Dif­fer­ent from the fear­somely mighty dragon of the West, the dragon of tra­di­tional Chi­nese lore is a myth­i­cal crea­ture em­body­ing aus­pi­cious­ness and di­vin­ity, which even­tu­ally went on to be­come the sym­bol of the in­domitable royal au­thor­ity of a sov­er­eign,

China Scenic - - CHINESE PATTERNS - By Zhou Qinyu

In tra­di­tional Chi­nese cul­ture, the dragon was the king of all crus­taceans. Eastern Han Dy­nasty (25–220 AD) writer and thinker Wang Fu de­scrib­ing the dragon as body con­sist­ing of parts of nine dif­fer­ent an­i­mals: the antlers of a deer, the eyes of a rab­bit, the ears of a cow, the neck of a snake, the belly of a clam, the scales of a carp, the talons of an ea­gle, and the paws of a tiger. On its back were 81 scales. Its call was like the ring­ing of a gong. There were whiskers on its snout, beads on its chin, and an up­ward-fac­ing scale on its throat. Upon the dragon’s head was a crest much like a bull’s horn, with which the dragon had the abil­ity to fly. Even more im­pres­sive was its abil­ity to breathe air in, then spit it out as ei­ther wa­ter or fire.

So the dragon of this era con­sisted of many dif­fer­ent el­e­ments, but ear­lier, be­fore the Spring and Au­tumn Pe­riod (770–476 BC), the dragon was mainly rem­i­nis­cent of a rep­tile. It had a rather crude shape, with a snake’s body and a beast’s head, and gave off a sense of wild­ness, fe­roc­ity, vi­o­lence and ter­ror, for an over­all mys­ti­cally fright­en­ing ap­pear­ance. If that’s the case, then where did the very first Chi­nese dragon come from, and what did it look like? In the dragon pat­terns of early Chi­nese his­tory, re­ferred to by schol­ars as the “first dragon pat­terns”, we can see how peo­ple in pre­his­toric times truly viewed the dragon.

The Puyang Dragon: An Al­li­ga­tor

In China, the dragon’s ear­li­est de­sign most closely re­sem­bled an al­li­ga­tor. In 1987, in the basin of the Zhanghe River, an eastern trib­u­tary of the Weihe River, from within Tomb #45 of the He­nan Puyang Xishuipo Ru­ins, an ar­ti­fact later known as the “mus­sel dragon” was dis­cov­ered, namely a fu­ner­ary ob­ject that looked like a dragon, its body made of mus­sel shells. Within the tomb, the owner was placed in the cen­ter, with his head fac­ing south and feet fac­ing north. On his west side was the im­age of a tiger, and on the east a dragon, im­ages which ex­perts be­lieve to cor­re­spond to two of the “Four Sym­bols” of an­cient Chi­nese as­tron­omy, i.e. the Black Dragon of the Eastern Palace and White Tiger of the West­ern Palace. Sci­en­tific ob­ser­va­tions date the Puyang Xishuipo Ru­ins at about 6,460 years ago, which would make this mus­sel dragon one of the ear­li­est im­ages of a dragon found through­out China to date.

The Puyang Dragon is 1.7 me­ters in length, its head up­raised, its mouth half-open, its eyes wide and tongue pro­truded, with an arch­ing neck and back, short out­stretched legs, five claws grip­ping the earth, and a splayed tail, its body slightly lean­ing for­ward. Pro­fes­sor Liu Hongjie, from the Depart­ment of Geography at South­ern China Nor­mal Univer­sity, points out that the dragon’s eye sock­ets and nose are

quite prom­i­nent, much like those of an al­li­ga­tor, and the pro­por­tions of its en­tire body also closely ad­here to those of an al­li­ga­tor.

Al­li­ga­tors can be found through­out many sub­trop­i­cal riverlands, shal­low beaches and fresh­wa­ter basins, in­clud­ing south­ern China, but have they ever been en­demic to north­ern China? In early Chi­nese his­tory, were there al­li­ga­tors in the Chi­nese Cen­tral Plains re­gion? Based on as­sess­ments of pollen found in soil from 8,000 to 3,000 years ago, per­formed by ar­chae­ol­o­gist Zhou Kun­shu and his team, the spores of sub­trop­i­cal broad-leafed plants such as oak trees, beech trees and wa­ter ferns dat­ing from this era could be found. In ad­di­tion, ele­phant skele­tons have also been un­earthed from the Yinxu Ru­ins, in north­ern China. Ele­phants are al­most in­vari­ably found in the same re­gions where there are al­li­ga­tors.

Al­li­ga­tors are also very re­silient crea­tures, and have a long life­span com­pared with other an­i­mals. They can live both in the wa­ter and on land, and are highly adapt­able to dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ments, thus even though they first ap­peared in the same age as the di­nosaurs, they have man­aged to sur­vive un­til to­day. Early hu­mans had an in­nate and wide­spread fear of crea­tures with such re­mark­able abil­i­ties, and thus they revered the al­li­ga­tor for its mys­ti­cal qual­i­ties, and be­lieved it was able to com­mu­ni­cate with the dead. The ap­pear­ance of the Puyang Dragon within this tomb marks the next level of this mind­set, as the dragon, a pow­er­ful crea­ture based on the al­li­ga­tor, could com­mu­ni­cate with Heaven.

How­ever, ac­cord­ing to ar­chae­ol­o­gists, the Puyang Xishuipo Ru­ins are by no means a royal cat­a­comb, they are in­stead a sac­ri­fi­cial ground, and the old man buried within Tomb #45 may have been the leader or war­lock of the tribe. At the same time, 6,400 years ago cor­re­sponds pre­cisely with the time the leg­end of the Five Em­per­ors (five le­gendary Chi­nese tribal lead­ers who were said to over­see five king­doms from 3076 to 2029 BC) was said to oc­cur. Re­gard­less or not of whether there was any con­nec­tion be­tween the leg­end and the im­ages found in the tomb, th­ese dragon and tiger im­ages serve as proof of many his­tor­i­cal records and leg­ends: the peo­ple of this era had al­ready be­come in­sep­a­ra­bly tied to the dragon.

The Banpo Dragon: A Leap­ing Fish

The rev­er­ence of prim­i­tive peo­ples to­ward the dragon stretched across the en­tire Ne­olithic era and through­out China. Ar­chae­ol­o­gist Xia Nai holds that in the Ne­olithic pe­riod, cul­tural de­vel­op­ment in China was not lim­ited to the Yel­low River Basin as typ­i­cally be­lieved, but that it was in­stead “sown across the land”. As a re­sult, there is no sin­gle ori­gin of the dragon’s ap­pear­ance.

The ear­li­est dragon pat­tern dis­cov­ered to date is the Cha­hai Dragon, found at the Cha­hai Ru­ins of Shala Town, Fuxin Mon­go­lian Au­tonomous County, Liaon­ing Province, which dates back 8,000 years. So it may be con­cluded that the times­pan dur­ing which the Chi­nese dragon was born was about 8,000 to 10,000 years ago, at which time China’s early an­ces­tors were tran­si­tion­ing from the Pa­le­olithic to Ne­olithic era.

There’s a Chi­nese folk story that tells of a carp jump­ing through the Dragon Gate in Heaven, af­ter which it be­comes a dragon it­self. A fish, through its own ef­fort, with a sin­gle leap through a high thresh­old, can be­come a dragon. This story, “The Carp Leaps through the Dragon Gate”, vividly de­picts the folk iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of a fish trans­form­ing into a dragon.

At the Banpo Ru­ins, on the eastern out­skirts of Xi’an, Shaanxi (a Yel­low River basin Ne­olithic ru­ins site, en­com­pass­ing the ru­ins of the Yang­shao Cul­ture

vil­lage, dat­ing back more than 6,000 years), a gar­lic-shaped mouth pot was un­earthed, upon which a carved pat­tern de­pict­ing some­thing that is not quite a fish can be seen. Schol­ars call this the “fish-peck­ing wa­ter fowl” pat­tern. It con­sists of an an­i­mal fus­ing the ap­pear­ances of a bird and a fish, which has also been in­ter­preted as a dragon.

The “dragon” wraps its way around the cir­cum­fer­ence of the pot, and fea­tures a long, slen­der body, squar­ish head, two large eyes gaz­ing for­ward, and pro­trud­ing cheeks; it has a spot­ted pat­tern on its back and a U-shaped arc pat­tern on its belly, it has two fins on its back, and a forked tail with three points. On the tail is a large, plump bird with a short tail and pointed beak, its beak con­nect­ing with the mid­dle of the dragon’s tail. This de­sign is ex­tremely sim­i­lar to the dragon seen to­day, and is known by schol­ars as one of the “first dragon pat­terns”.

This pat­terned gar­lic-shaped mouth pot is very likely re­lated to a re­li­gious ac­tiv­ity. The bird rep­re­sents Heaven, and the fish Earth, so a bird hold­ing a fish in its mouth would likely be a sym­bol of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Heaven and Earth. Pots like this one were also used to hold rice wine or sim­i­lar spir­its, and al­co­hol was preva­lent in witch­craft. This ref­er­ence to the sym­bol­ism of the bird and fish achieved the goal of com­mu­ni­cat­ing with the Heaven, an act which could only be per­formed by the dragon.

This “first dragon pat­tern” is the most an­cient and prim­i­tive dragon-re­lated ref­er­ence that we have to­day. The dragon pat­terns from this area, due to the dif­fer­ences among tribes, var­ied in char­ac­ter­is­tics from place to place and era to era. As­pects of the dragon with which we are fa­mil­iar to­day, in­clud­ing the horns, scales, claws, teeth and whiskers, could not be found. The dragon of this pe­riod of time more closely re­sem­bled the an­i­mal from which it first orig­i­nated, the snake, with a long, coil­ing body, the pat­tern of its scales vaguely re­sem­bling the skin of a snake.

The Taosi Dragon: A Wind­ing Snake

It’s of­ten said that the snake is merely a “dragon of the land”. Em­i­nent mod­ern Chi­nese scholar Wen Yiduo, in his book Re­searchon­fuxi , of­fered his ex­pla­na­tion. He said that most peo­ple see the dragon merely as a sym­bol of rev­er­ence, the bi­o­log­i­cal pro­to­type of which was a large ma­rine python, the totem of the an­cient Dongyi peo­ple (who lived in the lower reach of the Yel­low River), and that the main ori­gin of the dragon was the snake.

In another vast river basin serv­ing as a cra­dle of life, that of the Fenhe River (the sec­ond big­gest trib­u­tary of the Yel­low River, the “mother river” of Shanxi Province), re­searchers have found a sim­i­lar early dragon pat­tern. In 1981, the Chi­nese Academy of So­cial Sciences Ar­chae­ol­ogy Depart­ment re­search team dis­cov­ered a large and very com­plete tomb, in the re­gion sur­round­ing Taosi Vil­lage, Xiangfen County, Shanxi. This site serves as the ru­ins of the Taosi Tem­ple, which stood from about 2500 to 1900 BC, namely through­out the Long­shan Cul­ture pe­riod (a Ne­olithic cul­tural pe­riod in mid­dle and lower reaches of the Yel­low River, span­ning from 2500 to 2000 BC). Among the ar­ti­facts found was a cer­e­mo­nial ves­sel: a clay plate, upon which a coiled dragon was il­lus­trated in red cinnabar. The dragon closely re­sem­bled a snake, with nei­ther the feet nor the fish scales seen so ubiq­ui­tously later, the main dif­fer­ence from a snake be­ing its flared nos­trils. Schol­ars dubbed it the “Taosi Dragon”.

How were they sure the orig­i­nal form of this dragon was a snake? Well, upon closer in­spec­tion of the head, the re­searchers found an ob­ject re­sem­bling a

tree branch. The branch splits into a triple fork at the end, closely re­sem­bling a snake’s tongue. In an­cient cer­e­monies, the pri­mary “au­di­ences” were the gods She, the Land God, and Ji, the Mil­let God. As dif­fer­ent trees grew in dif­fer­ent re­gions, peo­ple would use wood from their own lo­cal va­ri­eties of trees to pay homage to the Land God, and the branch pro­trud­ing from the mouth of the Taosi Dragon found on the plate cor­re­sponds pre­cisely to this, sym­bol­iz­ing the wish for a strong har­vest, a re­flec­tion of agri­cul­tural econ­omy.

Clearly, the an­ces­tors of Taosi had al­ready viewed the dragon—or snake—as an an­i­mal that could speak to Heaven. The snake is also the tribal totem of the an­cient in­hab­i­tants of the Fenhe River Basin. The snake is fierce, and ver­sa­tile, adapt­able to land and wa­ter; its mouth can open pro­por­tion­ately large for its body, it can move with­out feet, and eat with­out chew­ing. Dur­ing win­ter hi­ber­na­tion, it can go for sev­eral months with­out eat­ing, and in the spring it sheds its skin. All of th­ese as­pects con­trib­uted to a strong sense of rev­er­ence among th­ese peo­ple, thus it was nat­u­ral for them to see the snake as a dragon which could com­mu­ni­cate with Heaven.

The Hong­shan Dragon: A Wild Boar

Rather less in­tu­itive is the fact that the pig or wild boar may have served as the orig­i­nal in­spi­ra­tion for the dragon. In west­ern Liaon­ing Province, ar­ti­facts of three types of dragon cul­ture, be­lieved to date back 5,000 years, have been dis­cov­ered. The first of th­ese is a C-shaped jade dragon, the dis­cov­ery of which was widely cov­ered by the me­dia, who re­ferred to it as the “first di­vine Chi­nese dragon”. The more tech­ni­cal name for this dragon is the “beast-faced curved jade or­na­ment”, while col­lo­qui­ally it was called the “jade pig dragon”. It was un­earthed in 1984 from the Ni­uhe­liang Ru­ins in Jian­ping County, Liaon­ing.

This “jade pig dragon”, orig­i­nat­ing from Hong­shan Cul­ture (a Ne­olithic agri­cul­tural cul­ture from the west­ern re­gion of north­east­ern China, which ex­isted from 4000 to 3000 BC), seems to have no di­rect re­la­tion to what we think of as a “dragon”. The nick­name “jade pig dragon” is ac­tu­ally quite ap­par­ent on close in­spec­tion: although it has the body of a snake, it also has large nos­trils like those of a pig, and two large ears which take up most of the area of its head. It also has hair on its body which looks very much like the long coarse hair of a wild boar. There­fore, it is be­lieved that the ori­gin of the Hong­shan dragon was likely a wild boar or pig.

In pre­his­toric times, the pig held a very im­por­tant sta­tus in an­i­mal farm­ing. Aside from be­ing a food source, the peo­ple of an­cient China also held the pig as a “wa­ter beast”, and in cer­e­monies of prayer to the Heaven, in hope of rain, preven­tion of flood, and so on, they would of­ten of­fer a pig as a sac­ri­fice. Even­tu­ally its im­age be­came more ab­stract, as it was grad­u­ally de­i­fied. Af­ter th­ese con­cepts be­came re­flected in jade ar­ti­facts, the ap­pear­ance of a pig-headed dragon was by no means out of the or­di­nary, and the jade pig dragon may be the ori­gin of the pig as an el­e­ment of the later, amal­ga­mated dragon.

But why did the boar-headed dragon have a snake’s body? Some schol­ars be­lieve that this is a ref­er­ence to the peo­ple of Hong­shan’s rev­er­ence to­ward the snake. The snake’s ac­tiv­ity through­out the year cor­re­sponds to the cyclic changes of the sea­sons, thus the peo­ple of an­cient China used the snake to sym­bol­ize the earth and fer­til­ity. The com­bi­na­tion of th­ese two con­cepts led to

the im­age of a dragon with the head of a pig and the body of a snake. The fact that the head of the dragon orig­i­nated from a pig vividly il­lus­trates the fact that the dragon, while ul­ti­mately a mys­ti­cal and unattain­able crea­ture, was not merely the prod­uct of pure imag­i­na­tion.

So if the dragon had so many an­ces­tors, how did it be­come the way we see it now? The “orig­i­nal dragon” of the Ne­olithic era, by about the cusp be­tween the Xia and Shang dy­nas­ties (c. 16 cen­tury BC), along with the de­vel­op­ment of na­tional au­thor­ity to­ward uni­fi­ca­tion, grad­u­ally reached a fi­nal­ized de­sign. The most rep­re­sen­ta­tive of such a dragon is the turquoise dragon un­earthed from the Yan­shi Er­l­i­tou Ru­ins in He­nan, which marks the early fu­sion of the dragon with na­tional au­thor­ity.

This turquoise dragon is an ar­ti­fact of Er­l­i­tou Cul­ture ( which ex­isted 3,800 to 3,500 years ago, dur­ing the late Xia and early Shang dy­nas­ties). It’s 65 cen­time­ters in length, and was made by fus­ing to­gether over 2,000 small and long pieces of turquoise of a va­ri­ety of shapes, the small­est of which is only two mil­lime­ters in di­am­e­ter, and one mil­lime­ters thick. The dragon ar­ti­fact has a flat, round head, upon which are many ten­drils and hairs. The snout pro­trudes, and the nose ridge be­gins from the fore­head and leads down be­tween a pair of sym­met­ri­cal spin­dle-shaped eyes. The dragon’s body is slightly arched, the cen­tral ridge slop­ing down in ei­ther di­rec­tion, its body is cov­ered with rhom­bus-shaped scales, and the tip of its tail is curled in­ward. Not far from the tail there are rows of turquoise, which are more or less ver­ti­cal to the body of the dragon.

Just as all rivers lead to the sea, the ap­pear­ances of Ne­olithic “first dragon pat­terns” were fused into the dragon de­sign of later times, and in time this went on to be­come a sym­bol of the Chi­nese peo­ple.

Un­earthed in Saiqin Tala Vil­lage, Chifeng, In­ner Mon­go­lia Au­tonomous Re­gion, ex­perts think this C-shaped jade dragon is a rit­ual ob­ject of Hong­shan Cul­ture. It was given the name“china’s first jade dragon.”photo/ Su Bing

The mus­sel dragon and tiger were dis­cov­ered in the Xishuipo Site in Puyang, He­nan, a his­tor­i­cal site of Yang­shao Cul­ture. Ac­cord­ing to his­tor­i­cal records, Puyang was ter­ri­tory of Zhuan Xu (one of the five mytho­log­i­cal em­per­ors in an­cient China), thus his­to­ri­ans sur­mise that the tomb owner could be a sorcerer serv­ing Zhuan Xu. Photo/ Su Bing (Top) This is a set of or­a­cle bone scripts with the Chi­nese char­ac­ter“龙”(lit“.dragon”). Il­lus­tra­tion/ Sun Keyi (Bot­tom)

As an an­i­mal that can con­nect Heaven and Earth, the dragon was be­stowed with greater di­vin­ity dur­ing the Shang and Zhou dy­nas­ties. Com­pared with the dragon im­ages of Ne­olithic era, horns and claws were added to dragons of this pe­riod, a dis­tinct in­crease in com­plex­ity.

The ori­gin of the Chi­nese dragon has been a con­tro­ver­sial and in­trigu­ing topic. Now a red-cinnabar-painted pot­tery plate in Taosi Site in Xiangfen County, Shanxi, may pro­vide the key to a solid an­swer. The curled dragon painted on the plate sticks out a forked tongue, re­veal­ing its con­nec­tion with snake. Photo/ Cap­i­tal Mu­seum

Un­earthed in the Er­l­i­tou Site in Yan­shi, He­nan, this dragon-shaped im­ple­ment was glued with more than 2,000 pieces of turquoise, each with a unique shape. This area is known as the cra­dle of the Han Chi­nese, thus this dragon im­ple­ment might pro­vide an or­tho­dox im­age of the dragon in Han Chi­nese cul­ture. Photo/ Mi­cro­fo­tos

A carved curled dragon was dis­cov­ered on a Shang Dy­nasty bronze plate un­earthed in Yinxu Site of An’yang, He­nan, the ru­ins of the Shang cap­i­tal. A dragon of the Shang Dy­nasty usu­ally fea­tures in an ex­ag­ger­at­edly large head and a sim­pli­fied body.

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