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.)

Snakes were 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 ancesters.

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.

An alternative 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 still.

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 heaven).

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 section.)

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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