AS SOON as men learn to form, by means of a drawing or an image, a representation of what is in their mind's eye, they apply their art to religion. The first attempts are often grotesquely rude and uninspiring, yet embody an idea; and if the people cherish this idea, and themselves grow in art-skill and refinement, a conventionalized figure will in time be evolved that will satisfy tradition, and thereafter no essential change will be made in it.
Fair progress toward this satisfactory representation of the (or a) dragon, now apparently realized, seems to have been reached by the Chinese at a time when the earliest existing, or at any rate oldest known, pictures and carvings of it were made, nor are any written descriptions much older, so that we may assume a long anterior period for the growth of the dragon-notion in public thought. A few years ago many large inscribed slabs of stone were found buried in Shantung, one of the most anciently occupied provinces of China. They bore engravings in an amazing mixture of more or less legendary incidents and worthies, and experts refer this work to the third century B.C. One of these slabs shows a silhouette-like drawing that we are told represents Fu hsi with a woman regarded as his consort. Both are crowned and fully dressed down to the waist, but the lower half of their bodies is serpent-like (in proportionate length for legs) and the 'tails' are inter-twined. Attendant pairs of sprites of anomalous outline, with tail-like lower halves similarly twisted together, are supported by rolled clouds terminating in birds' heads; and the remaining space of the picture is crowded with figures of mythical creatures, some queer beyond description, many recognizable birds, fishes, or other animals, all with reptilian tails. Rubbings of these astonishing lithographs are before me as I write, and small reproductions of some of the figures may be seen in Bushell's Handbook of Chinese Art. They, as well as other relics from Han times (earlier than which no useful representations have been recovered), show clearly the ophidian origin of the dragon idea, and also indicate strongly its derivat from the West.
It is a curious circumstance that among remains of the earlier Gnostics, whose strange doctrines are credited with descent from Aryan (Persian) serpent-worship, are representations of deities, half man, half snake, precisely similar in shape, save that they have two snake-legs instead of a single thickened tail, as was the case with some of the figures on the stone slabs of Shantung. With the overthrow of the Chow (or Chou) dynasty by the widely conquering 'General' Chin (so impressive were the extent and publicity of his enterprises that his domain came to be known to the commercial West as China) the enlightened and progressive Han period began; and in the general stimulus to art that followed, the dragon furnished to artists a motive constantly employed and ingeniously varied. No depiction in painting or on pottery as ancient as that has survived, if any such ever existed. It is surely an interesting fact, however, that the first Chinese painter on record, Ts-ao Fuh-king, who died in 250 A.D., was famous for his Buddhist pictures and sketches of dragons. An oft-told legend recounts that a certain painting by him which had been preserved until the advent of the Sung dynasty, then produced rain in a time of bitter drouth when appealed to by the desperate farmers.
As for Han carvings in this direction, the most striking and exceptional are those strange and beautiful 'girdle-buckles’ which were almost unknown in the United States until Mr. Arthur D. Ficke brought a large collection of them to New York, where they were sold at the Anderson galleries in January, 1925. The work on them, in exquisite modelling, proper anatomy and fine sense of action, and in the glyptic skill involved, indicates a long-antecedent familiarity by artists with both the conception and rendering of the mythical creature portrayed. Most of these articles were carved in jade, a few only in rock-crystal, agate or other hard stone. Mr. Ficke wrote of them in his Catalogue:
It would be impossible, in a brief catalogue such as this, to give any intimation of the wealth of symbolic meanings that have been carven into these buckles. The dragon, the hydra, the bat, the fungus, the horse, the mantis, the cicada, the monkey, and the ram, has each its significance in Chinese mythological legend. Some of these forms go hack at least two thousand years, repeated over and over again in bronzes and jades of century after century. These fantastic shapes are therefore racial rather than personal inventions: they are the creatures of prehistoric ritual--mythology turned to stone.
Few of these are as old as the Han period, but all remind a naturalist of a salamander by their flexible, soft-skinned bodies, limber legs usually with three toes, and their long, cleft tails. In every specimen the tail is branched. I write 'branched,' not 'forked,' because the lobes are unequal, a shorter one curving out of the larger or main stem--as, by the way, sometimes happens in the case of real newts whose tails have been lost or damaged. This style of dragon is named ch'ih-lung, and is said to be pre-Buddhistic (also, according to Bushell, kut'ing-lung, or dragon of old bronzes); and he mentions that it appears on a Kuang Yao vase of the second century B.C., while another pair is to be seen on a more recent incense-burner "disporting in the midst of scrolled clouds and projecting their heads to make two handles." It is very interesting to note that although many of the jade girdles are of comparatively recent manufacture, and vary in ornamental details, the newt-like character of the body and branched tail persists. It seems to me, indeed, that the ch'ih-lung represents, as nearly as we can reach it, the primitive dragon-notion that prevailed (at least in northern China) before the Buddhistic invasion from India became widespread and influential in the country, and that it came overland from the northwest.
Dr. Berthold Laufer describes an antique jade girdle-ornament which had "the figure of a phenix standing on clouds and looking toward the slender-bodied hydra (ch-ih), which has the bearded head of a bird with a pointed beak, very similar to that of the phenix. The left hind foot of the monster terminates in a bird's head, presumably symbolizing a cloud. It is rearing the left fore paw in the direction of the bird, supporting the right on the clouds below." Dr. Laufer supposes that this design (which is very like those of the Shantung slabs mentioned above) signifies that the dragon is assisted by birds in moving clouds and in sending down rain; and he mentions that when rain is to be expected dragons scream. "The dragon," Dr. Laufer continues, "in intimate connection with the growth of vegetation, appears as a deity . . . invoked in times of drouth with prayers for rain." The dictionary Shuo Wen, referring to a certain jade carving named 'lung,' placed on an altar as a prayer for rain, has the form and voice of a dragon. These Han jades were ring-shaped, but were soon superseded by engraved prayer-tablets. The Son of Heaven wore a robe embroidered with royal dragons when he sacrificed in the ancestral temple; his own memorial altar will have the dragon-tablet when he "has ascended upon the dragon to be a guest on high."
The dragon possesses the power of self-transformation, may make itself dark or luminous, or render itself invisible. A Chinese informed Mr. Ball that it becomes at will reduced to the size of a silkworm, or swollen till it fills the space of heaven and earth. When its breath escapes it forms clouds, sometimes changing into rain at other times into fire; and its voice is like the jingling of copper coins. Formerly, glass was thought to be its solidified breath. The creature may descend into the depths of the ocean, and rest in palaces of pearl.
In early days, if ancient books are trustworthy, there were tame dragons--they dragged the chariots of legendary kings; and Visser found a tradition of a family making it their business to breed them for the emperors--hence their family name Hwan-lung, 'dragon-rearer.' Later it became the custom to ornament the prows of pleasure-junks with dragon-heads, and certain kinds of long, slender boats are known as 'dragon-boats' to this day. A popular story relates the adventures of a sort of celestial Robin Hood, Feng Afoo-chow, who stole from the rich and gave to the poor. He rode about the country on a winged, fire-breathing dragon (precurser of the automobile?), righted wrongs and appropriated treasure, until at last he perpetrated a theft of such magnificence that he left it to be the crown of his career, and settled down to remain a law-abiding citizen until his tame dragon bore him to the heaven of the repentant rich.
The popular understanding is that dragons were supernaturally created but are of different sexes, and are able to reproduce their kind; and according to Visser the book Pei Ya supports the general opinion that they are born from eggs. When these are about to hatch the sound made by a male embryo makes the wind rise, whereas the cry of a female 'chick' causes the wind to abate and change its direction. One account of how the sexes differ explains that the male dragon's horn is "undulating, concave and steep"; it is strong on the top but very thin below. The female has a straight snout, a round mane, thin scales and a stout tall.
Dragons' eggs are the beautiful pebbles picked up beside mountain brooks; and they are preserved by nature until they split in a thunderstorm, releasing a young dragon which immediately goes up to the sky. An old woman who found such eggs had various adventures with them that children like to hear about. A dragon's egg much bigger than a hen's egg, light and apparently hollow, was found, history says, in the Great River in the tenth century; and to it, in the opinion of the local people, was due subsequent calamitous floods. Another egg found was very heavy, and when shaken rattled as if it contained water; perhaps it was a geode--at any rate it became an object of worship.
An interesting legend is appropriate here. The uppermost and worst cataract in the Yangtse gorges, known as the New or Glorious Rapid, was formed in 1896 by a landslip that filled three-fourths of the channel. The rivermen account for this mishap thus, as related by Dingle: "The ova of a dragon being deposited in the bowels of the earth at this particular spot in due course of time hatched out. . . . The baby dragon grew and grew, but remained in a dormant state until quite full-grown, when, as the habit of the dragon is, it became active, and at the first awakening shook down the hillside by a mighty effort, freed itself from the bowels of the earth, and made its way down to the sea."
A ford in the upper Hoang Ho is called Dragon-Gate. Fishes that pass above it become 'dragons'; those that fail remain simple fishes. Rapids and waterfalls in various parts of the country, and in Japan, have the same name and frequently a similar story.