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,
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.