We at the Mythsterhood would like to apologize for the slight delay in getting this episode out to you. We had technical difficulties during our recording session and were a bit late getting things pulled together. But this episode is worth a small wait. In Episode 7, we delve into the origin of the dragons of Chinese mythology, and some of the creation myths from Chinese folklore.
As promised in the episode, here is the link to the Fabulous Folklore’s dragon episode.
Also we’d love to welcome you on our Mythsterhood Discord server, where you’ll get sneak peeks at new artwork by Anike, and can chat with our team and other Mythsters! And don’t forget your Mythster Map.
Jaz: Hello, hello, mythsters.
Anike: Hi Jaz, how are you?
Jaz: I’m doing OK. Got my coffee in hand, the dogs are quiet. What more can a girl need?
Anike: I dunno. I could always do with more spiders…
Jaz: Why am I not surprised?
Anike: [laughs] Anyway, can you believe we’ve made it to China already?
Jaz: I know. Seems like only yesterday we were hopping from Hawaii to New-Zealand.
Jaz: But before we begin, we have the usual housekeeping to get out of the way.
Anike: For those of you who can’t get enough of dragons, Icy Sedgwick, host of the Fabulous Folklore podcast, has a whole episode diving into the folklore surrounding the oft-forgotten type of dragon: the Wyrm.
Jaz: I’ve given it a listen and, like all of Icy’s episodes, this one is definitely worth your time. The link, of course, can be found in our show notes.
Anike: And of course, like always, we will pre-emptively apologise for any and all mispronunciations and the linguistic trauma resulting from them.
Jaz: Naturally. Now, Anike. We already knew that Chinese dragons are referred to as Long or Lung. But what do they look like?
Anike: Well, according to The Dragon in China and Japan, by Marinus Willem de Visser, published in 1913, Chinese dragons have a camel’s head and a snake’s neck and tail. They have antlers like a stag, eyes like a demon, the belly of a clam, scales like a carp, claws like an eagle but the soles of a tiger, and the ears of a cow.
Jaz: Wow. That’s quite the picture.
Anike: Hang on. We’re not done yet. On their head, the dragons have a lump, called the chimu. Without it, they cannot ascend to the sky. They have whiskers and a bright pearl under the chin, and five fingers.
Jaz: Oh, I remember that from our Japan and Korea episodes!
The Yellow Emperor
Anike: Exactly. But where did that image come from? I mean, in New Zealand and Hawaii, and let’s face it, in most of the other regions we visited, many of the depictions of dragons could be traced back to local or migratory wildlife. But I cannot for the life of me imagine seeing that kind of a beastie in the wild.
Jaz: Supposedly, the Yellow Emperor, AKA Huangdi, a legendary tribal leader, conquered nine tribes from the Yellow River Valley and incorporated each tribe’s totem into his own dragon totem.
Anike: Ooh, so that’s why the dragon has attributes belonging to so many different creatures.
Jaz: But that’s not the only origin story we’ve got, is it?
Anike: True. Some believed that the dragon is a descendant of Nüwa, the mother goddess as she is depicted in Chinese mythology. She had the torso of a human woman, and the tail of a snake.
Jaz: What? How many times can one come across the same motif in all these different cultures?
Anike: I know! I had to look twice when I first read it, too. She and Fuxi, who is both her brother and her consort, even became the inspiration for this week’s episode art.
Jaz: Well, I don’t have to tell you it’s amazing. We already covered that topic expansively on our Discord server, where everyone can get sneak previews of your drawings. But let’s get back on track here. So, much like we saw in Japan and Korea, people made offerings to dragons in times of drought. Dragons were believed to control the weather and bring rain.
Anike: There’s even a story about how four dragons created the four rivers of China.
Jaz: Ooh, story time!
Anike: In the beginning, China had neither rivers nor lakes. The Eastern Sea was its only body of water, and it was guarded by four dragons: the Great Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Black Dragon, and the Pearl Dragon. One day, the four of them decided to fly away and explore the world.
Jaz: At first, they had a great time seeing so many things they’d never seen before. But then they came across an old woman, cradling a child in her arms. She stood in the middle of a desolate landscape, dry and arid. Crops lay withered at her feet. “Help!” she cried. “We’re starving.”
Anike: The Yellow Dragon, who loved the earth, spoke up. “They need our help.” The others agreed.
“We could ask the Emperor of Jade for some rain.” the Great Dragon said. And so they headed for the emperor’s palace. However, the emperor was not amused when they showed up.
Jaz: “How dare you come here and interrupt me?” he thundered. “I have all the heavens and earth to care for. Go back to your Eastern Sea.”
“But people are starving,” the Black dragon said. “Please, send them rain so they can grow their crops.”
“Very well,” said the emperor. “I will send rain. Now, go back to your home and your guardianship of the Sea.”
They all thanked the emperor profusely, and returned home to the sea.
Anike: The emperor, on the other hand, forgot about his promise. Instead, he asked one of the goddesses in his palace to sing him a lullaby, that he might fall into a deep and restful sleep.
Meanwhile, ten days had passed. The dragons wondered if the rain had come yet, and if any crops had begun to grow. In the end, their curiosity won out, and they decided to circle the lands again to see what had happened.
Jaz: As they flew, they saw that the people had only grown hungrier and more desperate. When the dragons realised the emperor wouldn’t be doing anything, they decided to take matters into their own hands.
“The Eastern Sea is full of water,” said the Great Dragon. “Why don’t we absorb that and make it rain ourselves?”
It was as good a plan as any. And so, the dragons sprinkled seawater on the earth and brought rain. The people danced with joy. Faces raised, they opened their mouth and tasted the droplets as they fell.
Anike: The Jade Emperor was less pleased, since the rain had fallen without his permission. He ordered the god of the mountains to make a mountain materialise on top of each dragon. This way, they would each have a prison that could not be escaped from.
The goddess Xin Jing took pity on them. She was furious with the emperor and considered the punishment unreasonable. Since she was the goddess of courage, she had no lack of it herself, and went to confront the emperor.
Jaz: The emperor tried to change her mind, make her see things his way. “These dragons were impertinent creatures, and deserved what they got,” he said.
But Xin Jing would have none of it. “Take a good look at those mountains,” she said. “They’re about to change forever.”
Anike: The emperor threw back his head and laughed. “I have no idea what you’re planning, but you know the enchantment cannot be reversed.”
This much was true. She couldn’t make the mountains disappear, but instead, she reached through layers of silt and rock to the dragons trapped underneath. She transformed them into springs, and from them, the four rivers of China were born. And so, thanks to the sacrifice of the dragons, the Chinese people now had four great rivers to provide them and the land with all the water they needed.
Jaz: So that explains why the people turned to their dragons in times of drought! I really liked this one. For once, no princesses are married off against their will, or turned into islands. And no egg-eating grandfathers drown their own grandchild in a magical lake.
Anike: Such a refreshing change. And you’ve gotta love a badarse, smartarse goddess.
Jaz: No truer words than that! Let’s do another story. How about the legend of Nüwa and Fuxi?
Anike: You say that as if you assume there’s only one legend.
Jaz: Wait, there’s not?
Anike: Nope. Nüwa is credited with creating mankind, but how she actually pulled it off, is up for debate.
Jaz: Oohh. Keep talking.
Anike: Let’s cover some basics first. Now, we already know, from this episode’s cover art, that Nüwa had the body of a snake, and the torso of a woman.
Anike: She was also, according to some legends, the daughter of the Jade Emperor.
Jaz: Hang on, the narrowminded douchebag from the four rivers story?
Anike: That’s the one. Apparently, he also wasn’t a very good father, since Nüwa supposedly created humanity out of sheer loneliness. She began by moulding yellow clay into the shapes of humans. However, when she discovered how time-consuming this was, she innovated her own methods, and developed a sort of mass-production process by dragging strings across mud, and shaping more figures in a shorter amount of time.
Jaz: Oooh. So she started off with craftsmanship and attention to detail, but ended up going for the quick gratification.
Anike: So it would seem. The first people, those she formed with her own hands, became the wealthy nobility. The ones she formed with her new and improved production methods, became their subjects.
Jaz: This smells a lot like an excuse for the higher classes of society to feel more important than the commoners who did all the hard work.
Nuwa and Fuxi
Anike: That it does. But it’s not the only story. In another legend, Nüwa and Fuxi were the only survivors of a flood. They married, by the command of the god of heaven. Is this perhaps that Jade Emperor we saw portrayed in a similar role before?
Jaz: It doesn’t sound super farfetched at all. I imagine fathers usually ordered their daughters to marry, back then.
Anike: Whoever he was, the marriage union proved fruitful. Nüwa gave birth.
Jaz: Awwww a cute baby.
Anike: …to a giant ball of meat.
Anike: I know, I know. The mental image is disturbing to say the least. And to add insult to injury, the ball was cut into small pieces.
Jaz: Well, common practice with meatballs in many countries, after all.
Anike: Right. These pieces were then scattered across the world, and they turned into people.
Jaz: So basically the Chinese invented body horror.
Anike: That’s one way to look at it. Yet another tale opposes the narrative of a forced marriage. In this legend, Nüwa and her brother Fuxi lived together on Mount K’un-lun, where they fell in love. They prayed to the heavens for permission to be together, and mists gathered as a sign of celestial approval.
Jaz: Well, love doesn’t conquer all, but at least it conquers sometimes!
Anike: When they made love, Nüwa felt so shy that she shielded her face behind a fan woven from grass. This can be traced all the way down to modern day marriages, where the fan is still a much used symbol. Brides throw them the way a Western bride may toss a bouquet, and in some villages, the bride will still use a fan to hide her face and display her modesty.
Jaz: Through their union, Nüwa and Fuxi became an embodiment of the Yin-Yang principle, didn’t they?
Anike: Yup. This is further reinforced by the gifts they received. Fuxi received a carpenter’s square, a symbol of his connection to the physical world. Nüwa, on the other hand, received a compass to signify her connection to the heavens. Although some versions also have Nüwa inventing the compass, rather than receiving one as a gift.
Jaz: So, this last one is definitely my favourite of all these versions. Through their union, they unite heaven and earth and place equal emphasis on the importance of the body and the spirit.
Anike: Ditto! I really wish we had more time. Chinese culture is so rich in stories and legends, we can’t possibly hope to cover them all. But did you know that China even has its very own Mother of Dragons?
Jaz: Yup. You told me about her when you were doing the research for this episode, remember? I wish we could include her story, but at this rate, it will take us over a year to make it through Asia. Instead, the tale of the Mother of Dragons will be made available as a Patreon exclusive post.
Anike: And as for the other dragons in Chinese mythology, we’ll be exploring them in our accompanying blog post. There’ll be human-faced serpents, the tilting of the earth, and so much wonder. So keep an eye out for that!
Jaz: And that’s all she wrote for now, Mythsters. We’ve come to a temporary parting of our ways but we will meet again in a fortnight to plot a course to India.
Music: Wanderer by Alexander Nakarada (serpentsoundstudios.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons BY Attribution 4.0 License