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Open letter to science editors
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 .
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
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 . The evidence indicates that blue and white ware was first made
in China under the YŁan . Thus the fourteenth century is the earliest
time from which we can expect to find extensive survivals of the Urbild
. 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 . A most important factor is the use of
color symbolism . In this system, blue was the color of heaven
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 . 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
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?"
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" . 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"
. This latest study
would place the origin of the dragon at about 1500 B.C.
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
dragon had reached its present form only by the time of the Sui dynasty
(589-618) . By then, as Brankston had pointed out, it had acquired some
reptilian characteristics. A typical early representation is found on a jade
cult object , 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. . 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 . With strong indications that the dragon was originally
aerial, we may therefore turn to the great treasury of paintings on blue and
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
Ingersoll considers the pearl to be the moon and the dragon to cause
eclipses by eating it . 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 , 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
Themes of the Urbild are sometimes expressed by new
iconographical symbols, one showing the dragon as a winged being
clearly a device to indicate his heavenly habitat. Another drawing helps
establish the original iconography of the dragon ; it is from an Ardebil
Shrine basin which has been published . 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 ; Pope shows two
early fifteenth-century pieces, a bowl and a vase . Each has pictured on
it a dragon seeming to be in flames-or emitting lightning, as Ingersoll
interprets these symbols: tendril-like appendages .
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
. Even to the viewer who is not skilled in the intricacies of early
Chinese philology, these characters give information . 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
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.
NOTES AND REFERENCES
 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.
 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.
 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,
Porcelains: Their Origin and Development (London: Bibelot Publishers
Limited, ca. 1971), p. II ff.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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).
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Jan Wirgin, Sung Ceramic Designs (Stockholm: Museum of Far Eastern
Antiquities, 1970), p. 186.
 Ibid., 188.
 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.
 Wirgin, Sung Ceramic Designs, p. 187.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 Wirgin, Sung Ceramic Designs, p. 186.
 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."
 Ibid., p. 111ff.
 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.
 Because of space this essay avoids discussion of the t'ao t'ieh,
although the matter is pertinent and confirming to this thesis.
 Pope, Chinese Porcelains, p. 119ff. and Plate 70.
 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.
 Pope, Chinese Porcelains, Plates 48 (29.333) and 50 (29.403), respectively.
 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.
 Tsuen-hsuin Tsien, Written on Bamboo and Silk: The Beginnings of Chinese
Books and Inscriptions (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, ca. 1962), p.
 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.
PENSEE Journal VI