Lung. Chinese Dragons. Appearances and classification.

China, Horned, Yellow, Dragon, Henri Doré, superstition,
The Horned Yellow Dragon (The most honoured of Chinas 4 wondrous animals).



by Henri Doré.

Lung (1).

The dragon, Lung, is sometimes spoken of in China as a fabulous creature, and at others as a veritable deity, hence endless confusion in the writings of authors, as well as in the folklore of the country when describing this quaint monster. In the first part of this article, we shall deal with the dragon as a fabulous beast, and in the latter with the same being considered as a deity, or rain-god, and especially supplicated in times of drought or floods.

I. Alleged appearances of the Dragon

The dragon is a fabulous monster, described by Chinese tradition and writers, in the same extravagant manner as the phoenix and the unicorn. The first recorded appearance of the dragon. Lung, is said to have occurred under the reign of Fuhsi (B.C. 2852- 2737). A strange creature, called a dragon-horse, rose from the waters of the Ts’ai, Ts’ai-ho, a tributary of the Hwai river (2). The monster bore on its back a scroll inscribed with the Eight Diagrams, or Pah-kwa (3).

Related: The dragon in Asian art and culture.

(1) Lung. The dragon, a legendary four-footed monster (Mayers), the chief of scaly beings, wielding the power of transformation, and the gift of rendering itself visible or invisible at pleasure (Williams). In its shape, it is probably derived from the crocodile, which hides itself in the winter, and appears again in the spring. Encyclopaedia Sinica. p. 147. — Allen. Early Chinese History, p. 19. note 3.
(2) Elucidation of Historic Annals, Tze-chi t’ung-kien-kang-muh. — Chavannes. Mémoires historiques de Se Ma-ts’ien. Annales des trois souverains. p. 6 (Fou-hi).
(3) Pah-kwa or the Eight Diagrams. They served much for divination and geomancy during the period preceding the era of Wen-wang (12th century B.C.). Transmitted orally, they were consigned in the I Ching or Yi Jing, or Classic of Changes, one of the most ancient of the Chinese Classics. Mayers. Chinese Reader’s Manual, p. 334.

Fuhsi received them as a gift from heaven. These symbols — a combination of lines, whole and broken — were embodied in the Yi Jing (I Ging), or Classic of Changes. Each of the trigrams has a special name, with a symbolical and fanciful meaning, applied to the various events of life, and deemed to manifest the will of Heaven (1).

Fuhsi gave the title of dragon to his officials, in memory of the monster which bestowed on him the mystic symbols.

The emperor Hwang-ti (B.C. 2697-2597) beheld in a dream two dragons, who presented him with a scroll. He kept vigil and fasted, then proceeding to the banks of the Yellow River, Hwang-ho, a huge tortoise offered itself to his gaze (2).

When Yao was on the throne seventy years, in the second month, a dragon-horse appeared with red lines on a green ground. The animal ascended the altar, laid down the scheme, and departed (3).

In the fourteenth year of Shun, the crouching dragons came forth from their dens (4).

When Yü the Great, Ta-yü, King of the Xia dynasty, was crossing the Kiang in the middle of the stream, two yellow dragons took the boat on their backs (5).

(1) See Chinese Superstitions Vol. IV. p. 333.—Preface, p. XII-XIII.
(2) Elucidation of Historic Annals, Tze-chi t’ung-kien-kang-muh (Hwang-ti).
(3) Annals of the Bamboo Books, Chuh-shu-ki. Legge’s Chinese Classics. Vol. III. P.I. p. 113 (Reign of Yao).
(4) Annals of the Bamboo Books, Chuh-shu-ki. Legge’s Chinese Classics. Vol. III. P.I. p. 116 (Reign of Shun).
(5) Annals of the Bamboo Books, Chuh-shu-ki. Legge’s Chinese Classics. Vol. III. P.I. p. 118 (The Emperor Yü). The people were all afraid, but Yü laughed and said: to be born is the course of Nature; to die is by Heaven’s decree. Why be troubled by the dragons? On this, they went away, dragging their tails.

Chinese, Dragon, Groot,.
A Chinese Dragon. (After de Groot).

On the birthday of Confucius, his biographers inform us that two dragons entwined with their folds the roof of the house in which he was born (1).

The alleged appearances of the dragon have ever played an important part in the State government of China. Rulers and ministers, whenever it was necessary to uphold Imperial schemes or prop up a tottering throne, availed themselves of five ingenious devices, viz: heaven, the dragon, the phoenix, the unicorn, divination by the tortoise-shell and the milfoil (2). These, they wielded with consummate ability, and in thorough consonance with the needs and requirements of the times.

The High Minister and courtier, Wang K’in-joh (3), said one day to the emperor Chen-tsung (A.D. 998-1023), of the Northern Sung dynasty. Peh-Sung “the ancient sovereigns of China had recourse to so-called revelations, whenever they were needed to back up Imperial schemes, or curb the turbulent masses of the people into submissiveness to the throne. Does your Majesty believe that a dragon-horse appeared to Fuhsi, or the Great Yü, Ta-yü, and presented them with mystic scrolls? Verily, these Sages invented those so-called appearances in order to sanction their policy”.

(1) According to a legend, the mother of Confucius brought him forth in the cave of the “hollow mulberry-tree”. On the night when the child was born, two dragons came and kept watch on the right and left of the hill, while a spring of clear water bubbled up from the ground, and dried again when the child was washed in it. Legge. Biography of Confucius, p. 59.
(2) See on the tortoise-shell and the milfoil. Chinese Superstitions. Vol. IV. Preface, p. X-XII.—Vol. V. p. 660-661.
(3) Wang K’in-joh. A courtier and high official, during the reign of Chen-tsung. whose superstitious vagaries he encouraged, enjoying in return the highest Imperial favour and bounty. To his intrigues, the upright minister K’ow-chun owed his downfall, and finally his death in exile. Mayers. Chinese Reader’s Manual, p. 241.

The foregoing words caused the emperor to reflect, and a few days afterwards he wrote to the famous scholar Tu-hao, and asked him in the most straightforward manner: “is it true that a dragon-horse, bearing a scroll on its back, appeared to Fuhsi, and that a large tortoise rose from the Loh, Loh-ho, and appeared to the Great Yü, Ta-yü. The aged scholar, taken rather unawares, and ignoring the exact purpose of the emperor, replied: “the Sages invented these appearances in order to exact obedience from the people”. These words sunk deep into the mind of the superstitious emperor, and henceforth he resolved to adopt a similar course. He had visions and visits from heavenly beings (1). Even a blue dragon vouchsafed to appear on the summit of the T’ai-shan (2), thereby conferring the approval of heaven on the unscrupulous policy of the ruler.

This opinion is shared by several of the present-day scholars of China. Materialistic and agnostic as they generally are, they disbelieve altogether these so-called appearances, but maintain they are necessary for governing the masses, and compelling them to submit to the will of the rulers.

The various appearances of the dragon have been conjured up in the same manner, and for the same purpose, as the blue monster that appeared during the reign of Chen-tsung.

Dragons, decorative, art, illustration, Anton Seder, animal
Dragons. The animal in decorative art by Anton Seder.

II. Description of the Dragon.

The following is a description of this fabulous animal as found in Chinese writers. Kwan-tze (3) declares that the dragon becomes at will reduced to the size of a silkworm, or swollen until it fills the space of heaven and earth.

(1) See above. Chinese Superstitions. Vol. V. p. 510-511 (Two letters received direct from heaven in the short space of six months).
(2) T’ai-shan, literally the “Great Mountain”. A sacred mountain in Shantung, anciently regarded as a divinity, and raised by a Sung emperor to the rank of “Equal of Heaven”. Chavannes. Le Tai-chan. — Encyclopaedia Sinica. p. 540 (T’ai-shan).
(3) Kwan-tze. Died B.C. 645. A native of the State of Ts’i, and one of the most renowned statesmen of antiquity. He wrote a philosophical work on government and legislation (Giles holds it is a forgery of later times), and his name is enrolled in the list of Sages. Mayers. Chinese Reader’s Manual, p. 91. — Giles. Chinese Biographical Dictionary, p. 382.

It wields the power of transformation, and can render itself visible or invisible at pleasure. At the Spring equinox, it ascends to the skies (1); and at the Autumnal equinox, it buries itself in rivers or in the depths of the ocean. It bears on its forehead a peculiar protuberance, called Ch’hi-muh. Only the dragons, which bear this distinctive mark, can ascend to the skies (2).

The authentic species of dragon has, according to Chinese belief, the following nine characteristics:

1°. The horns of a deer.
2°.The head of a camel.
3°. A demon’s eyes (3).
4°. The neck of a snake.
5°. A tortoise’s viscera.
6°. A hawks claws.
7°. The palms of a tiger.
8°. A cow’s ears.
9°. And it hears through its horns, its ears being deprived of all power of hearing.

The dragon is the active principle of the Yin, or in other words, he is the Yang of the Yin, and produces clouds at pleasure. The clouds, which rise in the air and flit across the heavens, are produced by the breath of his mouth, states the scholar Han-yü (4).

(1) The dragon is the emblem of Spring and the East. In ancient descriptions of the heavens, the Eastern quadrant is called the “Azure Dragon”, Ts’ing-lung. De Groot. The Religious System of China. Vol. I. p. 317.
(2) Shwoh-wen (the first dictionary published in China, A.D. 100. It contains 540 radicals). – San-ts’ai t’u-hwui (Cyclopaedia of Arts and Sciences in 106 books. Numerous pictorial embellishments).
(3) Others state it has a rabbit’s eyes, a frog’s belly, a carp’s scales. Dennys. The Folk-lore of China, p. 108 (Description of the Dragon).
(4) Han-yü. A.D. 768-824. Statesman, philosopher and poet of the T’ang dynasty. He detested Buddhism, because it was a foreign religion. Banished at the close of his life to Kwang-tung. He devoted himself to civilising its rude inhabitants, who symbolized his efforts in a legend that he expelled from their rivers a huge crocodile, Ngoh-yü. After his death, he was canonised as Wen, or Han Wen-kung. Mayers. Chinese Reader’s Manual, p. 50.

He soars on the clouds, and thus speeds through the air (1). Beneath his chin is found a special kind of pearl, possessing magic powers, and used for bewitching his pursuers.

The classification of dragons is due to the emperor Hwei-tsung (A.D. 1101-1126), one of the last rulers of the Northern Sung dynasty, Peh-Sung.

This superstitious prince divided all dragons into five kinds, which he canonised under the title of “dragon-spirits”, and raised to the dignity of kings.

1°. The blue-dragon spirits, most compassionate kings.
2°. The red-dragon spirits, kings that bestow blessings on lakes.
3°. The yellow-dragon spirits, kings that favourably hear all petitions.
4°. The white-dragon spirits, virtuous and pure kings.
5°. The black-dragon spirits, kings dwelling in the depths of the mystic waters.

To the above kinds may be added the hornless dragon, K’iu-lung, placed on the tombs of high officials, and deemed to shower down blessings on the deceased and his descendants (2).

The Cyclopedia of Arts and Sciences, entitled Koh-chi king-yuen (3) states that a dragon-lake is found in the vicinity of the Mao hills, Mao-shan. This lake is comparatively small, but in its waters live some ten small black dragons, about three inches in length. They are all four-footed creatures, and hold their heads erect. Their eyes shine with a greenish lustre, and red streaks run across the abdomen. They are sexless, and resemble lizards. In times of drought, they grant rain when offerings are made to them, and hence they are honoured in the same manner as mountain demons.

(1) The dragon is a deity, symbolic of fertile rain, rain-sending clouds, thunder and lightning. As a water-god, he soars in the clouds, and pours out his blessings on the parched earth. De Groot. The Religious System of China, Vol. III. p. 1194.
(3) Koh-chi king-yuen. A Cyclopedia in 100 books, compiled by Ch’en Yuen-lung, and published in 1735. It contains the origin and history of various subjects, with quotations (frequently incorrect) from ancient and modern literature. Wylie. Notes on Chinese Literature, p. 188.

The Classic of Hills and Rivers (Lands and Waters), Shan-hai-king (1), also relates that a winged dragon dwells at the South Pole. After having slain the rebel Ch’i-yin (2), it could not ascend in the air, and was thus compelled to hide beneath the earth, causing drought. By making a picture of this dragon, an abundant rainfall may be secured.

It is probably this passage of the Classic of Hills and Rivers, Shan-hai-king, that has given rise to the ridiculous ceremony in which pictures of dragons are borne in procession to ensure rain, Kiu-yü, and which will be described further on.

Other fanciful writers divide dragons into four classes, of which various accounts are given.

1°. The celestial dragon, that ascends to the skies, Sheng-t’ien-chi-lung (3).
2°. The spiritual dragon, that causes the wind to blow, and produces rain for the benefit of mankind, Shen-lung.

(1) The Classic of Hills and Rivers, Shan-hai-king. A geographical compilation dating back to the times of the Chow dynasty (12th century B.C.). It contains many statements about strange and singular beings, zoological and botanical wonders said to exist in ancient China. Modern scholars distrust much of its contents. Wylie. Notes on Chinese Literature, p. 43. — De Groot. The Religious System of China. Vol. IV. p. 215.
(2) Ch’i-yiu. A legendary being said to have rebelled against Fuhsi, B.C. 2637. Williams. Dictionary of the Chinese Language.
(3) Mayers states that this class of dragon guards the mansions of the gods, and prevents them from falling to earth. Mayors. Chinese Reader’s Manual, p. 142.

3°. The earthly dragon, that works out the course of rivers and streams, and cannot ascend to the skies, T’u-lung (1).
4°. The dragon of hidden treasures, that watches over wealth concealed in the bosom of the earth, and protects it from the rapacity of mortals, Ts’ang-lung.

In several pictures of the Taoist God of Wealth, Ts’ai-shen, he is represented riding on a dragon, or accompanied by two dragons, which stand on each side of him, and are deemed to watch over his boundless treasures (2).

It would seem that these representations owe their origin to Hindu Yakshas or Yakshinis, genii ruled over by Kuvera, the Brahmanic god of wealth. Yakshas are commonly represented in sculptures in semi-human form, and are described by some as cruel. Chinese painters may have copied the Hindu picture, and gradually transformed the Yakshas into dragons.

In China, the dragon symbolises the emperor, and the blessings of his beneficent government. The picture of a dragon is embroidered on the Imperial robes (3). Gods and goddesses are also frequently represented riding on a dragon.

At the present day, officials and wealthy Chinese, when borne to the grave, have dragons and a tiger embroidered on the drapery of their catafalques, on the top and the two opposite sides. These represent the Eastern and Western quadrants, and the beneficent influences of the Universe, which are deemed thereby to descend on the bearers, and the grave of the deceased (4).

(1) The four quadrants of the heavens influence corresponding parts of the earth, and their spiritual energies settle in mountains and hills, and control the streams that issue from them. These spiritual influences are called the dragon. De Groot. The Religious System of China. Vol. III. p. 1009.
(2) See above. Chinese Superstitions. Vol. V. p. 637. Illustration 201 (The Taoist God of Wealth).
(3) The five-clawed dragon is appropriated solely to pictures, embroideries or figures, used by the Imperial Court. A dress with a five-clawed dragon worked on it can be used by one of Royal blood only. Nicholas Belfield Dennys. The Folk-lore of China, p. 107.
(4) De Groot. The Religious System of China. Vol. I. p. 317.

III. Worship of the Dragon. — Ceremony of praying for rain.

At the present day in China, it is customary in times of drought to organise a dragon procession, and pray for rain (1). The following method is generally followed. A paper dragon is made and painted so as to represent a scaly monster. A few hairs are stuck on the snout, and a pair of horns adapted to the head. This image is then placed on a platform, and eight stalwart men bear it on their shoulders. The procession is headed by two men carrying banners, upon each of which is inscribed the following sentence : “all good folks (on one side of the banner) pray for rain” (on the other side). The men or boys who carry the banners wave them from side to side as they walk along, crying out: “the rain is coming, let it rain”. They are followed by the crowd, each person bearing in the hand a green branch of the willow-tree (2), while others burn incense-sticks, and display their joy at the coming of the rain. The ceremony is practised in the above manner throughout all North Kiangsu.

The prayer formulary for begging Shen-nung to grant rain (3), Shen-nung kiu-yü-shu, states that in order to obtain a copious downpour, blue dragons are to be invoked on a Kiah-yih day, and youths aged from 12 to 16 must dance turning to the East.

(1) The dragon is the symbol of fertilising rain, the god of waters, especially supplicated in times of drought or flood. Its importance is, therefore, very great among such an agricultural people as the Chinese Encyclopcedia Sinica. p. 147.
(2) See on the efficacy of the willow-tree. Chinese Superstitions. Vol. V. p. 503. n° 8.
(3) Shen-nung. The divine husbandman. A legendary emperor, said to have lived B.C. 2737-2697, and who taught the people the art of husbandry’ and the medical use of plants. He is honoured at the present day as the God of Agriculture and Medicine. Giles. Chinese Biographical Dictionary, p. 646. In early times, prayers for rain were addressed to him. Laufer. Jade. p. 186. Shen-nung is also known as the legendary ancient emperor Shennong or Yan Emperor who is regarded as a cultural hero in Chinese mythology. Shennong is believed to have taught the ancient Chinese not only their agricultural practices, but also the use of herbal medicines. Shennong is also credited with other inventions: These include the hoe, the plough, the axe, the digging of wells, agricultural irrigation, the preservation of stored seeds through the use of boiled horse urine, the weekly farmers’ market, the Chinese calendar, as well as the refinement of the therapeutic understanding of pulse taking, acupuncture and moxibustion, and the introduction of the Thanksgiving ceremony.

Red dragons must be supplicated on a Pingting day, and dancing must be performed by grown-up persons, their faces turned towards the South. Yellow dragons are to be invoked on a Wu-ki day, and grown-up persons must dance in the central point of the compass (1). White dragons are invoked on a Keng-sin day, and dancing is performed by old men facing the West, Black dragons are supplicated on a Jen-kwei day, and old men must dance in a Northerly’ direction. Should rain fail to come despite these peculiar ceremonies, the South gate of the city is closed, and water sprinkled outside it. At the same time a curious ceremony takes place at the North gate. This is opened, and a piece of human bone buried beside it.

When the drought is prolonged and threatens the crops, it is customary for the local official to order general abstinence; proclamations are also occasionally issued forbidding the killing of swine for three days. Should the rain-god lend a deaf car to these supplications, money is collected for the purpose of performing theatricals in his honour (2). Should he neither be moved by prayers, theatricals or processions, recourse is had to threats, and the infuriated people even trample under foot a picture representing him in effigy.

Formerly, under the reign of Kia-h’ing (A.D. 1796-1821), China suffered from a prolonged drought. Prayers, sacrifices and processions proving of no avail, the Emperor issued an Imperial edict, banishing the obdurate dragon to the remote regions of the I-li river, I-li-ho (Today: Ili River, Uygur Autonomous Region of Xinjiang. Chinese Pinyin). These orders were being carried out, and the unfortunate dragon had already reached the plains of Mongolia, when some Court officials, touched with compassion at the sufferings of the victim, supplicated the Emperor in his behalf and obtained pardon.

(1) The Chinese admit five points of the compass: North, South, East, West, and the Centre. Mayers. Chinese Reader’s Manual, p. 312.
(2) Theatricals in China are often an act of worship, and are generally employed in important festive celebrations. All large temples have theatres, and the reputed birthdays of gods are almost invariably celebrated by the performance of play’s before their images. Doolittle. Social Life of the Chinese. Vol. II. p. 298.

An Imperial messenger was forthwith despatched, and the happy news communicated to the guardians of the dragon, who returned with him in all haste and restored him to the watery element. Beneath all this comedy, there is much superstition and silly credulity, and rare are those folks who distrust the power of the dragon for granting rain. Should a sudden gust of wind sweep across the higher regions of the heavens, and cause a break in the clouds, immediately all cry out: “behold the dragon soaring on high and flitting through the clouds” (1)

The Author witnessed one day a waterspout on the Ch’ao lake, Ch’ao-hu (2), to the South of Lüchow-fu, in Nganhwei province (Anhui Province). On this occurrence, the numerous boatmen, who then travelled on the lake, seemed terrified and cried out with all their might: “the dragon, behold the dragon”.

The time of the year when excessive drought prevails, is in the sixth or seventh month, nearly corresponding to our July or August. In such occasions, both the people and the officials pray for rain, each in a manner peculiar to themselves. We shall here set forth the methods generally followed in the provinces of Kiangsu (Jiangsu) and Nganhwei (Anhui).

(1) In Southern China, especially in Canton, typhoons are believed to be caused by the passage of a “bob-tail dragon”, Twan-wei-lung, and it is sometimes averred that this animal is actually seen on such occasions passing through the air. Dennys. The Folk-lore of China, p. 100.
(2) Ch’ao-hu or Chao Hu in the centre of the Chinese province of Anhui. It is the largest lake in Anhui and one of the five largest freshwater lakes in China. This lake lies at the bottom of a basin formed by the surrounding region. Its circumference is about 125 miles. Rivers flow into it from every side, except on the East, where it empties itself into the Yang-tze, through a large canal.

1°. Praying for rain by the people.

a). An image, called the dragon-king, Lung-wang, is made of bamboo splints. This is covered over with yellow paper or cloth, and carried by some youths. Preceding or following are several men bearing flags, yellow, green, black and white. The yellow and the white flags symbolise respectively wind and water, while the green and black ones represent clouds. On each is an inscription signifying that prayer is offered for rain, and that the procession is for the benefit of the people. At the head of the procession march musicians playing on native instruments, while others beat boister-ously their gongs and drums.

Besides, a man carries suspended at the extremities of a pole two buckets of water. With a green branch, he sprinkles it on the ground, crying out: “the rain comes, the rain comes”. The people in the procession wear white conical caps without tassels, and several bear in their hands lighted sticks of incense. Shopkeepers along the way also erect a tablet to the dragon-king, and burn incense and white candles before it (1).

b). Should the drought, persist, instead of the dragon-king, the statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Kwan-yin (2), or some other local deity is fetched from a neighbouring temple, and borne in procession.

c). In places where a mountain stream or a grotto is found, as at Shang-men-tung, in Ningkwoh-fu, the procession proceeds to the spot. The village worthy then fills a bottle with water, and returns carefully with it, in the hopes that the country will be soon blessed with an abundant rainfall.

(1) Red is an emblem of joy, and therefore red candles would not be tolerated in praying for rain. Doolittle. Social Life of the Chinese. Vol. II. p. 119.
(2) In Southern China, this goddess is also invoked for rain. Sometimes, says Doolittle, in place of the dragon-king, an image of the Goddess of Mercy, or of a Goddess of Children, taken from some celebrated or popular temple, is carried in the procession. Occasionally also, while praying for rain, the image of a deified monkey is used by some classes of the people. Doolittle. Social Life of the Chinese. Vol. II. p. 118.

2°. Praying for rain by the officials.

In times of drought, the officials also pray for rain; to act otherwise would irritate popular feeling, and run counter to hoary traditions and the general custom of the country.

a). In ordinary cases, they go once or twice a day, usually on foot, carrying a stick of lighted incense, to some famous shrine in the neighbourhood (1). There they offer incense before the idol, accompanied with three bowings and nine knockings of the head on the ground.

b). When the drought is excessive, they occasionally issue proclamations prescribing general abstinence, and forbidding the slaughtering of swine for three days (2). Should the drought persist, these orders may be extended to a week or more. During this time, no meat may be exposed for sale publicly. In the general opinion of the people, it is always unlawful to kill cattle for food.

c). Sometimes, though rarely the officials close during the daytime one or more of the city gates. When done, this is a mark of great distress, and indicates the earnest desire of all for rain.

d). Should the deity invoked lend a deaf ear to their supplications, the idol is sometimes degraded, or exposed to the sun’s rays outside the gate of the temple. It is imagined that the god thus exposed, and becoming dry and parched by this process, will feel the more the need of rain, and hence be moved to grant relief without delay.

The pernicious superstition known as geomancy, Fung-shui or Feng shui (3), and which causes much disorder among the people, is founded on the belief in the power of the dragon. Whenever the mineral resources of the country are to be exploited, whenever a quarry is to be opened in a mountain, or a brick-kiln erected on a hill-side, immediately it is said the dragon will be troubled in his den, and will inflict misfortune on the country (4). Hence the work undertaken has to be abandoned in deference to popular feeling, and through fear of exciting the anger of the masses.

(1) In Southern China, they generally go to the temple of the Pearly Emperor, Yuh-hwang the supreme divinity of the Taoists. While they burn incense, a company of Taoist priests recite prayers according to their custom, and beg their god to procure rain. Doolittle. Social Life of the Chinese. Vol. II. p. 120.
(2) During these days, pork may be had privately, but at a price somewhat dearer than usual. Doolittle. Social Life of the Chinese. Vol. 11. p. 121. (3) See on geomancy and the disorders it causes in China. Chinese Superstitions. Vol. IV. p. 414. note 1.
(4) It is this superstition which has so strenuously opposed the introduction of railways, telegraph lines and other Western appliances into China in the latter part of the 19th century. It has not, however, proved an insuperable obstruction, for whenever the Government made up its mind to introduce a necessary invention, the silly people were made to feel that the will of the rulers had to be obeyed. Ball. Things Chinese, p. 314.

Worship of snake-gods.

From the worship of the dragon, the transition to that of snake-gods is easy (1). These snakes are found in various places throughout the country. Shrines, called “temples of the dragon- king”, Lung-wang-miao, are erected in their honour, and they are worshipped as a deity.

When the Author was at Wu-ho, in Nganhwei, he witnessed the following incident. One day, it was reported all over the city that a snake had been discovered. The animal was taken with the greatest care to a local shrine, and there worshipped by the whole population. The official Salt Commissioner, Yen-tao, accompanied by the people, went processionally to the shrine, and offered incense to the animal, bowing three times with nine knockings of the head in honour of the new deity. Finally a large temple was erected, and the animal maintained at the expense of the public. Similar temples are found in other places, and official honours offered to these deified snakes (2).

(1) The religious mind of China has never made a scientific distinction between snake and dragon. Dennys. The Folk-lore of China, p. 107.
(2) In South China, and especially in Canton, many temples are the residence of a sacred serpent, which, when sacrifice is offered, crawls out of its hole, drinks the wine and devours the eggs placed on the altar without being deterred at the sight of the persons standing by. After finishing its meal, the creature quietly glides away. Dennys. The Folk-lore of China. p. 105.

IV. Refutation by Chinese authors of dragon and snake worship.

The scholar Wu Yuen-i, Prefect of Ting Chow, in Chihli, in the time of Chen-tsung (A.D. 998-1023), of the Northern Sung dynasty, Peh-Sung, refused energetically to comply with the desires of soothsayers, who begged him pray to the dragon for the purpose of obtaining rain. He answered them, saying: “soothsayers deceive the people; dragons are mere animals, how can they in anywise influence the clouds? Only sincerity of heart can move heaven” (1).

In A.D. 757, the emperor Suh-tsung, of the T’ang dynasty, ordered to erect altars, and offer sacrifice to the dragons that lived in certain ponds. The district magistrate of Chao-ying, Chao-ying-hsien, to-day Lin-t’ung-hsien, in Shensi presented a memorandum to the throne, couched in the following terms: “ponds are the abodes of dragons; when water is found in them, the dragons are gods; when they dry up, the dragons are no better than crickets. Hence, so long as water remains, they disport in it; and when there is none, they expire. At present, all ponds are long dried up, and there are no dragons found in them why then honour them, and repair the temples in which they are worshipped?” (2).

Let us also quote for curiosity sake some of the quaint and primitive arguments set forth in a chapter of Wang-ch’ung’s “Critical Disquisition” on the fictive dragon, Wang-ch’ung lun-heng-lung-hsü-p’ien.

(1) Annals of the Sung dynasty, notice on Wu Yuen-i, Sung-shi Wu Yuen-i chwan.
(2) Encyclopaedia of general information, Wen-hsien t’ung-k’ao. Compiled by Ma Twan-lin at the close of the 13th century. It contains 348 books. Supplements have been added in 1586, and 1772. Wylie. Notes on Chinese Literature, p. G9.

“Either it is characteristic of the dragon to dwell in the clouds, and there he brings forth his young, and does not descend to earth or he may descend and ascend, and then his young’ are brought forth here below, and when they grow up, they ascend into the clouds. When it is said that the dragon ascends into the air, it is meant that he is a spirit; if he were not a spirit, he could not ascend into the clouds, for it is characteristic of spirits to be able to ascend on high. Man, however, is nobler than the dragon; how is it then that the nobler creature cannot ascend on high, and the lower and inferior one can do so?… —Besides, the dragon has an outward appearance, and therefore moves visibly about; if he moves about, he can also eat; now a being that has an outward appearance, moves visibly about and eats, cannot be called a spirit.

Moreover, is it not generally said, that the dragon is the king of the three hundred kinds of animals? As he is the king of the animal creation, he must have a body, for what is a king that has no body?” (1).

Finally, we may quote the words and deeds of another high official opposed to the worship of dragons. This praiseworthy official was called Hu-ying. He was a native of Hunan, and held office in the reign of Tu-tsung (A.D. 1265-1275), of the Southern Sung dynasty, Nan-Sung. Upright, energetic, sincere and learned, he disbelieved the wonders attributed to so-called spiritual beings; wherever he passed, he demolished superstitious shrines, and laboured for the reform of the manners and customs of the people.

In the city of Hengchow-fu, in Hunan, there was a celebrated shrine, in which through some contrivance, the pious pilgrims were impressed with fear; Hu-ying had it levelled to the ground.

(1) Wang-ch’ung A.D. 19-90. A philosopher, perhaps the most original and judicious among all the metaphysicians China has produced. In his “Critical Disquisitions’, Lun-heng, in 30 books, he exposes the exaggerations and inventions, Hsü, of Confucianists and Taoists with equal freedom, and evinces a strange superiority to the fantastic beliefs of his countrymen. The Emperor K’ien-lung admits the truth of his attacks upon superstitious notions. Mayers. Chinese Reader’s Manual, p. 239.

At Ch’aochow-fu in Kwangtung, Buddhist monks kept in one of their temples a huge serpent (1), for the purpose of exciting and instilling fear into the people. All officials, who passed through the place, worshipped it as a god. At last, a Prefect failed to perform this duty, and as a prolonged drought afflicted the country, the calamity was attributed to the official’s neglect. He was compelled to make offerings to the monster. While performing the ceremony, the serpent crawled out of its hole, and the official was so scared that he died of fright.

When Hu-ying came to Canton, he heard about this sad occurrence. He, therefore, ordered the monks to bring the serpent into his presence. Exhibited shut up in a cage, the animal was of a black colour, and had attained considerable size.

Hu-ying addressed the monster, and said: “if you area spirit, you may transform yourself in three days (2). If this is not done, all shall see that you are not a spirit”. After the three days had elapsed, the serpent still retained its natural form, whereupon Hu-ying had it killed, and destroying the temple, punished also the mischievous monks (3).

(1) Dennys states that such serpents were also kept at Wuchow-fu in Kwangsi. — See above. Sacred serpents kept in temples in Canton. p. 690. note 3.
(2) The dragon wields the power of transformation, and the gift of rendering itself visible or invisible at pleasure. Williams. Dictionary of the Chinese Language. — Mayers. Chinese Reader’s Manual, p. 142. — Chinese Superstitions. Vol. V. p. 677. note 1.
(3) Annals of the Sung dynasty, Sung-shi.


The Carp, Li-yü (1).

The dragon roams about in its watery element under the shape of a carp. Countless are the legends that relate how such and such a person was rewarded for setting free a carp (2). The finny creature was in reality a dragon-king, Lung-wang or a member of that fabulous race.

Thus we find it related in the “Records of Western Travels”, Si-yiu-ki (3), that the father of T’ang-seng, was resuscitated by a dragon-king, Lung-wang, whom he formerly set free in the waters under the form of a carp. A considerable number of folks consider it a good and meritorious work to set free a carp, which they have caught in a net, or fished up from the river.

See annexed illustration, where the carp is exhibited “leaping the dragon’s gate”, Li-yü t’iao-lung-men, a recondite allusion, meaning rapid promotion in getting degrees.

Chinese, Dragon, Carp, Henri Doré, superstitions,
The Dragon Carp. Carp fabled to turn into a dragon.

(1) Li the carp. It is regarded as the king offish, and is fabled tu turn into a dragon. Williams. Dictionary of the Chinese Language.
(2) See on this Buddhist doctrine of giving freedom to living animals. Chinese Superstitions. Vol. IV. p. 445.
(3) Si-yiu-ki. A fanciful account of the adventures of a Buddhist monk, named Yuen-chwang, who went to India in the 7th century, and after sojourning 17 years in the country, returned with 657 volumes, images and pictures, all relating to Buddhism. Wylie. Notes on Chinese Literature, p. 202. — Giles. Chinese Biographical Dictionary, p. 313.

Source: Researches into Chinese superstitions by Henri Doré. Translated from the French with Notes, Historical and Explanatory by M. Kennelly. Shanghai: T’Usewei Printing Press, 1914 – 1926.

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