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



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: Chapter Seven: Korean Water And Mountain Spirits