About the Author
Gareth Powell is a writer and publisher of renown and a dragon expert born in Wales.
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The Place Of The Dragon In Chinese Life
here are real dragons living in China today. These are not the horrible monsters that some have imagined them to be. They are friendly creatures highly revered by all the people. They possess marvelous powers and they occasionally permit themselves to be seen by mortal eyes. Such is the belief of at least seven out of every ten Chinese.
The popular belief in the dragon is so deeply rooted and so widespread that it is advisable for one to secure an accurate knowledge of the Chinese idea of the venerated saurian if he desires to gain a truly sympathetic understanding of this remarkable people. Nearly every phase of Chinese life bears evidence of the influence of this unique member of the animal kingdom. Particularly this is true in the realms of their art, literature, folklore, zoology, history, and religion.
Chinese art employs dragon designs in endless variety. The graceful lines of its symmetrically proportioned body are found in every part of the country painted upon silks and porcelain, woven into brocades, carved on wood, embroidered upon satin, cast in bronze, and chiseled upon marble. It is the most characteristically Chinese of the many Oriental designs which are so attractive to Western students of art.
The literature of the country abounds in references to this marvellous creature as one may readily discover by even a cursory study of its books of history, poetry, letters, medicine, and fiction.
Chinese folklore is replete with countless entertaining stories of the wonderful feats of this great animal, while an infinite number of proverbs and old folks' sayings bear their testimony to the almost universal belief in its existence.
Popular zoölogy places the dragon next to man, at the head of the list of all living creatures, thus occupying the position of the lion or tiger in our Western classification. Strictly speaking,
Chinese natural history gives the dragon the rank of king only of scale-covered animals or creatures which live in the sea; the two fabulous creatures, the Chi Ling and the Phoenix respectively, have first place above all beasts and other animals which live upon the earth, and all birds and other creatures which fly in the air. But because the dragon is equally at home in the air and on the earth, as well as in the sea, it has been ranked as the ruler of all created life below man.
Chinese geomancy for ages has looked to the dragon as a means of determining the fates and fortunes of the "Sons of Han." Until very recently comparatively few Chinese would build a house or bury a corpse without first consulting a geomancer, who would, in one-way or another, refer to its probable influence upon his action. It is, moreover, a generally accepted belief that every twelfth hour, day, month, and year of the lunar calendar are under the dragon's dominating control.
Chinese history records scores of appearances of the king of beasts through the four thousand or more years since the age of the three mythical rulers. Appearances of the dragon are connected with the stories of many prominent characters of China's past. Perhaps the most noteworthy reference is one which states that two dragons as guards of honor visited the home of Confucius on the day that great sage was born. These frequent references to the dragon are considered, for the most part, by the majority of Chinese scholars quite as authentic as the statements about the famous worthies themselves.
Chinese religion places the dragon in the calendar of its deities as the God of Rain and the Ruler of Rivers, Lakes, and Seas. As such it has been worshiped for centuries. There are probably very few cities of any size in the whole country, which, at least until the recent revolution, were without a temple or shrine to the dragon king. This deity was worshiped on the first and fifteenth of every month.
In the opinion of the writer dwellers in other lands commonly think of the dragon in much the same light as they think of the centaurs, of Geryon or the Minotaur of Grecian fables: a strange mythical creature merely the product of human fancy. It is also probable that most of them think that the majority of Chinese consider it in the same way, but this is a mistaken conception. It may be considered a very conservative estimate to state that at least three hundred and sixty million Chinese believe in the actual existence of dragons as firmly as other peoples believe that there are such animals as tigers roaming in the jungles of Bengal and such monsters as walruses wandering over the icy stretches which border the arctic circle, though they themselves may never have set foot upon the shores of India nor have crossed the Arctic Sea.
The Han Dynasty Dragons
The brick upon which these dragons are molded was baked two thousand years ago. It was dug up recently near Kaifengfu, in Honan province, one of the ancient capitals of China. When two dragons appear in art they usually face each other. On this ancient brick the reverse is true. The circle through which these animals have wound themselves has become, in modern art, a disk. Most dragons are portrayed gazing intently at the disk, which is usually described as the sun. The simplicity of these dragons is very marked in contrast to the elaborate designs of the present day.
The Porcelain Dragon Screen
Nine huge dragons of many colors disport themselves upon this imperial screen. It is approximately one hundred feet long and twenty feet high. This impressive structure, faced with porcelain tiles of the finest texture, stands on the edge of the "North Sea," within the walls of the Imperial Palace in Peking.
Quite recently the writer made a localized study of the universality of the belief in dragons.
One hundred representative Chinese of different ages and walks in life in an important city were asked the following questions: Do you believe in the present existence of the dragon? And what percentage of the people of China do you think hold this belief? Eighty-two of the one hundred answered the first question in the affirmative. Regarding the universality of the belief in the dragon these men estimated that at least eighty-six and six-tenths per cent of their fellow nationals believe in its existence. The above study bore out very accurately the writer's estimate of the extent of the popular belief in the dragon. His judgment was based upon questions asked many scores of Chinese in ten different provinces of the country through a period of fourteen years.CHAPTER 2
How The Dragon Idea Originated
The elaborate conception of the dragon which we find today in Chinese art and literature is undoubtedly a very different animal from the one which was responsible for the origin of the dragon idea. The fabled sea serpent, the alligator, the salamander, and the boa constrictor have each been regarded as the prototype of this unique creature. It is far more likely, however, that some antediluvian saurian was the true source from which the dragon idea has sprung. Back in the dawn of history some early member of the human race may have met with one of these monstrous creatures which palaeontologists tell us were, in some period of their development, equally at home on land and in the sea, and because of its gigantic size and marvelous powers attributed to it a supernatural origin. In later ages, even the unearthed skeleton of one of these monsters might have been sufficient to lead to the inception of the story. If this theory is correct it is easy to understand how through succeeding ages the belief could have grown and how superstition and coincidence would have done their share to elaborate from the early monster the marvelous creature of the present day.
The Dragon Staircase
In most Confucian and imperial temples the center of the path that leads from the temple entrance to the sacred shrine is known as the spirit way. Where this route leads up a staircase, one usually finds not steps but a large inclined stone on which are carved one or more dragons. At the hour of worship the spirit of the one who is honored, travels, we are told, over this course. The dragon monolith shown in this photograph leads up to the smallest, the central one, of the three alters at the Temple of Heaven in Peking.
An Imperial Dragon
This lifelike creature, symbolic of imperial power, adorns one of the walls within the palace ground of Peking. Here, as in most representations, the dragon is show gazing longingly at the flaming sun. He desires, we are told, not so much to seize that heavenly body as to learn the secret of its brilliance, so that it may add to his own glory.
According to the theory advanced above, the writer believes that the most probable prototype of the dragon is the Brontosaurus of the Mesozoic age, although the present conception of the dragon may easily have sprung from such other prehistoric animals, as the plesiosaurus of the same period or the Iguanodon of the Cenozoic age. Skeletons of these giants of the saurian family and pictures of the reconstructed animals indicate a striking resemblance to the graceful creatures that dominate the art of China.
The first appearance of the true dragon, according to the records of what is considered to be authentic Chinese history, occurred some forty-six centuries ago during the reign of Huang Ti, or Hsuan Yuan, the third of the five great rulers. We are told that after this personage had reigned one hundred and eleven years a large dragon appeared and took him to heaven upon his back.
Since that day dragons have been seen in every dynasty and by hundreds of witnesses, as Chinese history abundantly attests. Dragon appearances were considered auspicious, and augured well for the affairs of state. In support of this belief, it is interesting to note that when the late President Yuan Shihkai was trying to make himself emperor his friends made at least one attempt to unearth what were supposed to be the bones of a dragon. This was done in order that the superstitious among his countrymen might be led to feel that his desire to reestablish the empire was according to the law of heaven.
For centuries it was the custom for anyone who saw a dragon, either himself or through the magistrate of the district in which he lived, immediately to announce the fact to the emperor.
In early days history was often counted from the appearance of a particular dragon.
A popular fable relates that Yü Wang was able to end the great flood 2297 B.C. only after he had succeeded in capturing the dragon, which was said to be responsible for the deluge. The animal was chained in heavy irons and imprisoned, after which the flood subsided. Ever since that time all dragons, we are told, have trembled at the memory of the only man who ever conquered their kind.CHAPTER 3
The Varieties Of Dragons
To the majority of people the word "dragon" denotes one animal only. There are, however, at least eight species of animals, which bear this name. These are the Lung Wang, the Shen Lung, the Li Lung, the Chiao Lung, the Ying Lung, the Chiu Lung, the Tsao Lung, and the Tu Lung. They all belong to the genus dragon (Lung), but each has one or more characteristics, which differentiates it from the others. For example, the Li Lung, or Chih Lung, as it is also named, has and is the only species that possesses wings. It is, however, but one of these species, the Shen Lung, which will be considered at this time. Of the eight varieties this is the one best known. The others may be dismissed with a word. Dr. Williams, in his "Middle Kingdom," mentions only three varieties and says that these are respectively dragons of the sky, of the sea, and of marshes. However, it seems that the Chinese are not generally accustomed to make such a classification. They rather consider that the one species, Shen Lung, controls and operates in all of these three spheres. Most of the other varieties are minor creatures, which are practically unknown and have slight bearing upon this study. The one exception to this rule is the Lung Wang, or dragon king. This species differs from the others in that its members possess a dragon's head upon a human body. By some this dragon is said to answer to Neptune in Western mythology. Each ocean has a dragon king. The members of this species differ from those of the one in which we are the most interested in that dragon kings rarely grow old and never die. The remaining varieties are all quite secondary and practically never appear in any form of art. These are mentioned only occasionally in Chinese literature. This article will therefore be confined to an account of the Shen Lung, or spirit dragon, the real dragon, the dragon, which has held China in its spell since the days of Yao and Shun.
Tablet to Confucius
This red lacquer tablet, inscribed with eight characters in gold, stands in the shrine of the Provincial Temple of Chekiang at Hangchow. The inscription may be freely translated, "The Sacred Tablet of Our Revered Teacher Confucius." The tablet is approximately four feet high and one foot wide. Nine dragons play hide and seek in the framework that borders the edge of the inscription. Two larger dragons twine themselves about the slender pillars before the shrine. These serve as guards of honor. These two creatures symbolize the two dragons, which, history says, encircled the home of Confucius when the sage was born. Similar tablets are found in all temples to Confucius throughout China.
Within the main entrance to Nanking's Examination Hall, where the Master's Degree was earned, stood a long "spirit wall." Upon the front of this structure was painted a dragon gate, beneath which was shown a carp changing into a dragon. A Bachelor of Arts, according to China's ancient system of education, upon becoming a Master, was congratulated by his friends as having passed through the "Dragon Gate." The implication was that it was as difficult for a Bachelor of Arts to become a Master as for a carp to be transformed into a dragon.
All true dragons are of two kinds: those, which are such by birth and those, which become dragons by transformation from fish of the carp species. The transformed variety become dragons by leaping up the waters of a certain cataract upon a western mountain stream. Large numbers of carp swim once each year, we learn, to this waterfall known as the "Dragon's Gate." Here under the cataract they flounder about, jumping and springing up out of the swirling waters; a few of them succeed in getting over the falls to the higher waters above. Those, which are successful in this effort, become dragons. After the story of this strange occurrence became known to the public, it was incorporated into the life of the people in a popular saying, and scholars who succeeded in passing the great triennial literary examinations were said to have "passed the Dragon Gate." The use of this figure was doubtless to illustrate the difficulty of passing the examinations, for it implied that it was as difficult a task for a man to succeed at these examinations as it was for the carp to leap up over the falls. This figure has, in addition, the happy inference that even as the carp, an ordinary fish, might become a mighty dragon, just so by this supreme effort a scholar might become a master of arts, thus placing the value of the transformation on a very high scale.
One ancient authority tells us that there is a class of these great saurians, which are known as "lazy dragons." These do not like to exert themselves in the task of directing clouds which carry rain over the surface of the earth. They sometimes make themselves small in size, drop to the surface of the earth and hide in trees, under roofs of houses, and even in the clothing of unsuspecting countrymen. The Thunder God, learning of their desertion from their posts of duty sends his messengers to search for them and when he discovers their location, kills them with thunderbolts during an electric storm, after the manner of Zeus. This explains to many an unsophisticated man the frequent destruction of life and property during thunderstorms. An epithet that in some parts of the country is often hurled at lazy people is "Lan Lung," or "lazy dragon."
In the city of Kaifengfu, Honan, the first capital of the Sung emperors, is a sacred building known as the "Dragon Pavilion." Within this structure, which stands on an eminence high above most of the buildings of the city, is a large basaltic stone known as the "Dragon Throne." This is cut in the form of a cube of about six feet in each dimension and rests today under the shrine of the Pearly Emperor. Nine hundred years ago the Sung emperors doubtlessly placed their lacquered thrones upon its upper surface. In order to protect it from vandal hands, the historic stone is now incased within wooden walls, which form a cave-like room about it. Fourteen dragons in deep relief surround the outer edge: five on the front and back faces, and two on either end. Visitors must use candles in order to see at all in the inky darkness. Because of the narrow quarters no photograph can be taken. This drawing by a Kaifengfu artist was made under the greatest difficulties and is probably the first reproduction ever attempted.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Chinese Dragon"
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