Dragon Asian

SemimytHICAL Beast of East Asia. One of the four sacred animals of Chinese mythology.

Variant names: Chen (Mandarin Chinese/Sino-Tibetan), Chi lung ("wingless dragon"), Chi'ih, Fei-yu, Fu-ts'ang lung ("treasure dragon"), Jiao lung ("scaly dragon"), Kiao lung, Kioh lung, Kura-mitsu-ha (Japanese, "dark water snake"), Kura-okami (Japanese, "dragon god of the valleys"), Kura-yama-sumi (Japanese, "lord of the dark mountains"), Long, Long-ma (Vietnamese), Lung ("five-clawed dragon"), Lung wang ("dragon king"), Mang ("four-clawed dragon"), Naga, Qiu lung ("horned dragon"), Riong (Korean/Altaic), Riu (Japanese), Shen lung ("spiritual dragon"), T'ao t'ieh ("glutton"), Tatsu (Japanese), Ti lung ("river dragon"), T'ien lung ("celestial dragon"), Ying lung ("winged dragon"), Yu lung ("fish dragon").

Physical description: A huge body with both serpentine and crocodilian characteristics. Has 117 fishlike scales. Straight horns like a deer's, through which it can hear. Flat, long head like a camel's. Has a bladderlike swelling on the top of its head. Bearded. Eyes like a rabbit's. Ears like a cow's. Tongue and neck like a snake's. The male has a luminous pearl concealed under its chin by a fold of skin. Long mane. Wings seen only in mature specimens. Belly like a frog's. Four feet, with claws like a hawk's. Footpads like a tiger's. Chinese dragons have four or five toes; Japanese dragons only have three.

Behavior: Can fly without wings. Has the ability to change forms. Sometimes guards treasure. Lays a brightly colored, gemlike egg. Said to have a 3,000-year growth cycle in which it first looks like a water snake, grows a carp's head and scales, develops four limbs and a long tail, sprouts a pair of horns, and finally grows wings. A benevolent creature symbolizing authority, strength, experience, wisdom, and goodness. Originally the Chinese rain god, the Dragon was associated with the Chinese emperor, ancestor worship, fertility, and pools.

Habitat: Wells, rivers, lakes (in China); the ocean (in Japan).

Distribution: China; Japan; Korea; Indonesia.

Significant sightings: The oldest known image of a Chinese dragon is a rock painting dating from 8000 b.c that was found in 1993 on a cliff in southwestern Shanxi Province.

In the fourth millennium b.c, a Dragon delivered the eight mystic triagrams, Hae Pa Kua, to a legendary emperor.

The Northern Song emperor Huizong in a.d. 1110 classified all Dragons into five families— Blue Spirit Dragons, very compassionate kings; Red Spirit Dragons, the kings of lakes; Yellow Spirit Dragons, kings who receive vows favorably; White Spirit Dragons, virtuous and pure

142 dragon (asian)

DRAGON sculpture in the Botanical Gardens, Saigon, Vietnam, 1930s. (From a postcard in the author's collection)

kings; and Black Spirit Dragons, the kings of mysterious lakes.

Another official classification of Dragons divided them into Spirit Dragons that fly into heaven and Earthly Dragons that protect treasure or hide in the earth.

The Russian monk Elder Barsanuphius served with a nursing detachment during the Russo-Japanese War. Some Chinese soldiers told him that in 1902, when they were stationed at a post in the mountains 40 miles from Muling, Hei-longjiang Province, they saw a winged Dragon creep out from a cave on several occasions. Possible explanations:

(1) The Chinese alligator (Alligator sinensis) may have been the prototype for the legendary Dragon, according to Richard Carrington. Now restricted to the lower Yangtze River Valley in Anui Province, China, it may have had a much wider range in eastern China in historical times. It prefers slow-moving, freshwater rivers, streams, and swamps. Reports of individuals 9 feet long exist in Chinese historical records, but today, the animal does not exceed 6 feet. It is the most endangered of all crocodilians, thanks to rampant habitat destruction. Chinese apothecaries have traditionally sold dried alligator parts as remedies derived from Dragons.

(2) Sea Monsters seen sometimes in the Gulf of Tonkin would be regarded as Dragons.

(3) Dinosaur fossils in numerous areas of China and Mongolia have probably contributed to Dragon mythology. Chinese Dragon eggs in apothecary shops often turned out to be dinosaur or fossil ostrich eggs from Mongolia.

(4) Some Dragon legends may have been inspired by fossil elephants or mammoths.

(5) Monitor lizards, especially the Komodo dragon (Varanus komodoensis), found in Indonesia, which grows to 10 feet 6 inches long, may have inspired Dragon mythology. The largest known monitor was Megalania prisca, a 15- to 21-foot lizard that lived in central Australia in the Pliocene and Pleistocene (2 million-20,000 years ago). Other monitor species currently unknown to science may also have contributed to Dragon lore.

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(6) Carl Sagan suggested that Dragon legends may stem from primal memories of dinosaurs passed on to us from our mammalian ancestors who were their contemporaries.

Sources: Nicholas Belfield Dennys, The FolkLore ofChina (London: Trübner, 1876), pp. 102-111; Charles Gould, Mythical Monsters (London: W. H. Allen, 1886), pp. 212-259; M. W. de Visser, The Dragon in China and Japan (Amsterdam: Johannes Müller, 1913); J. O'Matley Irwin, "Is the Chinese Dragon Based on Fact, Not Mythology?" Scientific American 114 (1916): 399, 410; L. Newton Hayes, The Chinese Dragon (Shanghai, China: Commercial Press, 1922); Ernest Ingersoll, Dragons and Dragon Lore (New York: Payson and Clarke, 1928); L. C. Hopkins, "The Dragon Terrestrial and the Dragon Celestial," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, 1931, pp. 791-806, and 1932, pp. 91-97; B. Gokan, "Historical Review of Discussions on the Fossil Elephants Found in Japan in the Late Yedo Period," Chishitsugaku zaasshi 45 (1938): 773-776; Maria Leach, Funk and Wagnalls Standard Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend (New York: Funk and Wagnalls, 1949-1950), vol. 1, p. 323; Martin Birnbaum, "Chinese Dragons and the Bay de Halong," Western Folklore 11 (1952): 32-37; Richard Carrington, Mermaids and Mastodons (London: Chatto and Windus, 1957); Frank James Daniels, "Snake and Dragon Lore of Japan," Folklore 71 (1960): 145-164; Jorge Luis Borges, The Book oflmaginary Beings (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1969), pp. 64-66, 82-84; Carl Sagan, The Dragons ofEden (New York: Random House, 1977); Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths ofChina and Japan (New York: Gramercy, 1994); Karl Shuker, Dragons: A Natural History (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995), pp. 86-93; Victor Afanasiev, Elder Barsanuphius ofOptina (Platina, Calif.: St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 2000).

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