(Minghui.org) Dragons are an important part of traditional Chinese culture. Depictions of dragons can be found everywhere, from sculptures to drawings, from utensils to adornments and banners. There is a Dragon Boat Festival and a Dragon Lantern Festival, and dragon dances are popular in Chinatowns outside of China, so dragons continue to show up in our lives today.
Here we would like to explore some of the historical records that mention dragons.
Chen Rong, an artist in the Song Dynasty, drew a Nine-Dragon Scroll. The artwork is 1096.4 cm (about 36 feet) wide by 46.3 cm (about 1.5 feet) high. The nine dragons are each unique, from their expressions to how they are positioned and appear to move. Some are in the mountains, some in the clouds, and some in water. The clouds are especially vivid. There are over 50 seals on the piece, indicating that Emperor Qianlong, Emperor Jiaqing, and others once possessed it. Removed from China in the late Qing Dynasty, the piece is now in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
There were no cameras in the ancient times. But some artists who did spiritual cultivation developed the supernormal ability of a photographic memory, and with their great artistic skills, they could vividly reproduce what they saw, from people and objects to paradise and divine beings. Their powers of observation and mastery of art were both extraordinary.
Descriptions of Dragons in History Books
Beginning with Shi Ji (Records of the Grand Historian) that was written about 2,000 years ago, China has kept systematic historical records of astronomical and geological observations as well as events in the human world.
There are many descriptions of dragons in history books. According to Book of Han, two dragons were seen in a water well in Lanting County on the second year of the reign of Emperor Hui of Han (194 BC). The dragons later left in the night.
Book of Jin described an incident during the reign of Murong Huang, Emperor Wenming of the Former Yan in April 345. When a black dragon and a white dragon appeared on a mountain, the emperor and his officials went to observe them. When they were just over 200 steps away from the dragons, the emperor held a ceremony to worship them. The dragons played in front of the assembled and then flew away. Pleased by this, the emperor pardoned the criminals in his territory and named his palace Helong (Two Dragons). He also built the Longxiang (Flying Dragon) Temple on the mountain.
There are other texts that record the appearances of dragons. Excluding hearsay and astrological references, there are at least 10 mentions of black dragons. For example, The Book of Han documented a black dragon during the reign of Emperor Cheng (33 BC to 7 BC). It says in The History of the Northern Dynasties, “In the sixth year of Jiande (577 AD), two dragons fought with each other in Dazhou Village in Bozhou. The white dragon won and the black one died.” It says in The History of Song, “A black dragon appeared in Zhaozhou [in 1014 AD].”
The appearance of white dragons is recorded at least 17 times. According to The Book of Jin, “two white dragons were seen” at Mianchi of Hongnong County in the spring of 267 AD. In The Book of Chen, it says that in the spring of 559 AD, “Guangzhou governor Ouyang Wei reported that a white dragon appeared on the south bank of Zhu River. It was about 30 meters long.” According to History of the Five Dynasties, when Later Jin Emperor Shi Jingtang and his son Shi Chonggui visited Yedu in 941 AD, there was a drought. “The emperor sent delegates to pray for rain at Bailongtan. A white dragon appeared in the middle of the water. That night, over a foot of rain fell and the people were impressed.” The following year, Shi Chonggui became the new emperor.
Yellow dragons are mentioned about 30 times. According to The Book of Han, a yellow dragon appeared in Xinfeng in 53 AD during Emperor Xuan’s reign and a yellow dragon was seen in Zhending when Emperor Cheng reigned. Jinan County reported that a yellow dragon was seen in Licheng during Emperor An’s era in 124 AD.
Local government chronicles also documented sightings of dragons. According to Chronicles of Yongping, a dragon appeared in Laoting County in the summer of 1839. The residents put up a canopy to shield it from the sunlight and kept pouring water over it. Three days later, the dragon left during a thunderstorm.
A Dragon from Heaven
Liu Zongyuan, a renowned scholar in the Tang Dynasty, recorded the following story titled “A Banished Dragon.”
“A young man surnamed Ma from Fufeng County once told me a story. When Ma was 15 or 16, he was playing with his friends in Zezhou when a strange girl who literally seemed to shine and glitter suddenly appeared. Her clothes were blue leather with white patterns, and she wore a tiara on her head.
“Impressed by her beauty, the wealthy all admired her and some went over to flirt with her. The girl looked serious and said angrily, ‘You cannot do this. I am from the divine palace and have traveled between divine worlds while living with the qi of yin and yang. I had little interest in Penglai and Kunlun [where deities reside], thinking they were too ordinary. The emperor of the heavenly realm considered me too arrogant and sent me down to this human world. In seven days, I will be able to return. Although I am trapped here and have been humiliated, I am not your companion. You risk disaster if you do not desist.’
“Her words frightened the boys, and they backed off. Curious, Ma saw the girl go into a temple and stay there. Seven days later, she picked up a cup of water and blew it into colorful cloud. She put her leather coat on inside out, turned into a dragon, and flew away up into the sky.”
Emperor Kangxi and a Dragon
According to the Book of Rites, when mankind cherishes virtue, the divine will bless people with rain, clear springs, and prosperity. Miracles like the Yellow River Chart might appear, along with phoenixes, qilin (kirin), divine turtles, and dragons.
Emperor Kangxi (kang means peace and xi means prosperity) in the Qing Dynasty recorded one such manifestation. During the 61 years of his reign (1661-1722), although he was a Manchu, he was well respected by Mongolians, Tibetans, Han, and other ethnic groups.
In the 44th year of his reign (1705 AD), Emperor Kangxi went to visit southern China for the fifth time and lived in Jinshan Temple. When he went out to survey the area on April 30, it was drizzling but there was no thunder. Suddenly he saw a gigantic dragon about a dozen yards long. The dragon displayed itself up in the sky and then disappeared into the clouds.
Impressed by this, the Emperor wrote a poem titled “A Trip with a Dragon.”
There is a dragon in the fields and sky,
it is pure energy, coming and going mysteriously;
It is different from a flood dragon that damages houses and farms,
or a mist dragon that our crops it harms.
Flying in the clouds with an auspicious light,
the dragon swirls up and down to get it right;
One can ride six dragons to govern the nation,
fulfilling one’s duty and bringing timely irrigation.
There were times of successes and pitfalls,
and one had to make efforts large and small;
The virtue of a dragon is grand wherever it dwells,
showing detailed work is needed to do it really well.
The Yangtze River is large and magnificent,
with water deep and clear;
Soaring in the sky like thunder with solid vitality,
every day is renewed quietly following the heavenly law.
(To be continued in part 2.)
Chinese version available