possible, however, that some are of the ancient type and were made earlier than others. The whole subject is well worth more detailed study.

This brief account (which comes while the book is in the hands of the printer so that the facts may not be further elucidated here), is of particular interest as one of the earliest representations of the creature we are studying after it had begun to take its modern shape. Here it has a more naturally crocodilian form, especially as to the head, which has not yet acquired the fantastically frightful shape and appendages given it by later artists. It is also notable that the precious flaming ‘pearl,’ so important a feature in all modern figures, is already associated with this statue of fifteen centuries ago.

A very ancient bit of folklore, which accounts for the birth of the dragon in the form in which we now know it, was found in the archives of Weihaiwei, in Shantung, by R. F. Johnston, and is recorded in his book as follows:

The legend current in Weihaiwei regarding the origin of the dragon-king (who may be compared with the naga-raja of the Indian Peninsula) runs somewhat as follows: His mother was an ordinary mortal, but gave birth to him in a manner that was not–to say the least–quite customary. Being in his dragonshape the lusty infant immediately flew away on a journey of exploration, but returned periodically for the purpose of being fed. As he grew larger and more terrifying day by day his mother grew much alarmed, and confided her woes to her husband, the dragon’s father. The father after due consideration decided there was no help for it but to cut off his preposterous son’s head: so next day he waited behind a curtain, sword in hand, for the dragon’s arrival. The great creature flew into the house in his usual unceremonious manner, curled his tail around a beam below the roof, and hung head downwards in such a way that by swaying himself he could reach his mother’s breast.

At this juncture his father came from behind the curtain, whirled his sword around his head, and brought it down on what ought to have been the dragon’s neck. But whether it was that his hand shook or his prey was too quick for him the fact remains that the dragon’s head remained where it was. . . . Before the sword could be whirled a second time the dragon seized his father round the waist, untwisted his tail from the beam in the roof, and flew away to the eastern seas. The dragon’s father was never seen again, but the dragon and his mother were elevated to divine rank from which they have never since been displaced. The reasons for elevation to godhead are perhaps not quite apparant: but the popular saying that “the dragon’s bounty is as profound as the ocean, and the mother-dragon’s virtue is as lofty as the hills,” has a reference to their functions as controllers of the rains and clouds.

Passing by various more or less fabulous sources of doubtful information, we come down to the time of the Chow dynasty in the twelfth century, B.C., where begins a fairly trustworthy account of imperial acts. Collections of songs and stories that are older remain, but the most important of ancient literary productions, the five great ‘Classics,’ were published during the early reigns of this period. “With the Chow founder, the great Wen Wang,” writes Professor Ernest Fenollosa, “we are on pretty firm historic ground. This acute personage, whose name means ‘king of literature,’ was the first great Chinese author and philosopher. It was he who composed in prison the original score of the Yi King, or Book of Changes, which Confucius much later elaborated. In this work the symbolism of dragon categories is so bound up with imperial acts as to be the origin of all that is still implied in the terms ‘dragon-throne,’ ‘dragon-face,’ ‘dragon-banner.’ In a sense the dragon is the type of a man self-controlled and with powers that verge on the supernatural.”

It must not be forgotten, meanwhile, that these notions are closely connected with that mysterious Chinese conception called feng-shui, which from time immemorial has been the ruling influence in determining a large part of personal and public affairs throughout the nation, especially with whatever has to do with disturbance of the ground, fixing a local position (as for a house or a grave), or the supposed celestial influences.

Feng-shui, literally translated, means nothing more than wind and (rain-)water,’ but these words alone fail to convey Its full significance. “It originated,” De Groot explains, “In ancient ages from the then prevailing conceptions . . . that the inhabitants of this world all live under the sway of the influences of heaven and earth, and that every one desirous of securing his own felicity must live in perfect harmony with those influences. . . . This reverential awe of the mysterious influences of nature is the fundamental principle of an ancient religious system usually styled by foreigners Taoism [Tao’s Way, i.e., path].” Few Chinese even now are enlightened or brave enough to put up any sort of building except in accordance with the theories of feng-shui, which often require childish particulars. Most important is it, for instance, that a grave should have something symbolic of the tiger on its right, or theoretical west side, and of a dragon on the left (east) side, “for these animals represent all that is meant by the word Feng-shui, ‘viz: both aeolian and aquatic influences.” So writes De Groot. Anesaki explains further, in his book on Buddhist art, the reference to the association of dragon and tiger: “In this contending pair the Zenists, a sect of Buddhists, saw a graphic representation of the all-controlling forces which break down terrestrial distinctions and fuse together heaven and earth.”

Ball quotes an example of how feng-shui may be troublesome to both European and native attempts at progress in Western fashion. He writes:

In the phraseology of this occult science, when two buildings are beside one another the one on the left is said to be built on the Green Dragon, and the one on the right on the White Tiger. Now the tiger must not be higher than the dragon, or death or bad luck will result. Supposing now a European or American gets a site for a residence next to and on the right-hand side of a native dwelling–here are all the elements ready for trouble, for, to begin with, the foreigner will naturally desire a house more suitable for habitation than the low abode of the average Chinaman.

Feng-shui has well been called China’s curse!

In view of the association of dragons with this geomantic superstition it need not surprise us to find that divination and prophecy belong to their powers; but the portents and omens derived from this source depend so much on external conditions and the opinions of soothsayers that no satisfactory rules for consultation seem to exist. Visser learned that the appearance of a black dragon presaged destruction–but who knows a black dragon when he sees it? Traditions report that the advent of certain great men of the past was foretold by dragons. They say that in the night when Confucius was born two azure dragons came from the sky to his mother’s house. A dragon appeared in a red vapour just before the birth of Hiao Wu, the famous man of the Han dynasty. The appearance of yellow or azure dragons was always in old times considered a very good omen, provided they did not present themselves at the wrong time or place. Lu Kwang, who lived in the fourth century B.C., saw one night a black horned dragon. “Its eyes illuminated the whole vicinity, so that the huge monster was visible until it was enveloped by the clouds which gathered from all sides. Next morning traces of its scales were to be seen over a distance of five miles, but soon were wiped out by heavy rains.” Other ancients have seen similar nightmonsters, such as that which shone upon the palace of Shun-shuh, who, became emperor in A.D. 25.

This introduces the pseudo-science, geomancy, which is founded on the almost divine doctrine of feng-shui, and in which the dragon plays a most important part, because it represents the watershed-slopes and foothills as well as the streams that wind their way among them in any locality toward the general outlet. “In short,” to quote again from De Groot, “geomancy comprises the high grounds in general: hence many geographical names, such, for example, as Nine Dragons (Kau Lung) given to the range of hills opposite Hong Kong known to the English as Kowloon. The apparent contradiction here seems to be adjusted by considering the hills as the source of the watercourses.” This identification with water, an all-important element in feng-shui, classifies dragons with the spring, the season of fertilizing rains, and in southern China March is called dragon-month. The relations and symbolism of the seasons and the four quarters of the earth, etc., are as tabulated below:

Spring East blue azure dragon
Summer South red phenix (feng)
Autumn West white tiger
Winter North black tortoise

Here the dragon heads the list of the four ‘celestial’ or ‘intelligent’ animals that existed in and made possible the Golden Age.

I find in Dr. Laurence Binyon’s delightful little book The Flight of the Dragon,” a comment illuminating this association of things and ideas:

In Chinese popular tradition there are five colours. These are blue, yellow, red, white, and black. Each of these are linked by tradition with certain associations. Thus blue is associated with the east, red with the south, white with the west, black with the north and yellow with the earth. . . . Blue appears originally not to have been distinguished from green–at least the same word was used for both–and it was associated with the east because of the coming of spring with its green. That black should be associated with the cold north seems more intelligible, and that to the black north would be opposed the red of the fiery south; but that white should belong to the west because autumn comes with the winds from that quarter, heralded by white frosts, seems a far-fetched explanation. And when we pursue the ulterior significance of the colours into still wider regions; when we find blue associated with wood, red with fire, white with metal, black with water; still more when we are told that the five colours have each correspondences with the emotions (white with mourning, for instance, and black with worry), and not only with these but with musical notes, with the senses and with flavours, I fear the august common-sense of the Occident becomes affronted and impatient.

Preeminent in all this plexus of faiths and fancies is the cardinal fact that the Oriental dragon stands for ‘water.’

“If one represents water without representing dragons there is nothing to show the divinity of its phenomena,” declared an ancient writer cited by Dr. Visser. Another antique script describes a divine being in the waters of the earth akin to the snake, which sleeps in pools during the winter, whence in spring it ascends to the sky. These mysticisms evidently refer to fresh waters alone (the salt seas are in another class), just as in Ur, Ea, the god of the rain-clouds, and of the streams and lakes they fed, was regarded as quite distinct from oceanic deities; and such reverential ideas must, it would seem, have had their genesis in the minds of people of an arid region whose thoughts were continually on their water-supply. But in the softer circumstances which resulted from their finding homes in the fertile valleys of China they felt the apprehension of drouth less severely, and began to ponder on the reasonableness of their ancient fears and present veneration. “Water,” declared Lao Tzu, “is the weakest and softest of things, yet overcomes the strongest and the hardest.” It penetrates everywhere subtly, without noise, without effort. “So it becomes typical of the spirit, which is able to pass out into all other existences of the world and resume its own form in man; and, associated with the power of fluidity, the dragon becomes the symbol of the infinite.” Water-worship, indeed, is a widespread and very ancient cult, the central idea being that water is the source and means of fertility and also of purification in its higher senses. Hence great rivers have been invested with a sacred character, notably the Nile and the Ganges; even the Yangtse and Hoang rivers have inspired similar sentiments. Plutarch says that Nile water, which fecundated the earth, was carried in processions in honour of Isis as representing the seed of Osiris. The stark necessity of water in the plan of creation and the scheme of life seems to have impressed the primitive man of and Central Asia with amazing force.

A Chinese author of the third century B. C. assures his readers that mankind cannot see dragons rise, but that wind and rain assist them to attain a great height; another asserts that the dragon does not ascend if there is no wind. Whirlwinds that carry heavy objects aloft, and at sea cause waterspouts, have always been looked upon as dragons winging their way to the upper regions of the air; and smoking holes in the ground connected with volcanic action are said to be holes whence they emerge for their flights. In the beginning of summer, as we are informed by one commentator, the dragons of the world are divided, so that each has a separate territory whose limits he does not pass. This is the reason why in summer it may rain very much at one place and not at all at another not far away.

The dragon is also god of thunder, appearing in the sky as clouds (said by some to be formed of his breath) and in the rice-fields as rain, whence he is worthy of veneration as the power that produces good crops. Sometimes cloud-birds (or bird-clouds) are seen helping him.

Since early times high floods, tempests and ordinary thunderstorms have been attributed by rural Chinese to dragons fighting in the air or in rivers. This is not a blessing to humanity, such as they bestow by peacefully shedding rain on the planted fields, and therefore the threatening ‘herds’ of dragons advancing to combat were looked at with fright. An account of a dragon-fight in a pool in northern Liang, in 503 B.C., relates that vicious creatures “squirted fog over a distance of some miles.” The only way to stop such dreadful duels is by the use of fire, which no water-spirit can endure; therefore heaven sends sacred fire (the lightnings) to compel angry demons to cease troubling the clouds or muindane waters and injuring poor farmers, as all-destroying deluges might result. Hence, occasional small or local damage to mankind, as innocent bystanders, from the vigorous quelling of draconic riots, is regarded as cheap payment for security against overwhelming floods. More dreadful however than immediate storm-damage was the presage in the sky-battles of possible harm to, or even the overthrow of, the reigning family, which almost certainly would follow were the yellow and the blue dragon-hosts, partisans of the Imperial House, to be defeated.

It is true that in primitive China as elsewhere serpents were regarded as the genii of lakes, springs and caves, and here and there the people paid them worship. The dragon, however, is not, nor ever was, an ordinary snake deified, but has been exalted, albeit rather uncertainly, into a true deity as a manifestation of a principle that underlies all Chinese philosophy, and is expressed in the contrasted and pregnant words yang and yin–fight versus darkness, the constructive as opposed to the destructive, goodwill contrasted with badheartedness.

In the Shan hai King, a very old Classic, is described a god seated at the foot of Mt. Chung. “He is called ‘Enlightener of the Darkness.’ By looking [i.e., opening the eyes; a popular belief is that a dragon’s vital spirit lies in his eyes, also that he is deaf] he creates daylight, and by closing his eyes he creates night. By blowing he makes winter, by inhalation he makes summer. He neither eats nor drinks, nor does he rest. His breath causes wind. His length is a thousand miles. . . . As a living being he has a human face, the body of a snake, and a red colour.”

The author assures us that this god is The Dragon, that he is full of yang (heavenly virtue), and that it is logical that he should diffuse light, overcoming the nine yin; wherefore he symbolizes great men (assumed to be full of yang) particularly the emperor and his sons (‘dragon-seed’) which is one of the many explanations of the association of the Thunder dragon, specifically the yellow one, with the imperial estate. If this be true–and the possession of yang by dragons is affirmed by sages again and again–the good nature of Chinese dragons in general is well accounted for. In China, at any rate, they have been on the whole benevolent and helpful when treated with respect and generously encouraged by sacrifices and gifts. Undoubtedly they have sometimes shown poor judgment in the matter of flooding rains and a careless use of lightning, yet in general they seem to mean well, and to be kind in answer to prayers for rain when the crops really need it. If not–well, the farmers know how to bring them to their sense of duty!

Such an abstraction, precious to devout minds in spite of puzzling characteristics and a vague aspect, must of course be visualized in some way if it is to hold heroic place and influence. “The dragon is the spirit of change,” writes Okakoro-Kakuzo in his Book of Tea, “therefore of life itself . . . taking new forms according to its surroundings, yet never seen in final shape. It is the great mystery itself. Hidden in the caverns of inaccessible mountains, or coiled in the unfathomed depth of the sea, he awaits the time when he slowly arouses himself into activity. He unfolds himself in the storm-cloud, he washes his mane in the darkness of the seething whirlpools. His claws are the fork of the lightning. . . . His voice is heard in the hurricane. . . . The dragon reveals himself only to vanish.”



AS SOON as men learn to form, by means of a drawing or an image, a representation of what is in their mind’s eye, they apply their art to religion. The first attempts are often grotesquely rude and uninspiring, yet embody an idea; and if the people cherish this idea, and themselves grow in art-skill and refinement, a conventionalized figure will in time be evolved that will satisfy tradition, and thereafter no essential change will be made in it.

Fair progress toward this satisfactory representation of the (or a) dragon, now apparently realized, seems to have been reached by the Chinese at a time when the earliest existing, or at any rate oldest known, pictures and carvings of it were made, nor are any written descriptions much older, so that we may assume a long anterior period for the growth of the dragon-notion in public thought. A few years ago many large inscribed slabs of stone were found buried in Shantung, one of the most anciently occupied provinces of China. They bore engravings in an amazing mixture of more or less legendary incidents and worthies, and experts refer this work to the third century B.C. One of these slabs shows a silhouette-like drawing that we are told represents Fu hsi with a woman regarded as his consort. Both are crowned and fully dressed down to the waist, but the lower half of their bodies is serpent-like (in proportionate length for legs) and the ‘tails’ are inter-twined. Attendant pairs of sprites of anomalous outline, with tail-like lower halves similarly twisted together, are supported by rolled clouds terminating in birds’ heads; and the remaining space of the picture is crowded with figures of mythical creatures, some queer beyond description, many recognizable birds, fishes, or other animals, all with reptilian tails. Rubbings of these astonishing lithographs are before me as I write, and small reproductions of some of the figures may be seen in Bushell’s Handbook of Chinese Art. They, as well as other relics from Han times (earlier than which no useful representations have been recovered), show clearly the ophidian origin of the dragon idea, and also indicate strongly its derivat from the West.

It is a curious circumstance that among remains of the earlier Gnostics, whose strange doctrines are credited with descent from Aryan (Persian) serpent-worship, are representations of deities, half man, half snake, precisely similar in shape, save that they have two snake-legs instead of a single thickened tail, as was the case with some of the figures on the stone slabs of Shantung. With the overthrow of the Chow (or Chou) dynasty by the widely conquering ‘General’ Chin (so impressive were the extent and publicity of his enterprises that his domain came to be known to the commercial West as China) the enlightened and progressive Han period began; and in the general stimulus to art that followed, the dragon furnished to artists a motive constantly employed and ingeniously varied. No depiction in painting or on pottery as ancient as that has survived, if any such ever existed. It is surely an interesting fact, however, that the first Chinese painter on record, Ts-ao Fuh-king, who died in 250 A.D., was famous for his Buddhist pictures and sketches of dragons. An oft-told legend recounts that a certain painting by him which had been preserved until the advent of the Sung dynasty, then produced rain in a time of bitter drouth when appealed to by the desperate farmers.

As for Han carvings in this direction, the most striking and exceptional are those strange and beautiful ‘girdle-buckles’ which were almost unknown in the United States until Mr. Arthur D. Ficke brought a large collection of them to New York, where they were sold at the Anderson galleries in January, 1925. The work on them, in exquisite modelling, proper anatomy and fine sense of action, and in the glyptic skill involved, indicates a long-antecedent familiarity by artists with both the conception and rendering of the mythical creature portrayed. Most of these articles were carved in jade, a few only in rock-crystal, agate or other hard stone. Mr. Ficke wrote of them in his Catalogue:

It would be impossible, in a brief catalogue such as this, to give any intimation of the wealth of symbolic meanings that have been carven into these buckles. The dragon, the hydra, the bat, the fungus, the horse, the mantis, the cicada, the monkey, and the ram, has each its significance in Chinese mythological legend. Some of these forms go hack at least two thousand years, repeated over and over again in bronzes and jades of century after century. These fantastic shapes are therefore racial rather than personal inventions: they are the creatures of prehistoric ritual–mythology turned to stone.

Few of these are as old as the Han period, but all remind a naturalist of a salamander by their flexible, soft-skinned bodies, limber legs usually with three toes, and their long, cleft tails. In every specimen the tail is branched. I write ‘branched,’ not ‘forked,’ because the lobes are unequal, a shorter one curving out of the larger or main stem–as, by the way, sometimes happens in the case of real newts whose tails have been lost or damaged. This style of dragon is named ch’ih-lung, and is said to be pre-Buddhistic (also, according to Bushell, kut’ing-lung, or dragon of old bronzes); and he mentions that it appears on a Kuang Yao vase of the second century B.C., while another pair is to be seen on a more recent incense-burner “disporting in the midst of scrolled clouds and projecting their heads to make two handles.” It is very interesting to note that although many of the jade girdles are of comparatively recent manufacture, and vary in ornamental details, the newt-like character of the body and branched tail persists. It seems to me, indeed, that the ch’ih-lung represents, as nearly as we can reach it, the primitive dragon-notion that prevailed (at least in northern China) before the Buddhistic invasion from India became widespread and influential in the country, and that it came overland from the northwest.

Dr. Berthold Laufer describes an antique jade girdle-ornament which had “the figure of a phenix standing on clouds and looking toward the slender-bodied hydra (ch-ih), which has the bearded head of a bird with a pointed beak, very similar to that of the phenix. The left hind foot of the monster terminates in a bird’s head, presumably symbolizing a cloud. It is rearing the left fore paw in the direction of the bird, supporting the right on the clouds below.” Dr. Laufer supposes that this design (which is very like those of the Shantung slabs mentioned above) signifies that the dragon is assisted by birds in moving clouds and in sending down rain; and he mentions that when rain is to be expected dragons scream. “The dragon,” Dr. Laufer continues, “in intimate connection with the growth of vegetation, appears as a deity . . . invoked in times of drouth with prayers for rain.” The dictionary Shuo Wen, referring to a certain jade carving named ‘lung,’ placed on an altar as a prayer for rain, has the form and voice of a dragon. These Han jades were ring-shaped, but were soon superseded by engraved prayer-tablets. The Son of Heaven wore a robe embroidered with royal dragons when he sacrificed in the ancestral temple; his own memorial altar will have the dragon-tablet when he “has ascended upon the dragon to be a guest on high.”

The dragon possesses the power of self-transformation, may make itself dark or luminous, or render itself invisible. A Chinese informed Mr. Ball that it becomes at will reduced to the size of a silkworm, or swollen till it fills the space of heaven and earth. When its breath escapes it forms clouds, sometimes changing into rain at other times into fire; and its voice is like the jingling of copper coins. Formerly, glass was thought to be its solidified breath. The creature may descend into the depths of the ocean, and rest in palaces of pearl.

In early days, if ancient books are trustworthy, there were tame dragons–they dragged the chariots of legendary kings; and Visser found a tradition of a family making it their business to breed them for the emperors–hence their family name Hwan-lung, ‘dragon-rearer.’ Later it became the custom to ornament the prows of pleasure-junks with dragon-heads, and certain kinds of long, slender boats are known as ‘dragon-boats’ to this day. A popular story relates the adventures of a sort of celestial Robin Hood, Feng Afoo-chow, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He rode about the country on a winged, fire-breathing dragon (precurser of the automobile?), righted wrongs and appropriated treasure, until at last he perpetrated a theft of such magnificence that he left it to be the crown of his career, and settled down to remain a law-abiding citizen until his tame dragon bore him to the heaven of the repentant rich.

The popular understanding is that dragons were supernaturally created but are of different sexes, and are able to reproduce their kind; and according to Visser the book Pei Ya supports the general opinion that they are born from eggs. When these are about to hatch the sound made by a male embryo makes the wind rise, whereas the cry of a female ‘chick’ causes the wind to abate and change its direction. One account of how the sexes differ explains that the male dragon’s horn is “undulating, concave and steep”; it is strong on the top but very thin below. The female has a straight snout, a round mane, thin scales and a stout tall.

Dragons’ eggs are the beautiful pebbles picked up beside mountain brooks; and they are preserved by nature until they split in a thunderstorm, releasing a young dragon which immediately goes up to the sky. An old woman who found such eggs had various adventures with them that children like to hear about. A dragon’s egg much bigger than a hen’s egg, light and apparently hollow, was found, history says, in the Great River in the tenth century; and to it, in the opinion of the local people, was due subsequent calamitous floods. Another egg found was very heavy, and when shaken rattled as if it contained water; perhaps it was a geode–at any rate it became an object of worship.

An interesting legend is appropriate here. The uppermost and worst cataract in the Yangtse gorges, known as the New or Glorious Rapid, was formed in 1896 by a landslip that filled three-fourths of the channel. The rivermen account for this mishap thus, as related by Dingle: “The ova of a dragon being deposited in the bowels of the earth at this particular spot in due course of time hatched out. . . . The baby dragon grew and grew, but remained in a dormant state until quite full-grown, when, as the habit of the dragon is, it became active, and at the first awakening shook down the hillside by a mighty effort, freed itself from the bowels of the earth, and made its way down to the sea.”

A ford in the upper Hoang Ho is called Dragon-Gate. Fishes that pass above it become ‘dragons’; those that fail remain simple fishes. Rapids and waterfalls in various parts of the country, and in Japan, have the same name and frequently a similar story.



I HAVE been speaking thus far of the Oriental dragon in a generic sense, trying to show the nature of a mythical, half-animal, semi-divine, wholly imaginary being, vague and intangible, swayed by human motives and emotions yet endowed with a demonic combination of ability and instability–a Chinese abstraction derived from a prehistorically antique awe of the serpent and clothed in the mystery of such a lineage; and most appropriate is it that such a quasi-deity should be worshipped at ancestral altars, for doubtless it is a relic of tribal, perhaps totemic, idolatry, an elaborate product of a long-forgotten animism.

“It is in China,” wrote John Leyland a few years ago (Magazine of Art, Volume 14) “that the dragon reaches its highest pinnacle as an object of reverence . . . for it is markedly an object of propitiation, and festivals are held in its honour. Yet its connection with the root-ideas of the Hindoos is never lost, for it is a monster of mists and waters, and is painted issuing from clouds. There is evidence also of human sacrifice to the monster, for Hieun Tsang relates that one Wat-Youen, on the failure of a river, immolated himself in propitiation of the dragon; and at the dragon-boat festivals it is now believed that the boats intimidate the monster. Such ideas were probably carried to China and Japan with Buddhism, for Buddha himself was a dragon-slayer–a destroyer of savage demonism and cruel magic.”

The dragon of recent art, say since the time of the Mings, has lost, however, in the process of conventionalization, some of the characteristics that are needful to its complete composition, according to what may be designated as an official formula for making a perfect image of it. This is given by Joly as follows:

“The Chinese call the dragon ‘lung’ because it is deaf. It is the largest of scaly animals, and it has nine characteristics. Its head is like a camel’s, its horns like a deer’s, its eyes like a hare’s, its ears like a bull’s, its neck like an iguana’s, its scales like those of a carp, its paws like a tiger’s, and its claws like an eagle’s. It has nine times nine scales, it being the extreme of a lucky number. On each side of its mouth are whiskers, under its chin a bright pearl, on the top of its head the ‘poh shan’ or foot-rule, without which it cannot ascend to heaven. The scales of its throat are reversed. Its breath changes into clouds from which come either fire or rain. The dragon is fond of the flesh of sparrows and swallows, it dreads the centipede and silk dyed of five colours. It is also afraid of iron. In front of its horns it carries a pearl of bluish colour striated with more or less symbolical lines.”

Most of these features have been discussed elsewhere. The horns in many existing figures show plainly as two straight, smooth, level spikes from the back of the head, usually with one or more short, deer-like prongs and have no resemblance to the unbranched, curved, rugose horns of an antelope or goat; hence they do not suggest descent from those of the Babylonian ‘goat-fish.’ The scales, however, are regarded as piscine rather than ophidian; they seem to be related to those of the carp, with which the dragon in one of its aspects is closely connected. These scales, we learn, are properly eighty-one in number, that is nine times nine, which in mystical calculations represent yang, as the number six equals yin. Both golden and silver scales are spoken of in the Classics. The annals of Welhaiwei, studied by R. F. Johnston, contain a story on this point. “In the year 1732 there was a very heavy shower of rain [in Shantung]. In the sky, among the dark clouds, was espied a dragon. When the storm passed off a man named Chiang of the village of Ho Ch’ing or Huo Ch’ien picked up a thing that was as large as a sieve, round as the sun, thick as a coin, and lustrous as the finest jade. It reflected the sun’s light and shone like a star, so that it dazzled the eyes. . . . The village soothsayer was appealed to for a decision. A single glance at the strange object was enough for the man of wisdom. ‘This thing,’ he said, ‘is a scale that has fallen from the body of the dragon.'”

Chinese mythology and custom recognize (or used to) various separate kinds of dragons, species of the genus lung. The most ancient and highly respected of these are three: the Lung in the sky; the Li in the sea; and the Kiau in the marshes.

The first of this trio is properly styled t’ien lung, Celestial or Heavenly Dragon. It doubtless typifies and embodies the original object of veneration, and remains supreme and most sacred. It resides in the sky where it guards the mansions of the gods and sustains their power; as these powers are represented on earth by the sovereignty of the realm in the person of the emperor, it alone has the right to be attached to him and his affairs, and in that relation is designated Imperial Dragon. Hence it has long been recognized as the emblem of the Chinese empire, and was borne on its triangular flag and other appurtenances of government until the establishment of the present Republic; and it has well been remarked that nothing could express more forcibly the change of mind that has come over official China than the abandonment of this antique and venerated symbol.

The dragon in relation to the social constitution of the Chinese State falls into several classes or ranks, distinguished by the number of its claws. Thus representations of the imperial dragons proper, restricted to the emperor himself, should alone have five claws, while princes and nobles of lesser rank must be content with a less number. This sumptuary rule seems not to have been observed uniformly. We are told that on early coins and standards four-clawed dragons appeared as driven by prehistoric emperors. Chester Holcomb states in his Catalogue that the imperial badge used during the Sung (tenth century A.D.) and previous dynasties was represented with three claws only; during the subsequent Ming period by four; and only during the most recent (Ching) period by five claws. Mr. Ripley insists, on the contrary, that the five-clawed form was introduced by the Ming rulers, as he thinks is proved by the carving on tombs of the early Ming emperors at Mukden. J. F. Blacker gives the rule and practice in recent times thus: “The Imperial dragon is armed with five claws on each of its four members, and is used as an emblem by the emperor’s family and by princes of the highest two ranks. The four-clawed dragon is used by princes of the third or fourth class. Mandarins and princes of the fifth rank have as an emblem the four-clawed serpent. The three-clawed dragon–the Imperial dragon of Japan–is in China the one commonly used for decoration.” According to Albert J. Jacquemart, the mandarin four-clawed dragon became the conventionalized figure called mang; yet, despite their inferior rank, mangs adorn “many very superior articles of pottery and porcelain.”

It appears, however, that it was not until the advent of the powerful and progressive Han dynasty began its enlightening and stimulating rule that dragons in various forms began to serve decorators. At first they seem to have been applied almost exclusively to royal robes and furnishings, but their use gradually broadened. Here first appeared winged dragons, the bird-like wings drawn indicating that the creature was to be regarded as a spring animal. Since that time, however, winged dragons have almost disappeared from both Chinese and Japanese art, as ‘old-fashioned.’ (In medieval Europe they were common, but the wings were more like those of bats.)

The second of the three ‘great’ dragons is the shen-lung, or ‘spiritual’ species, which may be called that of the common people, for it is the one that wafts the rain-cloud and sprinkles the farmers’ fields. Hence its image decorates household altars and is worshipped, especially when prolonged drouth threatens loss of expected crops.

It is in this matter of prayers for rain that the people of China nowadays regard the dragon as divine–it is beyond all else a rain-god. In his philosophical treatise Kwan Tse, one of the early Classics, Kwang Chung declares a dragon to be a god (shen) because in the water he covers himself with five colours, “that is, with the cardinal virtues,” and can change his shape to go where he pleases under or above the earth. “He whose transformations are not limited by days, and whose ascending and descending are not limited by time, is called a god (shen).” Another ancient sage asserts the yellow dragon to be the quintessence of shen as it exerts the most power and is of the highest rank, therefore it is called ‘imperial.’ Laufer considers the dragon the embodiment of the fertilizing power of water and a veritable deity when invoked for rain, and he thinks that if we look on it as a deity “we shall arrive at a better understanding of the various conceptions of the dragon in religion and art: the manifold types and variations of dragons met with in ancient Chinese art are representations of different forces of nature, or are, in other words, different deities.”

I was long puzzled to account for the close connection that seems to exist between the doctrines and practice of worshipping ancestors and that directed toward the dragon as the controller of rainfall and of its often destructive concomitant, the lightning. Why were these religious notions so closely interrelated? The totemic theory is unsatisfactory; and I will confess that my cogitations were unproductive until I read a remarkable paper on serpent-worship by C. S. Wake,” from which I will cite a paragraph that seems to give an enlightening explanation of the connection referred to:

The serpent-superstition is intimately connected [in China] with ancestor-worship, probably originating among uncultured tribes who, struck by the noiseless movement and the activity of the serpent, combined with its peculiar gaze and marvellous power of fascination, viewed it as a spirit-embodiment. As such it would appear to have the superior wisdom and power ascribed to the denizens of the spirit-world, and from this would originate also the ascription to it of the power over life and health, and over the moisture on which these benefits are dependent. Among ancestor-worshipping peoples, however, the serpent would be viewed as a good being who busied himself about the interests of the tribe to which he had once belonged. when the simple idea of a spirit-ancestor was transformed into that of a Great Spirit, the father of the race, the attributes of the serpent would he enlarged. The common ancestor would be relegated to the heavens, and that which was necessary to the life and well-being of his people would be supposed to be under his care. Hence the Great Serpent was thought to have power over the rains and the hurricane, with the latter of which it was probably often identified.

A writer of the second century before Christ, says Visser, explains that “clouds follow the dragon, winds follow the tiger.” These cloud-dragons are invited to dispense rain by means of their likenesses, “wherefore when earthen [clay-made] dragons are set up, yin and yang follow their likenesses and clouds and rain arise.” The making of such earthen images is of forgotten antiquity. Rules existed for moulding and ornamenting them according to varying circumstances, and an elaborate ritual and set of costumes was long ago prescribed for the priests and officials in the praying for rain. The dragon-boats, to be described, had the same character and purpose. These ceremonies may be described as sympathetic magic intended to force the dragons to follow their images and to ascend from their pools to the skies; but often scolding and even flogging of the images has been necessary to bring about the desired action.

Dr. Visser found in a well-known old book, the Wah Tsah Tsu, dated near the end of the sixteenth century, information as to the significance of several different young dragons, whose shapes are used as ornaments, each according to its nature. Those that like to cry are represented on the tops of handles of bells; those that like music figure on musical instruments, and so forth. “The ch’i-wen, which like swallowing, are placed on both ends of the ridgepoles of roofs (to swallow all evil influences). The chao-fung, lion-like beasts which like precipices, are placed on the four corners of roofs.” Sword-belts have as ornaments the murderous ai-hwa, and so on through a list of significant applications. Dragons are embroidered on the front curtains of catafalques and on grave-clothes, surrounded by many emblematic animals. It is not plain, however, that all these belong to the shen class. Laufer also mentions, in his paper on grave-sculptures, that in certain Han bas-reliefs on stone, dragons are “fettered by bands, i.e., do not send rain–are in a state of repose.” These are surrounded by birdshaped clouds which he interprets as tranquil clouds yielding no rain.

Whether the metaphysics of this matter of the relation between dragons and rainfall is comprehended by ordinary folk in the Flowery Kingdom may well be doubted; but at any rate when dry weather prevails too long clay images of the shen-lung are likely to be carried about the district, accompanied by priestly ceremonials and incantations arranged with carefully suitable accessories and colourings, the ritual and colours varying with the season of the year. This has been a custom since remote ages, but in modern times prayers inscribed on tablets of jade and metal are much used, or the appeal is made in a more public and forcible way than formerly by means of large, image-bearing processions. “The Chinese are adepts in the art of taking the Kingdom of Heaven by storm,” remarks the author of The Golden Bough!

These great processions have been frequently described by travellers. Mr. Ball says that in Canton, where he frequently witnessed them, the mock-rain-god is a serpentine creature of great girth and 150 to 200 feet long, made of lengths of gaily-coloured crepe, and sparkling with tiny, spangle-like mirrors. “Every yard or so a couple of human feet–those of the bearers –buskined in gorgeous silk, are visible. The whole is fronted by an enormous head of ferocious aspect, before the gaping jaws of which a man manoeuvres a large pearl, after which the dragon prances and wriggles.” These figures are of two kinds (but on what ground is not stated by Mr. Ball), one sort having golden scales and the other silver scales. Such processions may occur whenever one seems called for, but are staged regularly about January 15 and June 5, dates representing the winter and summer solstices. The latter is the time of the dragon-boat festival; but before proceeding to that let me say that should no rain follow these ceremonial prayers the images are abused, even torn to pieces, to remind the god that he must do his duty or he will be similarly punished; furthermore he must do it properly and be watchful to stop the downpour when enough has fallen, or take the consequences. The story goes that once when the lung neglected to stop an immoderate storm the local mandarins put his image in jail, whereupon the downpour quickly ceased.

The famous Dragon-boat Festival of southern China is held on the fifth day of the fifth moon, which usually falls in our June. Tradition informs us that it began in commemoration of a virtuous minister of state, Chii Yuan, whose remonstrances against the unworthy acts of his sovereign were met by his dismissal and degradation. This happened some 450 years before Christ. He committed suicide, presumably by drowning, for on the first anniversary of his death began a search for his body in the water, which still continues in the form and meaning of this festival. More scientifically minded persons, however, such as Visser, De Groot, and Frazer, scout the pious tale, and regard this water-festival as in its origin an effort or supplication for rain. That it has become a time of feasting, fun and goodwill is doubtless owing to the sense of midsummer, celebrated by rejoicing in all parts of the world. In Burma and Siam, also, it is marked by three days of jollity when everybody plays with water, rowing, swimming, ducking one another, spraying the crowds in the streets from big syringes, and rollicking generally.

The principal feature in Southern China is a great number of boats and boat-races on the rearest river, with every gay, and amusing accessory that can be devised. The boats used are built for the purpose, and are from 50 to 100 feet long, but only just wide enough for two men to sit abreast–that is, as near like water-snakes as is feasible. They are propelled as rapidly as possible–a traditional requirement–and the rowers try to keep time with the drums and gongs with which each one is provided. Impromptu races are challenged, often resulting in accidents, as the boats are slight, and dangerous when paddled by perhaps a hundred Chinamen wild with enthusiasm and unsteady with liquor. Large crowds of spectators occupy the river-banks urging their favourite boats to win, and the excitement and fun are intense.

The third member of the first class of dragons is Li-lung to whom belongs the earth and its waters, who marks out the courses of rivers and who is the ruler of the ocean. When a waterspout is seen the people view it reverently, saying: “Li is going up to heaven.” This dragon is described as yellow, and as having a lion’s body with a human-faced, hornless, dragon’s head. The monster’s quadrupedal form and close relation to sea and inland waters, indicate perhaps that it was introduced to the people of the southern and eastern coasts by early voyagers from the west bringing stories of Babylonian Ea and Marduk, and their sea-goat; so that it may really be a different species of partly separate origin from those of the western and northern interior.

As the earth-dragon, Li is supposed to exist beneath the surface, and to cause earthquakes by uneasy movements of its gigantic frame; and in one case, as has been noted, these movements, the boatmen say, caused a great landslide, which partly dammed the Yangtse and formed the dread rapids in the gorge above Ichang, called the Dragon’s Gate. The fossil bones of huge reptiles–of which I shall have more to say presently–occasionally exhumed in various parts of China are thought by the people to be its bones, attesting to its prodigious size; and these bones are naturally endowed with magically curative qualities, as we shall see. This subterranean dragon is reputed to guard heaps of gold and silver and gems, and it is the protector of the veins of precious minerals in the underlying rocks.

It should be needless for me to say that no real animal of the more or less distant past was the ancestor or originator of the object of our study; yet I find the is belief still held, vaguely, by even the most intelligent among my neighbours. Every fossil that has come to light, and formerly misled ignorant or unthinking men into supposing it a relic of a real ancestor, was buried and petrified millions of years before any human eyes to see, or minds to consider, it were in existence. The dragon is a pure figment of the human imagination.

As an oceanic divinity Li is believed to possess a great treasury under the sea in which he stores the wealth that comes to him from wrecked junks. Among his most precious possessions are the eyes of certain large fish, believed to be priceless gems; that is the reason, say the fisher-folk of Shantung, why big dead fish cast on the beaches are always eyeless–Lung Wang has added them to his hoard. So says St. Johnston, and then tells us that in the jung-ch’eng district is a pool of water which, though several miles in the interior from the Shantung coast, is said to taste of sea-salt, to be fathomless, and to remain always at sea-level; it is dedicated to the seadragon, locally known as Lung Wang. “One day an inquisitive villager tried to fathom its gloomy depths with his carrying-pole. Hardly had he immersed it in water when it was grasped by a mysterious force and wrenched out of his hand. It was immediately drawn below, and after waiting for its reappearance the villager went home. A few days later he was on the seacoast, gathering seaweed for roof-thatch, when suddenly he beheld his pien-tang floating in the water below the rocks on which he was standing. On the first available opportunity after this he burned three sticks of incense in Lung-Wang’s temple, as an offering to the deity that had given him so striking a demonstration of its miraculous power.”

This one may be the “coiled dragon” (Pan Lung) mentioned by some writers, which “hibernates in the watery depths and marshes, and is often met with in the form of medallions in porcelain bowls and dishes.” It may also be the creature referred to in a little story by L. J. Vance (Open Court, 1892) of a small girl that fell into a Chinese river where boats and boatmen were numerous. “Nobody helped her, and when finally she caught at a rope and climbed on a boat, she was scolded, sent home and punished.” The apathy exhibited was due to the belief that the river-dragon wanted that child and mysteriously caused her to fall overboard.

The account of the Golden Dragon Kings given by Dr. Du Bose perhaps belongs here. These ‘kings’ are said to be yellow (?) snakes that come floating down the Hoang Ho in times of great flood. One of them is recognized by the priestly authorities as the ‘golden dragon.’ It has a square head with horns, and is hailed with delight as it signifies that the waters are about to recede. “The governor,” Du Bose tells us without geographical particulars, “receives the divine snake in a lacquered waiter, carries him in his sedan to the temple, and the mandarins all worship the heaven-sent messenger. Many courtesies are offered him until at last he takes his leave. . . . Mandarins who do not believe in idolatry are entirely satisfied with the divinity of this snake.”

One phase, or avatar, of this dragon seems to be that named Yu Lung, the special model and emblem of perseverance and success to literary aspirants who are seeking public offices by way of the stipulated education in the Classics–the only way in old times. This is the ‘fish-dragon’ so well illustrated on blue-and-white commercial jars, where the metamorphosis that links together the dragon and carp is variously depicted. The legend is that when a carp has succeeded in climbing over the cataracts in the Dragon Gate of the Yangtse it finds its reward by being transformed into a dragon, with which goes a grant of immortality. Seizing on the apt imagery of this legend, the fish-dragon was adopted as their ‘patron-saint’ by the students who toiled in their cheerless cells over the still more cheerless lore of long-dead sages, whose star of hope was the prospect of a government office and a possible chance for immortal fame, if only they could surmount the rocky obstacle of the official examinations. The parallel is grimly humorous! But cells, and classics and students are gone–and perhaps their Patron-saint must go too.

NEXT: Chapters 7 – 9