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Dragons and Dragon Lore, by Ernest Ingersoll, [1928], at



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:




azure dragon




phenix (feng)










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."

Next: Chapter Five: Draconic Grandparents