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Dragon in Taiwan
Turtles are the Messenger of the Dragon
Text courtesy US Embassy in Taiwan
The year 2000 in the Western calendar marks the beginning of a new millennium and coincides with the keng chen year of the Chinese astrological system-the Year of the Dragon.
Throughout China, Japan, Korea, Mongolia, and Indochina, the image of the dragon appears frequently in myth, legend, and art. And in China, the very heart of this "dragon culture," it has played a pivotal role in history. No wonder the Chinese consider themselves the "descendants of the dragon."
But just what is a "dragon," this product of the imagination and the only animal of the Chinese astrological system not found in the natural realm?
Quoting Wang Fu of the Eastern Han Dynasty in his Literary Expositor, Luo Yuan of the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279 ) has said: "Wang Fu says that depictions of creatures with the head of a horse and the body of a snake are commonly considered dragon images. But dragons actually have three sections and nine likenesses. The three connected sections are: from the head to the upper leg, from the leg to the abdomen, and from the abdomen to the tail. The nine likenesses are: horns of a stag, head of a camel, eyes of a demon, neck of a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a fish, talons of an eagle, paws of a tiger, and ears of an ox." The product of a special spiritual culture, the dragon combines features from many different animals, including the body of a snake, and elements of fish, birds, and mammals. One of the auspicious animals of ancient China, the dragon's exalted status has had a significant influence on the daily lives and culture of the Chinese for the past 5,000 years.
Images of the dragon, drawn from the unique artistic imagination of China, appear in furniture, household utensils, architecture, temples, vessels, vehicles, garments, lacquer ware, works of bronze and jade, and commercial designs. Ancient documents show that the major myths and legends surrounding the dragon include:
Snake Myths: Fu Hsi, a legendary ruler who invented the Eight Trigrams used for divination, and taught humans to farm and fish, is depicted with a human face and the body of a snake.
Family Totems: In addition to being tribal symbols, totems also represent shared blood ties. By virtue of its spiritual character and power, the dragon was the animal most revered by the Han and Miao ethnic groups.
Vehicle of the Immortals: The earliest records describing the use of dragon boats appear during the reign of Chou Muwang (Chou Dynasty, 1111-249 B.C.). Much later, dragon boat races evolved into a folk celebration known as the "Dragon Boat Festival," which commemorates the patriot and poet Chu Yuan. According to legend, the sun god Hsiho also rode a hornless dragon over the horizon, an image that came to represent the setting sun and the coming of night.
Deities: Legend has it that the "divine dragon" used his tail to dredge a river, helping the Emperor Yu, founder of the Hsia Dynasty (2183-1752 B.C.), drain water off flooded farmland. After becoming the spiritual overseer of water, the dragon was also vested with the power to conjure clouds and rain. Thus, both the Han and Miao performed dragon dances seeking favorable weather and good harvests.
Imperial Authority: As a symbol of supernatural power, the dragon has been linked with the emperor ever since the Han Dynasty (B.C. 206-220 A.D.), providing spiritual justification for exercising imperial prerogative and absolute power. After the dragon image became the sole province of the emperor, all articles for his daily use were emblazoned with the Chinese character for "dragon", including "dragon robes" and the "dragon throne." The emperor's face was also referred to as the "dragon visage." )
Auspicious Animal: Silk wedding scrolls inscribed with the saying, "The dragon and phoenix (denoting man and woman) bode good fortune" symbolize the happiness that attends celebrations marked by traditional drinking from nuptial wine cups. Images of dragons fashioned from dough were also used in sacrifices to gods and ancestors during the Ching Dynasty (1644-1912), decorated with images of flasks (a homonym for "peace"), square halberds (a homonym for "good fortune"), and pearls and ingots (symbols of wealth). These dragon images and their decorative symbols augured peace and good fortune, and showed that people believed the dragon could act as an emissary, seeking good fortune on their behalf.
Religious Implications: It is said that the dragon can swallow the sun and moon, and this image, depicted as "the dragon purloins the pearl," has evolved into a spectacular folk performance. Common Buddhist themes also include "Buddha tames the dragon," the bodhisattva Kuan Yin riding a dragon, and the dragon-taming Arhat. The dragon is also used as a term of approbation. When Taiwan's economic accomplishments reached global proportions, for example, it was designated as one of the "four dragons" of Asia. Specially trained teams of paratroopers have also become known as "dragon squads."
The Council for Cultural Affairs of Taiwan's Executive Yuan has once again commissioned the National Taiwan Crafts Research Institute to hold this special New Year's exhibition at the Taipei Gallery of the Chinese Information and Culture Center in New York City and the Centre Culturel et d'Information de Taipei in Paris. This year's show, Celebrating the Year of the Dragon: A Chinese New Year Crafts Exhibition, is designed to foster cultural exchange and to celebrate Taiwan's cultural traditions as well as the arts and literary heritage associated with the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac.
For this joint exhibition, we were fortunate to enlist some of Taiwan's best-known painters, calligraphers, craftspeople, and artists to produce paintings and three-dimensional works based on this year's theme: the dragon. Their vibrant creativity is displayed in a wide variety of media including wood and stone carving, leather, ceramics, glass, paper, lacquer ware, embroidery, ink painting, and calligraphy, each piece displaying a unique charm and aesthetic appeal.
Dragon in Myth & Legend: A Diversity of Dragons
The dragon is the most exalted animal in Chinese culture. Although it is a purely imaginary creation not found in the real world, the dragon is still depicted more frequently than any other animal, and in a wide range of artistic forms.
In Taiwanese temples, depictions of the dragon-carved or painted-abound on roof ornamentation, pillars, balustrades, window lattices, door shutters, and decorative features such as dragon candles and dragon lamps. The walls of temple entrances, which are often spotted with depictions of screaming dragons, clearly convey Chinese people's long-standing fascination and affection for these mystical creatures.
A Long & Storied History
Liu An, king of Huainan during the reign of Han Wudi (141-87 B.C.), wrote a philosophical text known as Huainanzi. In Chapter IV of that treatise, entitled "Earthly Exegesis," Liu An includes the following explanation of the origins of animals:
"The yu chia gave rise to the flying dragon; the flying dragon gave rise to the phoenix; the phoenix gave rise to the luan (another mythical bird); the luan gave rise to the common bird, and all animals with feathers are its descendants."
"The mao du gave rise to the ying dragon; the ying dragon gave rise to the chien horse; the chien horse gave rise to the chilin; the chilin gave rise to the common mammal, and all mammals are its descendants."
"The chieh lin gave rise to the chiao dragon; the chiao dragon gave rise to the kun keng (a legendary fish thousands of miles long); the kun keng gave rise to the chien hsieh; the chien hsieh gave rise to the common fish, and all animals with scales are its descendants."
"The chieh tse gave rise to the hsien dragon; the hsien dragon gave rise to the hsuan tortoise; the hsuan tortoise gave rise to the ling tortoise; the ling tortoise gave rise to the common tortoise, and all crustaceans are its descendants."
According to this primitive evolutionary theory, the dragon is thus the original ancestor of all birds, mammals, fish, and crustaceans. In fact, sometime before the year 140 B.C., a theory had already appeared in China that held the dragon as the spiritual ancestor of all living things, according to the following genealogy:
- The fei dragon is the ancestor of all birds.
- The ying dragon is the ancestor of all mammals.
- The chiao dragon is the ancestor of all fish.
- The hsien dragon is the ancestor of all crustaceans.
One can thus see that the dragon appears in many forms and embodies the divine creative force of the universe. More contemporary depictions of the dragon, however, follow Wang Fu's prescription stating that the dragon has "three sections and presents nine likenesses," making the dragon an amalgamation of characteristics from all kinds of animals and the spiritual ancestor of all living things. Even human beings are considered the descendants of the dragon.
Dragons can also be classified according to the legend that the "dragon begat nine sons." These nine sons were not, however, dragons in form, and each had a different temperament and distinct natural attributes.
The first son, the pihsi (also known as the pahsia), resembles a large tortoise and is capable of carrying heavy loads. This creature's physical characteristics are the origin of the heavy, tortoise-shaped bases that support stone tablets, such as the nine huge "Imperial Stone Tortoise Steles" at the Chihkan Building in Tainan (dating from the reign of Chienlung, 1736-1795). Although these bases are shaped like tortoises, like most pihsi they also have the head of a hornless dragon (chih), which identifies them as one of the nine sons.
The second son is the chih wen. He takes the form of a mammal. An excellent lookout, he has sharp eyes and a nose for trouble. This is why we commonly see this dragon perched on temple roofs, in the lofts of assembly halls and pagodas, atop houses, or lodged in the far corners of a temple. From all of these strategic positions the chih wen provides symbolic protection against fires.
The third son, pulao, has a small body and emits a unique chirping sound. Nowadays, this dragon frequently appears on clocks. Legend maintains that the pulao has a mortal fear of whales. If a whale attacks the pulao, he will shriek loudly. For this reason, if you want your clock's chimes to ring loud and clear, just place a pulao atop the clock with a carved whale set to strike. Pan Gu's Eastern Capital Rhapsody from the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 B.C.) contains the verse, "The whale issued forth, and the clock emitted a resounding clang." In a later period, the fish and dragon were again associated, this time through wooden batons shaped like a fish that hung in the dining rooms of Chan (Zen) temples. These batons were used to strike a large bell, an action said to represent the transformation of a fish into a dragon. This image of transformation, which symbolizes the transcendence of worldly concerns and the attainment of sainthood, is based on the legend "the carp leaps through the dragon gate," a depiction of intense struggle that ends in victory.
The fourth son, the pian (also known as the hsienchang), resembles a tiger and possesses great power. Some sources say the pian is rather fond of disputes and legal suits, and it thus appears on the doors of government courts and the entryways to prisons in traditional China.
The fifth son, the legendary taotie, is a ferocious animal that has a voracious appetite. It appears on the lid of the ding (an ancient cauldron) and became the most important decorative design on ancient Chinese bronze works.
The sixth son, the kungfu, has an affinity for water, so it appears on bridge pillars. It is also known as the fankong, which likes to drink.
The seventh son is the yazi. Because the yazi is said to delight in killing, his image is often imprinted on swords and other weapons.
The eighth son is the chinni (or suanni). This dragon looks like a lion and has a natural affinity for fireworks. Said to be fond of sitting in one place, it commonly appears on incense burners.
The ninth son, the chiaotu, resembles a mollusk. Because this dragon is fond of closing up (like many mollusks), it usually appears on doors.
Widely used in architecture and for decorative design, the dragon image can take on a variety of different appearances, drawing on the divergent forms and attributes of the nine sons.
In addition, there are many "monsters" that are related to the dragon, such as the aoyu, a beast with the head of a dragon and body of a fish, and the yuan, which has the head of a dragon and body of a turtle. Other "relatives" have the head of a dragon and the body of a human, the body of a dragon and the face of a human, the head of a dragon and the body of a bird (or vice versa), or the head of a dragon and the body of a horse. All of these images exemplify that dragon is indeed a major design motif in Chinese culture.
An understanding of the names below will also help us understand the dragon classification system in Chinese culture.
The hui dragon, which literally means "small snake dragon," got its name from a species of poisonous snake. Dragon images that are very simple, even resembling a lizard, can all be called hui dragons. This type is considered the most primitive of dragon images.
- A chiu dragon has a squiggly body.
- A chih dragon is a dragon without horns.
- A kuie dragon has a single leg and is associated with music.
- A ching dragon is green and represents the East
- A chu dragon is a supernatural being, the equivalent of a huo (fire) dragon.
- A pan dragon is shaped in a coil, the same as the chiu dragon.
- A ying dragon has wings.
Depictions of other forms of the dragon, such as water, fire, golden, and cloud dragons, are easily identified by their names.
In the ancient text known as Kuanzi, the chapter entitled "Water and Earth" says that, "The dragon arose from water and bathed in the five colors, and it is therefore a spiritual being. Desiring to be small, it morphs into a worm; desiring to be large, it fills the world; wanting to ascend, it rises to the clouds; wanting to descend, it enters the deepest springs; always changing spontaneously and without limit." Ubiquitous and protean, the dragon reflected the fertile imagination of the ancients, and it naturally became the most beloved image of the Chinese for thousands of years.
In ancient times, the dragon was considered one of the four supernatural beings, along with the chilin, the phoenix, and the tortoise. It was also considered one of the Four Spirits-the green dragon, the white tiger, the chu chueh (a mythical red bird), and the tortoise-representing the east, the west, the south, and the north, respectively. Wall paintings and inscriptions excavated from tombs dating from the Han, Tang, and Song dynasties frequently include depictions of the Four Spirits or the twelve images of the Chinese zodiac to indicate the points of the compass and the twelve divisions of the traditional day. Chin and Han Dynasty architecture also featured depictions of the four supernatural beings on the small, circular tiles that seal off the ends of roof eaves.
The dragon is also the fifth of the twelve animals that comprise the Chinese zodiac. It is designated by the character chen, and it corresponds to the hours from 7:00 to 9:00 a.m. Chen also has meanings associated with the word zhen: the stirring of the originating force of the universe; thunder and lighting; a simultaneous release of sound and light; the natural process of plant growth; and any powerful upward-moving force. The dragon, due to its close association with these primal natural forces, is considered the supreme spiritual being and the source of all life.
Possessing the ability to conjure clouds and rain, the dragon has characteristics of both a rain god and a water god. Often depicted with parts of its body obscured by clouds, the notion that "one can see the head of the divine dragon, but not the tail" reflects both the dragon's ever-changing image and unpredictable nature. Legends say that Chang Sengyao of the Six Dynasties Period (222-589) was most adept at depicting dragons, his work capturing their power and vitality. According to one legend, when Chang Sengyao painted a dragon he would paint a lock on it, and he would firmly secure the work to the ground with nails. If he did not take these precautions, he wouldn't dare paint in the dragon's eyes. Because his paintings were imbued with such a powerful spiritual force, as soon as the eyes were painted in the dragon would mount the clouds and soar into the heavens! This is the origin of the story about "painting in the dragon's eyes," a ceremony that remains a solemn occasion to this day.
The dragon also plays an important role in the folk beliefs in Taiwan. Because sea travel was relatively perilous in the oceans that surround Taiwan, the original inhabitants of the island both worshipped and feared the dragon because of its ability to conjure up wind and waves. Temples dedicated to the Goddess Matsu were also required to pay homage to the "four great dragon kings," or a single dragon spirit. A separate temple in honor of the dragon could also be set up to procure protection for ships at sea. Floods, tidal waves, and other natural disasters were also considered within the scope of their powers.
Lu Pan and the Dragon
In this legend, Lu Pan, the patron saint of carpenters, builds a magnificent mansion. He asked the Dragon King of the Eastern Sea if he could borrow the Dragon Palace to use as a model for his new home. The Dragon King agreed to lend him the palace, but only for three days. Even though Lu Pan worked day and night, when the deadline for returning the palace arrived, he had only completed a very basic structure, devoid of details or ornamentation. To extend the deadline, Lu Pan came up with an ingenious plan: he nailed the palace firmly to the ground so the Dragon King could not take it back.
On the third night came wind and rain, and the Dragon King dispatched several "little dragons" to lead the "crab generals and regiments of prawns and fish" in a massive march to reclaim the palace. But because the Dragon Palace was nailed down, the troops' nightlong efforts to take back the palace were unsuccessful.
The aquatic hordes anxiously tried to twist the palace free. The little dragons stamped their feet and tried to wrench the stone pillars from the ground, but no matter how they tried, the palace wouldn't budge. Some climbed up to the roof to seek divine assistance, but no help was forthcoming from heaven or earth. And at dawn of the following day, the little dragons perished when they were exposed to the hot rays of the rising sun.
That morning Lu Pan saw what happened to the dragons. Their final poses were imprinted on the pillars, and their bodies were strewn about on the roof. He was suddenly struck by inspiration: their bodies and imprints, just as they lay on the fa?de of the palace, formed a perfect, beautiful composition. He painted the dragons where they were, not as corpses, but with all their original vigor and awesome power. This is why dragon images are found everywhere in temples today, even in decorative woodcarvings of billowing waves, which feature dragons carved into their upswept curves.
Dragon images that narrate the "carp leaping through the dragon gate" theme are also frequently carved inside buildings. These wall-dragons become symbolic guardians that, according to superstition, use their powers and control of water and rains to protect buildings from fires. These folk stories and mythologies that have developed over the years are indeed a natural manifestation of the collective cultural imagination of the Chinese.
It may seem surprising that the infinitely resourceful and powerful Dragon King of the Sea was duped by Lu Pan, but then again, isn't it also true that a monkey-Sun Wukong-also got the best of the Dragon King in the classic novel, Journey to the West? So we see, ultimately, the dragon is still just an animal. And to Chinese, animals exist only to serve humans, not the other way around. Therefore, humans can, in fact, tame dragons. Legends say that the Yellow Emperor rode in a coach drawn by dragons, and stories are also told about a Dragon Master raising dragons during the reign of the legendary monarch Shun. At the time of Kung Jia during the Hsia Dynasty, Liu Lei was granted the title of Imperial Dragon Master, breaking in dragons to draw the imperial coach. Kong Jia even ate dragon meat, which is said to be different from common beef or mutton and simply delicious. Perhaps the fact that dragon meat is considered suitable for eating even reflects the wide-ranging gustatory habits of the Chinese!
The Dragon & Wealth
Here is an example of a story based on the "dragon purloining the pearl" theme. The dragon is supposedly a monster able to swallow the sun and moon, causing the strange phenomena we call eclipses. Images that depict dragons snatching pearls with their mouth, or spitting them out, have thus come to symbolize the dragon swallowing the sun or moon.
The ancients had always considered the sun and moon to be very spiritual in power and appearance. Thus the transformation of the image of a pearl (symbolizing the sun and moon) being eaten by a dragon into the "Precious Pearl of Good Fortune" or the "Divine Pearl" reflects human submission to natural spiritual forces, as well as our desire for power and wealth.
Much later, even Buddhism incorporated popular beliefs concerning the dragon. One example is the image of the Buddha taming the dragon to become the guardian spirit of Buddhism. This image actually has an antecedent in Indian culture, where the Naga-a semi-divine being with the face of a human, the tail of a snake, and the raised head of a cobra-was sometimes depicted as Buddha's throne. Arriving in China, the Naga was translated as "dragon king."
The Buddhist sutras also include the "Supreme Sutra of the Precious Pearl of Good Fortune," which contains references to the Dragon Palace's "Five Copper Pillars of the Precious Palace." That sutra also records the story of So Chieluo, the Dragon Princess. At the age of eight, she was said to hold a pearl worth "all the worlds and dominions" in her hand, a symbol of spiritual attainment. She offered this pearl to the Buddha, and when he accepted, So Chieluo was suddenly transformed into a man, becoming a bodhisattva and ascending to heaven to sit upon the precious lotus throne.
The "dragon pearl" is an expression of the dragon's unlimited spiritual power. In the philosophical and literary classic known as Chuang-tzu, the chapter "Lieh Yukou" describes the "priceless pearl" that can only be found in the "unfathomable depths." And if one seeks to obtain the jade that rests below the chin of the li dragon, one must wait until he is fast asleep. This is the origin of the aphorism "seek the dragon and find the pearl," which says that in order to gain benefits, one must take risks.
Of course, we cannot forget the dragon's original character as the water god and the "precious pearl" that is his alone and controls the ocean tides. And during periods of drought, the dragon blesses the people with much-needed rain. By extension, this rain came to mean "blessing," and finally came to imply bringing wealth to humankind.
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