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China's Dragon
Carter Sutherland

An effort to recover the Urbild

Dr. Sutherland is a professor of medieval English, Georgia State University (Atlanta).

Velikovsky has called our attention to ancient records of a supposed battle which took place in the heavens during the middle of the second millennium B.C. This combat was widely recorded as may be seen by such items as the Hebrew tradition of God battling Rahab and the Greek story of Zeus fighting Typhon. Velikovsky argues impressively that the basis for such accounts is the close approach of Venus to the earth about 1500 B.C. Venus, he insists, was then a comet; the head and the tail were observed as separate and inimical beings; electrical discharges between them made a battle seem to be in progress. The fight was thought by some people to be between a god of Light (the head of the comet) and an evil dragon (the tail). But in China the dragon is good and is benevolent to man.

The dragon was clearly of importance in old China, the context of its widespread use indicating a significance matching the stature enjoyed by the Cross of the Church or by the Crescent of Islam [1].

The iconographical significance is not so clear: different interpretations are given by the various authorities, so it is possible that by the time the West became acquainted with the Far East the Chinese themselves had lost all or some part of an original meaning or that they had attached other, and later, ideas. The literature on the dragon is extensive, and the only reason for adding to it is that it seems possible to recover the original meaning of the dragon as symbol. Evidence gained from pottery and from other sources indicates that the dragon motif appeared around the middle of the second millennium B.C., and a study of the dragon and closely associated motifs makes it possible to reconstruct, with some reasonable measure of certainty, an Urbild, an original picture or iconographical conception, of which these motifs formed meaningful parts.

The reconstruction of the Urbild which is proposed here has motifs forming the picture of a scene. Waves are shown at the bottom or underneath the motifs. Above the waves is the background; that this background is the heavens is shown by a pattern of cloud symbols. In these heavens are three more motifs. Flame symbols strewn among the cloud symbols show the heavens to be on fire. Fire is further emphasized by a globe with fire symbols--with lightning and thunder symbols as well. The globe is being chased by the dragon, also in flames or giving off lightning, these things being shown by antlerlike tendrils coming from the dragon as they do from the globe.

Evolution of the Urbild

Judging from my own researches, the depiction went through several stages. First came the Urbild, the picture of a scene. Then there began a breaking down of the total conception, and the elements came more and more to be used as decorative motifs, with lessened symbolism. Various factors preserved the dragon-chasing-pearl motif in original association long after the Urbild was broken up, but this association finally broke down; and by the nineteenth century the two are sometimes used as mere patterns, e.g., a dragon drawn on a plate, in a friend's collection, with the "pearl" placed within one of his curves and in the center of the pattern, simply for symmetry and design.

It must be admitted that the main source for this construction of the Urbild is late, being the blue and white porcelain of the YŁan (1280-1368) and Ming (1368-1643) dynasties, especially the early years of the latter. There are some earlier survivals, but the YŁan-Early Ming period offers a large group of examples, well preserved on pottery, a mainstay of the archaeologist because it outlasts many materials and preserves motifs otherwise lost. This blue and white porcelain (porcelain being the hardest type of pottery) has an added value to the student of ideas: it preserves pictures [2]. The evidence indicates that blue and white ware was first made in China under the YŁan [3]. Thus the fourteenth century is the earliest time from which we can expect to find extensive survivals of the Urbild [4]. Earlier evidence must be sought from tradition, a few pieces of silk, and some sculpture on pottery.

In reconstruction, several aspects of ancient Chinese life have been kept in mind. First is the reverence for ancestral ways and consequent preservation of ideas and conception. Another is the custom of using "auspicious" words or symbols [5]. A most important factor is the use of color symbolism [6]. In this system, blue was the color of heaven [7]. A ware painted in blue would be appropriate for heavenly subjects and would account for the importance on blue and white of such motifs as cloud collars, thunder symbols, and flying horses. Since the Urbild was a favorite subject for painting in blue, that indicates strongly that the Urbild was thought of as being a scene in the heavens.

It is necessary to establish the firm association of the dragon with the Urbild because this latter may be firmly reconstructed only from the fourteenth century, while a much earlier dating of the dragon in association with the "pearl" or flaming sphere is generally accepted. A study of blue and white shows the sphere, clouds, fire, and waves associated with the dragon so closely that, knowing the conservatism of Chinese symbolism, one may assume an original close connection.

Many authorities, swayed by some elements of late folklore concerning the dragon, have been unaware of an exclusively aerial habitat for the early dragon [8]. It is clear, however, from an examination of the legends that earth dragons are associated with water and that a process has taken place: rain has fallen out of the sky and the dragon with it. This interpretation is reinforced by the ancient custom of painting dragons on a wall to ensure rain [9].

Some authorities, however, have seen the dragon as first associated with water on earth, then transposed to the source of the water in the sky. A distinguished student of jade has written, "Was [the dragon] a dim race-memory of an actual animal who lived in the now mythical past, or merely the alligator, which appeared in the river at floodtime to the amazement of the Chinese and hence became known as the bearer of rain?" [10].

When we examine the writings of students of porcelain, who are perhaps affected more than they know by the surviving elements of the Urbild, we get more knowledgeable judgments. Brankston, for example, states that the alligator may have affected the current depictions, but considers there to be underlying elements of the Shang monster; he thought the motif went back "at least three thousand years" [11]. This estimate carries us back, conservatively, to 1000 B.C. After Brankston, the Swedish scholar Wirgin carefully studied the ornamental designs on Chinese pottery and came to the conclusion that the dragon "had already [by the Sung dynasty] been in use as a decorative motif for more than two millenniums" [12]. This latest study would place the origin of the dragon at about 1500 B.C. [13].

In the decorative arts there are few preserved representations of the dragon before the YŁan era, partly because of decay and destruction, partly because the dragon motif was reserved for imperial and cult use [14]. The dragon had reached its present form only by the time of the Sui dynasty (589-618) [15]. By then, as Brankston had pointed out, it had acquired some reptilian characteristics. A typical early representation is found on a jade cult object [16], thought to date from the late Chou dynasty (ca. 1122/1050-256 B.C.). It has legs but is sinuous, apart from its legs looking more like a curl of smoke than an alligator; it is one of a type; and the object it is carved on, a pi, is a symbol of the heavens.

Something of the same general "feel" is found in a later picture, dating from the Western Han dynasty, ca. 128 B.C. [17]. While the beings in this representation are legged and scaled, they are not earthbound but floating in the air; and wisps, perhaps of smoke, came from them.

Such objects as the jade and the silk painting show continuity of development indicating that land and reptilian secondary characteristics were added [18]. With strong indications that the dragon was originally aerial, we may therefore turn to the great treasury of paintings on blue and white porcelain.

[*!* Image

The Kang Hsi emperor (1662-1722) wearing the traditional dragon robes. (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1942.))

Elements of the Urbild

A motif usually accompanying the dragon is an object often described as a pearl or a jewel. Its significance is variously guessed: it is a pearl symbolizing the wealth of a lord of the waters; it is the moon, the dragon being a cloud obscuring it; or it is derived from the art of India [19]. Ingersoll considers the pearl to be the moon and the dragon to cause eclipses by eating it [20]. He points out the fact that the "tag" which springs from the pearl is the symbol for thunder and that the antlerlike appendages are symbols of lightning; so he considers the flaming sphere to be a combination of moon and thunderstorm symbols [21], a reading congruent with a rejection of catastrophes. Such a combination as he proposes will seem to some to be justified. Study of the iconography, however, indicates an intimacy between the symbols requiring a better explanation than the mere fusion of motifs: the pearl seems to be the source of the sound and of the fire. Why associate them--so intimately--with the moon? A comet in company with meteors would have those associations. It is difficult to account for the moon's having them.

The other chief element in the Urbild is the dragon. Attractive design as well as imperial connection ensured continuing use. The dragon strides in sinuous flight through clouds and fire in pursuit of the fiery sphere, moving in great coils, sweeping the sky of derivative flames and driving off their source. The dragon is sometimes himself shown with flame issuing from his mouth, but this seems a directed weapon, not like the insensate fire around him. Because the dragon is the benevolent protector of man, a role which Chinese tradition strongly and universally accords him, the globe he is driving away must have been dangerous to man. Thus, a considerable threat from the skies recommends itself as the source of the Urbild.

Themes of the Urbild are sometimes expressed by new iconographical symbols, one showing the dragon as a winged being [22], clearly a device to indicate his heavenly habitat. Another drawing helps establish the original iconography of the dragon [23]; it is from an Ardebil Shrine basin which has been published [24]. Pope ascribes it to the late fifteenth century A.D. Since the shape is the copy of a metal prototype, the picture may well also be from the same source and testify to a tradition considerably older than the porcelain itself.

Two figures of the dragon appear on the basin. They are clearly among flames, and Pope suggests that flames are issuing from their mouths. The most interesting point, however, is that the two are legless. We may assume, with some reason, that the porcelain basin is, a copy of a very old piece of metal work, how old it is impossible to say; but the legless dragon argues considerable antiquity if this reconstruction has validity.

The question of the origin of puzzling iconographical motifs is raised by the conception of flames issuing from the dragon. The version just cited with flame discharged from the mouth would appear to be a very early form because this version is close to another tradition with signs of great antiquity. Once more, Ardebil pieces are to be cited [25]; Pope shows two early fifteenth-century pieces, a bowl and a vase [26]. Each has pictured on it a dragon seeming to be in flames-or emitting lightning, as Ingersoll interprets these symbols: tendril-like appendages [27].

Early calligraphic Chinese words for dragon may well prove to give valuable information after further study by specialists. The Shang forms of the word are of particular importance because of their date, ca. 1500 B.C. to ca. 1000 B.C., and because they are so close to being pictures [28]. Even to the viewer who is not skilled in the intricacies of early Chinese philology, these characters give information [29]. They are sinuous, and there is no indication of the secondary reptilian characteristics to be found later. All in all they are agreeable with the hypothesis advanced here. In addition, the symbols joined to the original sinuous figure offer a challenge for future study by those knowledgeable in early Chinese structure.

The Sight in the Heavens

If this reconstruction of the dragon and of the other elements of the Urbild is correct, we have stripped away all later accretions and have attained some understanding of the sight observed by the ancient Chinese: a writhing, bright, elongated thing. It was irregular in outline; it was apparently on fire: if not themselves flames, the tendrils would have reflected the fiery head and seemed to be fire.

This thing, the dragon, seemed to be driving off the terrible flaming globe and so to be benevolent as well as powerful. From such a conception it would seem appropriate for the emperor, having the Mandate of Heaven, to be described as having a Dragon Face, to sit in state on a bench called the Dragon Throne, and to wear the picture of the dragon on his state robes-all this because of the theory that he, the Son of Heaven, existed to impose order from the Central Realm on the whole earth just as the dragon, by way of example, restored order to the heavens.

The strength of this reconstruction is that it is congruent with the hypothesis of a particular kind of catastrophe around 1500 B.C. for which there seems to be some evidence. Its weakness is that it is not likely to convince skeptics that there was such an event. Such a skeptic is still likely to consider the Urbild to be a legendary pastiche built up of storms, hurricanes, eclipses, alligators, and pools of water.

While this proposed reconstruction may have some effect in reinforcing the notion of a particular catastrophe, it will be of full value only when the fact of that catastrophe is established in fields outside art history and the history of ideas. If that is done, this reconstruction may well be extended in many particulars. The subject is by no means exhausted. In fact it has only slightly been surveyed.


[1]  The attention of the writer was drawn to the subject by Velikovsky's work when, over two decades ago, he announced an essay on the dragon in Worlds in Collision (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1950), p. 78. It has not been published, and I offer here an essay on one aspect of the worldwide system of myths about the dragon. The investigation, the results of which are here set forth, proceeded along independent lines. The results prove to be congruent with his hypothesis about catastrophes, specifically with the idea of trouble caused by Venus, beginning in the middle of the second millennium B.C.

[2]  On a porcelain body, painting is done in cobalt; then the piece is dipped in glaze and fired, the cobalt rising through the glaze and giving in blue the design painted on the body.

[3]  This dating for the origin of blue and white has been questioned, e.g., by Robert Bradford Fox.
See Leandro and Cecilia Locsin, Oriental Ceramics Discovered in the Philippines (Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1967), p. xiv. A conference on the materials advanced in proof by Dr. Fox failed to accept his dating: M. Tregear, "Manila Trade Pottery Seminar," Oriental Art 14 (1968): 327-28. The more usual view of the origins of the ware are presented by Sir Harry Garner in Oriental Blue and White, 3rd ed., The Faber Monographs on Pottery and Porcelain (London: Faber and Faber, 1970), pp. xv-xxvi, "Preface to the Third Edition." See also Adrian M. Joseph, Ming Porcelains: Their Origin and Development (London: Bibelot Publishers Limited, ca. 1971), p. II ff.

[4]   Paintings on bamboo, silk, and paper do not survive well; and such other early media as tortoise carapaces and metal work do not lend themselves so well to the drawing of pictures.

[5]   A calligraphic character on the wall of a restaurant will be explained by your waiter as a "good luck" word. We find that sort of thing inscribed on porcelain, doubtless by more sophisticated hands, but with the same underlying faith-or hope.

[6]   Why are Cantonese restaurants painted red? It is auspicious: it stands for the south, for fire, and for warmth. In jade it represents these things and also Mars, as it may in other materials. Richard Gump, Jade, Stone of heaven (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1962), pp. 62-68. Many amateurs of Chinese art are aware that yellow was the imperial hue.

[7]   Ibid., p. 62. We see this strong tradition in jade symbolism, and there was a connection between pots and jade: connoisseurs of celadon compared it to jade in both hue and texture; and it may be the potters had consciously striven for this effect. This celadon enjoyed imperial patronage and was treasured by connoisseurs, the same people who were to become patrons of blue and white ware. I accept the persuasive arguments in Adrian Joseph, Ming Porcelain, pp. 1-23, that a usable and beautiful cobalt was developed during the HsŁann Te reign (1426-35) and that the wares were then given imperial patronage and accorded the use of the men hao, the reign mark. They replaced celadon in favor; to this day, following the Chinese, the Emperor of Japan is required by custom to dine off blue and white.

[8]   See Ernest Ingersoll, Dragons and Dragon Lore (1928; re-issued, New York: Singing Tree Press, 1968); Wolfram Eberhard, Folktales of China (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ca. 1965). Idem., Studies in Chinese Folklore and Related Essays (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana Research Center for the Language Sciences, 1970).

[9]   Hugo Munsterberg, Dragons in Chinese Art [Catalogue of March 23 through May 28, 1972, of China House Gallery] (New York: China Institute in America, 1972), p. 10.

[10]   Gump, Jade, Stone of Heaven, p. 72. These speculations are interesting as showing a certain mental climate, yet in the same book (p. 66ff.) are set forth the clues pointing to the protodragon as heavenly.

[11]   A. D. Brankston, Early Ming Wares of Chingtechen (Hong Kong: Vetch and Lee Limited, 1938; reprinted Hong Kong and New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1970), p. 75.

[12] Jan Wirgin, Sung Ceramic Designs (Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern Antiquities, 1970), p. 186.

[13]   Ibid., 188.

[14]   In the pre-YŁan eras, the Dragon appears in partial or full relief on pottery which apparently has a cult purpose, being designed for burial. See Michael Sullivan, Chinese Ceramics Bronzes and Jades in the Collection of Sir Alan and Lady Barlow (London: Faber and Faber, 1963), Plates 86a, 87, and 90a, with commentary. We have noted Munsterberg's statement that dragons were painted on a wall to bring rain. That the dragon motif was reserved for imperial and aristocratic use, see Wirgin, Sung Ceramic Designs, p. 188ff., and S. Wells Williams, The Middle Kingdom, vol. 2 (New York: Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1966), pp. 112-113.

[15]  Wirgin, Sung Ceramic Designs, p. 187.

[16]  This pi is in the William Pockhill Nelson Gallery in Kansas City; it is published in William Watson, Early Civilization in China (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1966), Plate 124; see also Gump, Jade, Stone of Heaven, p. 56.

[17]   A recently excavated Chinese tomb, probably that of a wife of the first Marquis of Tai, has several pictures of dragons on a silk cloth. The Chinese Communist government has published a portfolio of colored prints of the painting: Hsi Han Po Hua [Western Han Silk Painting], ed. Wenwu Chufanshe (Peking: New Culture Bookshop, 1972). See also Peking Review, August 11, 1972, pp. 10-13; China Pictorial, No. 9 (1972), pp. 26-27 and No. 10 (1972), pp. 18-25.

[18]   There is another, the oldest preserved Chinese painting. I have not found a print of it. It dates from the fourth or fifth century B.C. The dragon is shown with the feng huang (often called the phoenix), another creature often shown in a flame-filled aerial habitat. Michael Sullivan, "The Heritage of Chinese Art," in The Legacy of China, ed. Raymond Dawson (Oxford: University Press, 1964), pp. 183-184.

[19]   Wirgin, Sung Ceramic Designs, p. 186.

[20]   Ingersoll, Dragons and Dragon Lore. His opening sentences show his point of view: "Today a solar eclipse is slowly darkening my study window, and when I step out of doors to watch it I hear a man say: The Dragon is eating sun. No dragon exists--none ever did."

[21]   Ibid., p. 111ff.

[22]   These representations are found at least as early as the first Ming reign, the Hung Wu Emperor, 1368-98: R. L. Hobson, The Wares of the Ming Dynasty (London: 1923; reprinted Rutland, Vermont: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1926), p. 38. See also John Alexander Pope, Chinese Porcelains from the Ardebil Shrine (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, Freer Gallery of Art, 1956), p. 110.

[23]   Because of space this essay avoids discussion of the t'ao t'ieh, although the matter is pertinent and confirming to this thesis.

[24]   Pope, Chinese Porcelains, p. 119ff. and Plate 70.

[25]   Pope's book on the Ardebil wares is of prime importance not only because of the richness of the collection but also because it establishes some limits in dating.

[26]   Pope, Chinese Porcelains, Plates 48 (29.333) and 50 (29.403), respectively.

[27]   This painters' convention for flame may be the source of two features sometimes painted on the dragon, features whose origin and suitability has been puzzling. Sir Harry Garner, Oriental Blue and White, has called attention to the dragon shown with antlers p. 72-73 and Plates 3, 6, 7, and 24). Except for one which is roughly contemporary with the naming dragons published by Pope, these antlered versions published by Garner are actually earlier than the ones published by Pope. Even so, because of the evidence that the Ardebil basin copies a metal prototype (Plate 70), it would seem that the dragon with flames is earlier than the dragon with antlers. Pope's Plates 48 and 50 also preserve the conception of the flaming dragon.
    The new tradition of an antlered dragon emerged possibly because of bad drawing, poor cobalt, or a very heavy and obscuring glaze in an intervening class of pieces; and thus a flame or lightning tendril was misread as an antler; and that otherwise inexplicable bit of iconography developed.
    Another version of the dragon, cited by Garner in the same place, shows feelers and bushy manes. Could these attributes not have developed from the causes set forth above? If so, the primeval figure on the Urbild had no antlers, manes, and feelers. In fact, though no shred of evidence had been uncovered in this Study, it would not be surprising if legs, with their paws, developed also from flame-tendrils. The changing of the flame-tendrils into legs, antlers, feelers, and manes would have come about partly from a wish to make the dragon clearly animate and therefore completely opposite to the Fiery Sphere and its troop of flaming brands.

[28]   Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese Books and Inscriptions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ca. 1962), p. 24ff.

[29]   Hsuan Chang, The Etymologies of 3,000 Chinese Characters in Common Usage (Oxford: University Press, 1968), s.v. lung; pp. 873-874. His etymology apparently goes back only to the Han dynasty.


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