When thinking about Chinese magical creatures most people with no background in Chinese culture would immediately think DRAGONS!!! That was me. Literally, I picked the class because I love dragons and I wanted to learn more about them. But unfortunately I came across one major problem. Ironically there isn’t a lot of information on dragons. So I’m going to break down what we do know.
Origin of Dragons
There are three main concepts of what a dragon was during the early times of china. We first have that they derived from dinosaurs. However, dinosaurs were long gone before the concept of a dragon came about. But it makes sense for this concept to be brought up because at some point the Chinese used fossil bones as a source of medicine.
Next, we have that dragons were “snake-like” figures. These snake-like figures were painted on pottery and other forms of art. This concept comes up during the Shang dynasty (c.1700-1027 BC). The only problem with this, is that the animal in the design has little in common with a dragon.
Lastly, the idea of dragons derived from crocodiles. We find these on images carved horizontally on tomb walls. People have also dug up crocodile shaped vessels in images at Taouhuazhuang, Shilou, Shanxi. This concept also dates back to the Shang Dynasty.
So, what does a Chinese dragon look like?
Before I start to talk about dragons, think about what you initially thought a dragon looked like. What were its characteristics? What did it do? Are there different types of dragons?
In many respects the Chinese thought about dragons in the same way that children thought about Father Christmas: to some he is Santa Clause; to others he is Saint Nicholas. In many places he comes on 24 December, but on a different day in others. In many places he mysteriously arrives down the chimney, but to those living without fireplaces he still manages to get in somehow. Every child who believes has some concept of him, but no one can be sure whether his beard is long and flowing or relatively short. He is a concept, a belief, a conviction, and he is not clear cut like Pooh Bear in Winnie the Pooh, who is the same in England as he is in America or anywhere else in the world. The Chinese look upon dragons in the same way. They had palpable beasts like snakes, alligators, horses, and tigers that could be seen and studied, and their shape could be copied. Yet the dragon, like father Christmas, was always intangible. Its shape, and is characteristics, varied from place to place. No one knew for certain what a dragon looked like, and it was not possible to go out into the wilds and see one.
This quote means that dragons aren’t a set thing, it’s like a figment of your imagination, it could literally be anything you want it to be. If you think about it, historically it’s considered to be made up because there are no real proof of a dragon. It’s one of those things that was made to put you in a fantasy world. For example, everyone knows about a unicorn and we know what they look like. They are and look like magical flying horses with one pointy horn. This is a made up thing that we do for entertainment purposes but it’s one of those things that you hope is real.
In “Here Be Dragons: A Readers Guide to the Bencao gangmu“, the main and most common depiction of a dragon was by Li Shizhen who collected from other older materials, saying that “according to Luo Yuan in the Erya yi: The dragon is the chief of the scaly creatures. Wang Fu describes how its shape contains nine similarities. To wit, the head of a camel, the antlers of a deer, the eyes of a rabbit, the ears of an ox, the neck of a snake, the belly of a clam, the scales of a fish, the claws of an eagle, and the paws of a tiger. Its back has eighty-one scales, which as nine nines is a yang number. Its sound is like tapping on a copper plate. The sides of its mouth have whiskers. Beneath its chin is a bright pearl. Under its throat are reversed scales. On top of its head is the boshan, also called the chimu. Without its chimu, a dragon cannot ascend to the heavens. Its exhalations of qi form clouds and can transform into both water and fire”. 
It sounds crazy, right?
It sounds crazy because most people are fonder of the western depiction of dragons because of modern movies, ect. They are big fire breathing lizard like thing who are obsessed with their treasure because dragons are considered to be greedy. However, Chinese dragons are a whole new ball game. As an outside culture looking in we have to understand that dragons were very important to the Chinese culture. Dragons for the Chinese where one of the many creatures used to explain things that they didn’t understand or have the scientific knowledge and equipment for.
One thing that does correspond from western and Chinese depictions of dragons, is that many dragons can fly. In the Book of Changes, a flying dragon is called “nine-five” which symbolized its superiority. It was equivalent to the imperial throne. Many dragons with bat-like wings were found on ceramics, tiles, and carved stone panels. In their early designs the wings looked more like three very thin feathers. But closer to the 15th century they resemble more of a bat-like structure. Many examples of winged beast chasing fish, suggest that they could also be dragons of the sea. Which make sense because dragons are considered a yin creature because its frequently associated with water.
“Lu Dian in the Piya stated: The fire of a dragon will blaze in humidity and will burn in the presence of water. Attacking it with human fire will extinguish the dragon’s fire. The ministerial fire (xianghuo) of men is also like this. The dragon is born from an egg that it hatches and conscientiously protects. When the male calls upwind and the female calls downwind, through the wind a new dragon is conceived. According to Shidian: When dragons mate they change into two small snakes. Furthermore, according to some stories (xiaoshuo) the dragon’s nature is coarse and violent, yet it loves beautiful jade and kongqing stones and enjoys eating the flesh of swallows. It is afraid of iron and mangcao herb, centipedes and lianzhi branches, and Five Colored [i.e., multicolored] silk. Therefore those who have eaten swallows avoid crossing water, those who pray for rain use swallows, those who want waters to subside use iron, those who want to provoke a dragon use mangcao herb, and those who sacrifice to Qu Yuan wrap dumplings in lian leaves and colored silk and throw them in the river. Medical practitioners use dragon bones, so they ought to understand the dragon’s affinities and aversions as they are presented here.”
This quote is important because it brings up the concept of dragons producing some type of fire. however, it also states that the fire is on water and that it goes out with man made fire. The first question I have is how does the fire stay lit on the water? And why does it go out when in contact with a man-made fire. This quote is also interesting to think about how they come about and what they like and what their weaknesses are.
The cult of the dragon
For many centuries the dragon and rainfall has had a great connection. This concept came before Buddhist china and could possibly be traced back to the early centuries of recorded history. “By the time of Han Yu, the belief in the dragons had so far became encapsulated in the Chinese tradition that an essayist could exploit it as an allegory so as to illustrate and add force to his own cause”. “By puffing out his breath with a roar, the dragon forms the clouds; and the clouds are of course not possessed of greater spiritual power than the dragon. However, it is by mounting his own breath that the dragon journeys to all corners of the empyrean. He presses close to the sun and the moon and he crouches within their effulgence. He gives rise to thunder and to lightning; he brings about transformations of nature such that water pours down upon the earth beneath, submerging the hills and the valleys”. This essay was supposed to display a disappointed and disgraced official who was anxious to point out that his talent was being overshadowed and unrecognized. But in the allegory, the dragon represented the emperor and the clouds represented the servants and officials. “Just as the dragon relies on the clouds to enact his purposes, so does the emperor no less require officials to carry out his will”.
How can you expand this chapter?
- The use of dragon bones in Chinese medicine
- Changing ideas and different opinions on dragons
- More detailed explanations of the nature of the dragon’s special characteristics.
Bates, Roy. Chinese Dragons. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Loewe, Michael. Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008.
Nappi, Carla Suzan. The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009.
- Roy Bates, Chinese Dragons, (Oxford University Press), 2. ↵
- Bates, Chinese Dragons, 2 ↵
- Bates, Chinese Dragons, 2. ↵
- Bates, Chinese Dragons, 6 ↵
- Carla S. Nappi. The Monkey and the Inkpot: Natural History and Its Transformations in Early Modern China (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2009), 56. ↵
- Bates, Chinese Dragons, 6. ↵
- Carla S. Nappi. The Monkey and the Inkpot, 56. ↵
- Loewe, Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China (University of Cambridge Oriental Publications), 143 ↵
- Loewe, Divination, 143. ↵
- Loewe, Divination, 143. ↵
- Loewe, Divination, 143. ↵