Myths / Mythologies / Legends
Legends of the Dragon
The ancient Chinese held the snake in great awe. This was shown
by the fact that the ideogram for "it" is a striking cobra - "snake"
itself is "worm" on the left and "it" on the right. Even in Tang
times, "no it" was used to mean "safe". Reptiles were assumed to
know the seasons, since they hibernate during winter and emerge in
spring when humans need to plant crops, and the lines on the turtle's
back were thought to be some divine diagram related to bagua, eight
symbols corresponding to 1-8 (not 0-7) coded in binary, each
placed as a side/corner of the compass diagram. (This is used on
the national flag of South Korea, with yin-yang symbol.)
also thought to represent fertility - and turtles longevity -
as well as to be related to lightening and tornados - which are
even today called dragon rolling winds, a dragon with its tail
touching ground and head in the sky, demonstrating its supernatural
power. The tribes even scientifically concluded that dragons hibernate
on earth during winter and rise into heaven in spring to throw lightening
and thunder in summer. Further adding to the awe, snakes often live
in graves, where they drive away rats that might otherwise damage coffins
and corpses, thus hinting they were guardian spirits for people's
In particular, there are a number of things directly connecting snakes
to the Xias: the name Yu meant "reptile"; his father is said to have
turned into a bear/dragon/turtle after being banished by King Yao
(but the father's name Kun is related to fish, indicating an earlier
alliance of the fish and snake tribes arising from tribal migration;
the bear/dragon/turtle is said to be three-legged, which has something
to do with the sun golden bird being three legged but obscurely;
the ancient ideogram for Yu is basically "it" with legs, perhaps a
monitor lizard or, widening a bit, crocodile (another school of thought
says it is actually two hands holding a snake;) one story says he
emerged from his father's dead body - possibly due to some reptiles
giving birth to live young rather than laying eggs.
theory was a succession ritual in which the new chief kills the previous
chief as a sacrificial offering to the gods - the "killing" or "live birth"
might both be symbolic rather than physical, but there was a Tibetan
ancient custom to kill the reigning king when his son reaches 13, probably
a way for the tribal shamans, who proclaimed each chief and ruled with
him, to maintain power through a juvenile puppet, pretending that
the previous king, a god, had returned to heaven. Since one school
believes that Kun/Yu were descended from the western White Horse
Qiang tribe that originated near Tibet and moved east, the practice
of regicide may have been real, not symbolic.
The legend of Yellow Emperor
riding a dragon to heaven sounds suspiciously similar, as does the chant
recorded in the Classics of Mountain and Sea - Right after Zhuanxu dies
he revives, hinting at a ritual involving the tribal chief requiring him
to demonstrate superhuman capability, or possibly reincarnation in the
new form of his successor. The story of Yu's son Qi obtaining
nine verses from heaven probably involved a similar "go to heaven and
return" ceremony. Even in the Warring States period, there was a legend
of the ruler of Zhao State waking up after a long sleep claiming to have
been up in heaven during the coma and a suspiciously similar one relating
to the Lord of Qin about seeing the White Emperor (usually identified
with Shao Hao from which Zhao and Qin both claim descent) in his dream
during a long sleep.
Some additional tidbits: There used to be
an ancient ritualistic dance called "Yu steps" involving hopping with
ankles touching, in imitation of the cobra's movements; and a few Xia
legends exist concerning raising/riding/eating dragons, which shows a
continuation of reptile/dragon legends passing down a succession of
ruling chiefs from long time past. The stories often mention the chief
wore "snakes on his ears", which may be related to the jade slit rings
often found in ancient tombs.
The parable of snake swallowing
elephant hints at an expanding reptile tribe group conquering tribes
with other totems. The name Chi Yiu is also related to reptiles:
Chi is worm with a crown, and Yiu is a crawler form, but this time
the reptiles were conquered. It appears that the tribe was mostly
enslaved, but remnants escaped southwards to become the modern
Miao and Li minorities, who even today retain some forms of snake
worship or dragon legend. However, the spread of the reptiles seems
to have started long before.
A study of place names containing the word dragon or some close
variant, or relating to personalities of the dragon worshipping
tribes, and native legends and worship practices, indicates that
the tribes originally arose in eastern china, consisting of a senior
snake branch and a junior bird branch, but parts of the snakes moved
west, south and north. In the west it merged with the farming/
fishing tribes on the Yellow River banks near Hua Hills, probably
explaining the fish-dragon pottery figures and various legends
of the golden carp jumping up the cataracts to turn into the dragon,
as well as the horse/bull headed dragons seen in later graves.
This appears to be the origin of the Divine Cultivator tribe,
(whose name Shen Nong probably was originally Shen Long, Divine Dragon)
part of which settled south of Yellow River later as the Zhuyong tribe,
and part north of the river as the Gonggong tribe. It continued to
spread to Shanxi to form the Xiyue (West Hills, often confusingly
written as Siyue or Four Hills) tribe, which then further divided,
producing among others the Curled Dragon tribe in which the name
Hou Ji, supposedly the founder of the Zhou tribe, in some way figured.
Also, one of the wives of Yellow Emperor was from the Pink
Fish tribe, and another wife was from the tribe Xiling which also
means West Hill, and Emperor Yan was supposedly conceived when
lightening and a dragon's shadow struck his mother near Hua Hills.
The Shen Long tribe had a marriage alliance with Ben Shui or Running Waters
tribe, again showing a link to traditional fishing tribes. This appears
to be the origin of the legend of Fuxi's daughter marrying the river
god and becoming the goddess of the Luo River. (Another story says Emperor
Yan's daughter drowned at sea and turned into the Jinwei bird, which keeps
throwing pebbles into the water hoping to fill it to avenge her death,
which sounds suspiciously related: a girl gets drowned and ends up with
two legends, marrying river god or taking divine revenge. In another version,
she came back to life on the mulberry tree but refused to come down, and
flew away when Emperor Yan ordered the tree to be burnt. There is in
fact a third related legend which will be discussed in Section 7. The
drowning story may also reflect in part a ritual of virgin sacrifice
to pacify the river god.)
The tribe also made some further
movement to the Shaanxi Wei river area and Gansu Long(dragon)
Hills area, from which came the Zhou-Jiang alliance that ruled after
the Shangs, and the nomadic Di-Qiang tribes that invaded northern
China after the Three Kingdoms/Jin Dynasty periods. The name Di means
"bottom" or lowland, hinting that they farmed instead herded; it appears
related to the Zhou family name of Ji, while Jiang and Qiang are just
the same word written and pronounced differently, and were derived from
the ideogram for goat showing their nomadic origin. As mentioned earlier,
some of the Qiang tribes may even have migrated eastward earlier,
giving their chiefs Kun and Yu the opportunity to marry into local
tribes in central/eastern China and even leading them.
In the south the dragon/reptiles merged into various native hill tribes,
though archaelogical discoveried so far do not yet fit a coherent chain of
inheritence. But the shape of the modern dragon appears to have been acquired
starting in southern Manchuria, with the snake merging with mammals
and birds acquiring horns, claws, sometimes wings, and in this
augmented form becoming the ritualist emblem shared by all the
tribes coming under a common alliance.
It is clear that, while ancient China had warmer climate than today,
Manchuria was not a place where turtles and snakes could
prosper. The people must have moved there from somewhere
further south, perhaps before Yellow River started flooding because
of silting (caused, as a matter of fact, by forest loss and soil
erosion due to the farming of the Hua Hills people.) The later
floods then cut their southern route and they began their own path
of development. That they were linked to the eastern China tribes
was shown by important people being buried with jade turtles in
both hands, indicating that they too used turtle shells for divination.
Quite possibly they later moved south again, became more martial, and
conquered or merged with the Hua Hills people to emerge as the bear/chariot
rider/Yellow Emperor tribe.
Back in eastern China, the remaining reptiles and birds both intermixed
and fought. Besides the Chi Yiu battle, in which Yellow Emperor
appeared to have received some help from the birds, legends describe a
series of monsters killed by Hou Yi the archer, probably indicating
the bird tribe, skilled in making bow and arrow, defeating tribes
with various animal totems, including the Ba snake. His tribe probably
absorbed nine other bird/sun worshipping tribes, explaining the legend
of his shooting down nine suns (which are golden birds).
The 10 original
tribes were supposed to have arisen from the organs of Nuwa after her
death, a story which may later have transformed to the cosmic origin
story of Pan-gu creating the world and its various objects. There was
also a struggle for the throne between Gao Yang and Gonggong the water
demon, who avenged his battle loss by smashing a column holding up
the sky with a head butt (the broken sky was supposedly repaired later
by Nu Wa - the story might reflect an earthquake/volcanic explosion
leading to a mud/lava slide that blocked a river causing extensive
flooding), and Yu's father stealing the magic soil from Gao Yang's
store in heaven to build dykes and fight floods, resulting in his
execution by Zhuyong the fire god.
This has been variously interpreted:
he was ordered to solve the flood problem and was blamed for failure,
or he was expanding his territory into land reclaimed from floods
without getting permission to do so (unauthorized use of divine soil -
possibly a migrating tribe encountering opposition from current occupier).
Other stories from minority tribes talk about a chicken taboo violation,
a fearsome, human eating dragon woman killed by her victim tribe, and
in a Manchurian version, a tribe seeking revenge for the death of a
girl married into the neighbouring tribe, in each case resulting in
a war between the neighbours.
Possibly the reptiles, more experienced with water and dykes, had a history
of using flooding to defend themselves like the Dutch, and destroyed some
enemy tribe or even their own relatives, intentionally or accidentally.
In any case there was some sibling conflict that caused great destruction
as well as permanently dividing the reptiles into different camps.
Yu's actual hydraulic works, whether for flood relief, territorial
expansion, or judging from the Ancient Book chapter, for river trans-
portation, present yet another flood story probably occurring later
From the history writers' judgement and the ethnographic spread,
the "good reptiles" intermixed with other animals, producing the
dragon, while the "bad reptiles" stuck to the plain snake, and were
driven south into the swamps and hills. Whereas the "good reptiles"
made sophisticated legends about their originating chiefs Fu Xi and
Nu Wa, crediting them with various inventions, even repairing the
broken sky, the "bad reptiles" merely believe the brother and sister
survived the floods and married to produce descendents. In a very
real sense, the dragon represented the mainstream of Chinese cultural
development, since those believing in it also developed various other
cultural artifices, while those who stuck to the snake remained primitive.
The history of Chu state, which claimed descent from Zhuyong,
says however that he was himself executed by Gao Xin for poor military
performance against Gonggong. There is a further confusion between
Zhuyong and Zhong-Li, the grandson of Gao Yang ordered to carry out
the separation of heaven from earth, as well as separate persons Zhong
the fire chief and Li the farming chief, and an alternative story in
which Zhuyong was on the opposite side, actually a descendent of Emperor
Yan and the father of Gonggong, who helped Emperor Yan to fight
Yellow Emperor and Gao Yang in several wars. Maybe Gao Yang's claim
of exclusive right to worship heaven caused a tribal rebellion among
Zhuyong/reptile tribes, with some joining and others opposing? Despite
his connection with the Gao Xin bird tribe and Emperor Yan bull/dragon,
the name Yong contains the ideogram for "worm" indicating Zhuyong's
descent from the reptiles, and explains why he is Gonggong's enemy in
some stories and family member in others.
The name Li is particularly significant: Chi Yiu's tribe is named Nine Li,
and an expression used even in Zhou times to refer to ordinary citizens
was Li Min. Possibly, Zhong and Li were sent to take charge of various
parts of the bird, reptile and Emperor Yan tribes, resulting in the use of
the name Li to refer to the southern tribes. The eight tribes of Zhuyong
and the eight tribes descending from Gao Yang used the same set of surnames,
indicating probably a migration, due to floods perhaps, from north of the
Yellow River to the Chu territory on the south.
Somewhere along the line
they changed from dragon to phoenix as their totem, leaving trace in the
legend of snake turning into bird. Their former territory was then taken
by the Gonggong-West Hills tribes from the west and by bird tribes from
the east, while they themselves took over the southern land of the Emperor
Yan and Fuxi tribes that had already moved west.
In our attempt to unravel of the confusing stories of the eastern tribes,
it is also possible to pin something on numbers. What is the relation between
the nine Li tribes of Chi You and the eight tribes of Zhuyong who is also
known as Zhongli and his people (probably) the Li Min? If we imagine that
one tribe, directly ruled by Zhuanxu-Gaoyang, was allowed to worship heaven,
while the other eight were only allowed to pray to lesser divinities, we see a
separation between heaven and earth. The eight tribes then rebelled or ran
away southwards, both of which have evidence in the legends. Making something
of names, Zhuyong's brother is called Wu Hui, which may be the same as
Gonggong's alias Yonghui, and Wuhui's son was Luzhong, whereas Huilu
happens to be an alias of Zhuyong. So there is a lot of family relations
all confusingly lumped together. There was even a guardian demon of the Kunlun
hills called Lu Wu, and a the astronomer/divinator of the Zhuanxu was named
Kun Wu. It seems no coincidence that Zhongli and his descendent Xihe were
both the astronomers as well as the fire chiefs; It was simply a job reserved
for their clan whose members pass down these mysterious skills generation by
generation, with different individuals doing the work in different generations,
all confusingly linked together.
Sima Qian's history says the Chu royal family descended from the Jiang
tribe on the maternal side so that the Jiang pedigree from Emperor
Yan got mixed up with the Gao Yang pedigree. But it is also possible
that Zhuyong, meaning "fire priest", was just a generic name, not belonging
to a specific person. It can even be that "Zhuyong killed Yu's father Kun"
and "Zhuyong was Emperor Yan's helper in the war with Yellow Emperor" merely
meant "fire was used to kill", whether in ritual sacrifice or in actual
fighting, with some ceremonial invocation of the powers of the fire god.
Taking all the confusing stories together, there is
a recurring theme of central authority against reptile defiance. Several
southern chinese minority tribes have a somewhat similar disaster legend
in which the thunder god (akin to Gonggong) started a flood to destroy
his brother's tribe, killing everyone except a brother-sister couple
(akin to Fu Xi/Nu Wa) who ensured the continuation of the tribe (repaired
Since the pair already understood that male-female sex was responsible
for fertility, not totem worship, the disaster's occurrence could not have
been very ancient. Whether a flood was the cause of the westward migration
of the snake worshipping tribe (with the brother sister pair somehow getting
left behind) is hard to tell, though the Classic of Mountain and Sea does
have mysterious passages like "heaven turned water fountain, and snake
turned into fish" which hints at this, but the migration must have occurred
at least several hundred years before the war though it is hard to separate the two sets of flood stories and figure out which is which. It is also necessary
to note that the name Xi refers to the sun, and various features of Nuwa
indicates she was the moon/fertility goddess, so that their sibling relation
may be really a cosmic legend, and the flood survival/tribe regeneration story
can be just a mythical invention to explain incestrous human origins.
(A possible connection with the Old Testament is discussed in the following
Two curious stories about Yu's wife hint at Xia's origin: He turned
into a bear to dig canals with paws, and she was embarrassed
enough to run away and then turned into a stone, but opened up to
return his son. An apparent explanation is: he was born in the
Yellow Emperor "have bear" tribe and married into the reptile
tribe, but later was expelled; when he left he took his son, instead
of letting the boy stay with the maternal tribe as was normal in a
matriarchal society. The birth from stone story is also related the
worshipping of stone fertility symbols in some obscure way.
Yu was supposed to have started the practice of
father-son succession, thus completing the transition to a patriarchal
system, but the reptile totem from the mother's side remained with
the descendants, and even got retrospectively attached to ancesters
in later stories.
The legends also say that Yu ignored his son's
birth while rushing about with his work, which would however be
just normal in a matriarchal society where the mother's tribe
brought up the children and the father was just a peripheral figure.
The son cannot inherit from the father in a matriarchal system
because the father has no property in the mother's tribe while
property from his own tribe must pass to its own members. Qu
Yuan's poem asks "why did Qi (Yu's son) kill his mother?"
reflecting a conflict between his and his mother's tribes over
succession - his opponent Yi was the son of Chief Justice Ji Tao and
assistant to Yu, whose descendents later became the Qin and Zhao clans
that formed two of the states of the Warring States period. Since
these two clans' legend of origin was the swallowed egg, Yi was
also associated with some bird tribe, perhaps through marriage.
Yi was credited with teaching tribes to dig wells, which may have
been the real achievement of Yu and company, since tribes could
then live further away from riverbanks in locations less likely
to be flooded, and could build settlements in places where access
to water used to be a problem. Wells have been found in 7-8000 year
old settlements in eastern china so the "invention" might just be
Yi bringing the knowledge westwards.
Yu's father is said to have tried to block floods unsuccessfully by
dyke building, and Qu Yuan's poems mention "As he did flood
work, the owl and the turtle were joined", which appears to mean
that tribes with reptile and bird totems worked together under him.
Yu changed the method to cutting outflow channels which was
more successful. A less well known story mentioned in a few books
about the father was he built city walls and stored treasures/weapons
inside, causing other tribes to be suspicious and rebellious; then Yu
pacified them by razing the walls, burning the weapons and
distributing the treasures. Whether building dykes and walls were
two separate stories, or the same story that somehow developed two
versions, is too obscure to tell. Perhaps flood relief was just a
metaphor describing a philosophy of government, but was somehow taken
for real, though a reverse mix up is equally possible. Again taking
things literally, if the reptiles, seriously threatened by flooding,
obtained help from their traditional bear-bird enemies, one could
understand that the alliance would have been turbulent.
The Machurian goddess temple mentioned earlirer also had fragments of a
bear-dragon statue and a bird of prey statue, confirming that there was
already a mixing of the bear-reptile-bird totems occurring in 3000BC,
with both eastern china tribes (reptiles and birds) and north-western
tribes (bears and other mammals - besides the Divine Cultivator tribe
bull totem, tigers and leopards were said to have fought Chi Yiu under
Yellow Emperor; there was no mention of the goat however, so Jiang-Qiang
was absent) intermingling in Manchuria. Some Hua hills pottery shows
a bird catching fish motif, and southeastern sites yielded numerous jade
carvings with a combination figure that is both a bird-man wearing a
big feather hat perching with open wings covering two round eggs AND
a monster face with hair (feather hat), thick brow (wings), big eyes
(two eggs), goatee (claws), etc, again hinting at a tribal mixing.
The monster face also relates to a legend about Emperor Yan's follower
who continued to fight after his head was chopped off, using his nipples
as eyes and navel as mouth, which was probably a burial ritual for
headless fighter corpses. A similar monster face called the taotie
appears in later Shang bronze vessels, sometimes with a human head
in its jaws, probably a guardian animal eating a demon. Zhou books
mention a greedy monster with the same name, which appears to be
their guess of its meaning.
The two eye-eggs could even represent testicles,
and the whole figure a fertility sign. The feather hat appears to relate
to the "descent of the phoenix" described in the Yao section of Ancient
Book: after nine verses have been played, the tribal chief dressed as the
phoenix appears, to be worshipped by vassals dressed as various totem
animals. The phoenix later lost out to the dragon however, and was reduced
to a symbol representing high class women.
While an important tribal and shaman emblem, the dragon was merely
on par with the tiger and the phoenix at first. A person like Zhuge
Liang could be nicknamed "crouching dragon" without risk of censure
for lese majeste. It was much later that Imperial China elevated
the dragon into a royal monopoly and standardized its appearance,
with five claws. By then its origin had disappeared into historical
mist, and we can only catch glimses of it by streneous efforts delving
into the ancient manuscripts and archaeological evidence.
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