Dragons in Chinese Culture
Dragon - a Symbol of the Striving Ethos of Chinese Culture.
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Many mountains in China contain "dragon" in their names, as in Longgang (dragon hill), or Longling (dragon ridge). The same is true of the names of rivers, such as Longjiang and Longquan (dragon river and Dragon spring). Numerous towns, villages, gardens and temples are also blended with the word "dragon" in their names. Dragon dance are usually performed during the Spring Festival, and the Year of the Dragon is the most important of the 12-year cycle. Images of Dragon often decorate walls, pillars, tables and desks in halls of royal palaces. Mirrors, caskets, hairpins and combs, costumes, tapestries and curtains are also decorated with the images of dragon. Sculpture has created numerous shapes of dragons. The sound of a Dragon can be often heard in poems, music and dramas. Philosophers preach the wisdom of the Dragon while Religion boasts its power of deterrence. In traditional Chinese culture, dragon symbolizes auspiciousness, power and prosperity. Hence Chinese culture is also known as Dragon culture. Dragon has become a symbol of the striving ethos of Chinese culture.
The descendants of Yandi and Huangdi, whatever their ethnic group, beliefs and birthplaces, are all proud successors of the Dragon culture.
The "dragon" came into being along with the birth of the Chinese nation and its culture. Many archeological finds have provided convincing evidence of this. A group of prehistoric excavations and relics, dating back about 4,000-6,000 years, has been found decorated with Dragon images, including jade, pottery and designs and patterns made from clam shells.
A pottery basin with a design of painted coiled dragon, unearthed in Shanxi Province, is 8.8 cm high, with a mouth diameter of 37 cm and a base of 15 cm. On the inside is a coiled Dragon and snake body, painted in red and black. It has a pair of ears, and its mouth is partly open with two rows of small teeth and a forked tongue. This pottery basin was produced about 4,000 years ago.
One large dragon-shaped jade carving, unearthed in Inner Mongolia, is colored dark green. Its body coils like the letter "C' and its height is 26 cm. The work remains intact. Its snout stretches up and forward and its mouth is tightly closed. The tip of its nose is flat, on the upper side of which is a clear-cut horn. The flattened nose tip is an oval, on which there is a pair of round nostrils. Its protruding eyes are shaped like two shuttles, with up turned and tapered ends. Its forehead and jaw are decorated with delicate and thick chequer patterns and the bulged grids are shaped like a small diamond. Over its neck and back grows a long mane, extending 21 cm or about one-third of the total length of its body. The mane is thinly cut into flat sheets with shallow grooves and sharp and curved sides. The cross section of its body is in the shape of an oval with a diameter of 2.8-2.9 cm. Its tail turns in ward. On the back, there is a hole with a diameter of 0.95 cm out side and 0.3 cm inside. When it is hung up by a cord through the hole, the dragon's head and tail balance on exactly the same level. This work was carved in the round from a single piece of jade. Polished all over, it looks rounded and bright and clean. The whole piece is so vividly made that it seems to be able to move flexibly and vigorously with its flaunting mane. It is estimated that the work was produced more than 5,000 years ago.
News of the discovery of this Dragon attracted widespread at tendon, but the real bombshell was the excavation of four sets of clam-shell Dragon patterns in Xishuipo, Henan Province in late 1988. One set had been destroyed, but the patterns of the three others remained clear. In the first, a Dragon and a tiger were laid carefully with clamshells on either side of the remains of an old man. On the east side, the 1.78-meter-long Dragon preparing for flight was laid with its head to the north and its tail to the south. To the west, the 1.39-meter-long tiger opens its mouth to show its teeth, with its legs braced as if it were about to jump down from a mountain. Both animals have their backs turned to their master. To the north of the remains, a scoop design was also laid with a heap of clamshells and two pieces of leg bone.
The second pattern involves a dragon, a tiger and a deer (not vet identified). In the third, the pattern (a running tiger and a man astride a dragon) is arranged from north to south along a meridian line in the shape of the capital letter "I." The four patterns are from Yangshao Culture. Other relics include houses, caves, ash pits, pottery sites, ditches, a great deal of pottery, jade, bone and clamshell articles. According to a survey and analysis of the stratum and the relics, the patterns were doubtlessly produced by fore fathers of Yangshao Culture. The data from a carbon test for these relics show that these patterns have ever been, so far, the earliest, largest and the most vivid images of Dragon discovered in China. It dates back to 6,000 years. Specialists honor it as "China's first dragon."
Despite much study, opinions are still divided on the origin of dragons and archeologists have widely differing views, based on different materials and different viewpoints.
Some believe that the pig is one of the origins of the dragon. Some jade dragons have a long snout, studded nose, and long mane on the neck and back. Others have a forward protruding snout on a wrinkled face, a big head, flap-ears and a big fat body. Some specimens even have ferocious protruding teeth. All these show the features of a pig, demonstrating the close relationship between the original Dragon and primitive agriculture. Pigs were the earliest and most commonly domesticated animals during the prehistoric period. Pig-raising had an important place in socio economic life. The creation of a Dragon image was based on people's own lives and productive activity rather than merely imagination.
The image of a Dragon may vary in shape. But its body is always in the same shape of a snake. During the prehistoric period, the climate was warm and humid, and vegetation flourished. The mysterious and forbidding snake was commonly seen. At first frightened by the animal, people came to make it a part of the Dragon as an object to worship, wishing to escape from harm and to ensure a good harvest.
Some other scholars believe that the clam-shell Dragon patterns discovered in Xishuipo, can be explained from the astronomical viewpoint. Chinese forefathers divided up the skies into the east, south, west and north palaces. In each palace, the major constellations were conjured up in the shape of an animal and named as such. So the East Palace was called a green dragon, the West Pal- ace a white tiger, the South Palace a red bird, and the North Palace a black turtle or a combination of turtle and snake. There was also a Central Palace called Big Dipper. In the Xishuipo tomb, on the east side of the excavation is a Dragon pattern, and on the west side is a tiger design. To the north, beside the man's feet are two pieces of leg-bones together with a design of a scoop-shaped Big Dipper. This design of patterns conforms entirely with the natural astronomical phenomena in the skies. As they knew nothing about astronomical chronicles or clocks, people of this time could not but look up to the sky and watch the movements of the stars. This led them to gradually master aspects of astronomy. When astronomical chronicles and time pieces came into use, astronomy as a science was only studied by a few. Most people, however well educated, were only able to use astronomical chronicles without knowing where they came from.
The clam-sheU patterns are designed in the shape of the green Dragon of the East Palace. This assumption is also evidenced by the style of the tomb itself. In ancient Chinese cosmography, heaven was described as a dome above a square ground (Earth), a pattern which is reflected in the shape of the tomb. Looked at from above, it looks like the head of a man, semi-circular in the south, square in the north and with something like ears on two sides. This agrees with the ancient concept of the heavens being in the south and the earth in the north, the mode of this tomb. It is more evidence of the origin of the Dragon image being closely related to astronomical phenomenon.
It is much harder to trace the Dragon to its origin through literature and records of the past because dates and periods in most literature and records about prehistoric times are frequently confused and contradictory. Complications also arise due to many alterations that have been made in the literature and records as they have been passed down through the generations. Archeological excavation sites and relics can be scientifically tested to deter mine a relatively precise time, but we cannot do the same with ancient writings. However, we should still value historical literature and records and make good use of them.
According to ancient literature, the Dragon might have the head of an ox, a deer or a bear. Its body might originate from a snake or an earthworm. Its variety included dragons with wings, dragon with scales, and those with or without a horn. Different descriptions of dragons may reflect the differences in development as well as geographical differences. Although the original Dragon images may have been produced on the basis of common animals, inhabitants of different areas would know more than one kind of common animal, hence the diversified shapes of dragons. Moreover, different materials used in the creation of dragons must have influenced the style of the products. One cause of the great difference between a jade Dragon and the clam-shell Dragon was the different materials being used. It was almost impossible to carve out such a complicated pattern as the clamshell Dragon design on a piece of jade at that time. We should not forget that archeology in China is as yet too immature to know how many more potential relics remain underground. Some legends have been demonstrated by unearthed materials and relics, but the fact that some legends have not yet been confirmed does not mean that they can be completely denied. As more and more new relics are excavated and studied, we will be able to reach new understandings beyond simple imagination.
Nevertheless, the study of dragons has already provided us with substantial and confirmed knowledge. The literature and archeological materials that we have studied can demonstrate that the birth of Dragon was closely related to the development of primitive farming production. Its grotesque image was derived from more than one animal. It is an artistic product created by the ancients with the mixed-up features of many animals. At the very beginning, as the symbol of tribes in a clan society, the Dragon image reflected the Chinese ancestors' knowledge of biology, as tronomy, meteorology and other natural phenomena and embodied the importance given to nature in Chinese culture. As a prehistoric cult, the Dragon reflected endeavors to achieve ideals and repel suffering. As the various tribes and clans have merged, the Dragon image has developed into a wonderful and more perfect design with a deer's horns, an eagle's head, a tiger's claws, and an ox's ears. It has become an almighty symbol, capable of roaming the four seas, and taking a commanding position everywhere, and capable of "appearing in the light and in the shade, becoming small or large, short or long, ascending to the skies at the vernal equinox and submerging into the deep water at the autumnal equinox." It is one of many reflections of the great aspirations of the ancients to explore the mysteries of the universe.
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