Published: 10:21, February 9, 2024 | Updated: 16:39, February 9, 2024
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Tracking down the dragon throughout history
By Zhao Xu

Archaeological digs uncover origins of mythical animal, Zhao Xu reports.

C-shaped dragon from northeastern China, dating to 3500 BC. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

The Chinese call themselves "the descendants of the dragon" for a reason. Emperor Yandi, a legendary tribal leader in predynastic China, was said to have been born out of his mother's telepathic interaction with a mighty dragon.

Although opinions may differ, most researchers have identified the man with Shennong, or "the Divine Farmer", long venerated as someone who not only invented a wide array of farming tools but was also a pioneer in using herbal medicine.

Legend also has it that Emperor Huangdi (the Yellow Emperor), who once allied with Yandi to triumph over their common enemy, another equally powerful tribal leader known as Chiyou, enlisted the help of a dragon during the deadly battle. Upon his death, a dragon extended its whiskers down from heaven so that Huangdi was able to grab it and be lifted into eternity.

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Given that the Chinese consider themselves to be yan huang zi sun, meaning the posterity of Yandi and Huangdi, it's only natural that they have placed the dragon at the very center of their ancestral worship.

"Pig dragon" from northeastern China, dating to 3500 BC. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Those who dismiss all this as pure mythology may need to think twice, says Guo Dashun, a renowned archaeologist who believes that the idea for a dragon began to germinate in the frozen expanses of northeastern China. There, in Fuxin city, Liaoning province, archaeologists discovered in 1982 what appeared to be a dragon made up entirely of granite pieces. The creature, nearly 20 meters long and 2 meters wide, whose different body parts are clearly discernible, occupies the center of the entire excavated ground, with its head close to more than 10 burial pits, and tail connected to the site of a big dwelling.

The neolithic ground sculpture, dating to 6,000 BC, is the oldest image discovered that bears an uncanny resemblance to the dragon that was to evolve in ensuing millennia.

Another major archaeological discovery shedding light on the origin of a Chinese dragon was made in 1987, in Puyang city, Henan province. In this case clamshells were used in place of stone. And the dragon, dating to around 4500 BC, was found in a burial pit lying on the right-hand side of a man whose left-hand side was taken up by a tiger, also pieced together by shells. While most scholars tend to view the dragon and the tiger, whose combination were to be repeated numerous times throughout Chinese history, as tribal totems, an astrological connection has also been suggested.

The earliest Chinese astronomers used Qing Loong, or the Azure Dragon, to represent the planet Jupiter, and positions of the moon against certain stars in the eastern sky.

A pottery plate with dragon design from Xiangfen county, Shanxi province, dating to 2600 BC. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

However, when it comes to visual impact, both pale in comparison with a large turquoise dragonform artifact discovered in Luoyang city, Henan province, the site of what most Chinese archaeologists believe was China's earliest known dynasty, Xia (c. 21st century-16th century BC).

Dating toward the end of the Xia Dynasty, the "dragon", 65 centimeters long, is patched together by nearly 2,000 pieces of turquoise, its round jade eyes and a prominent nose shaped out of carved jade and turquoise. Discovered within a burial pit filled with bronzes, jade, ceramics and lacquerware, it seemed to have enjoyed a very special relationship with the tomb's occupant.

It was found lying on top of the skeleton, rather than next to it, with its trapezoid-shaped head resting on the dead man's shoulder. Archaeologists suggest that at the time of burial, the man may have held the dragon in his right arm, with his right hand holding a bronze bell, which, upon excavation, was lying on the middle section of the creature. The bell contains a jade tongue of a striker.

"Imagine this man, most probably a sorcerer, dancing with the dragon during the performance of his rituals," Guo says. And he must have been accompanied by the chimes produced by jade colliding with bronze, a resonant blend of two distinct qualities.

Jade dragon from the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC). (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

By that time jade ware had been made continually in China for more than 5,000 years. And it may not be mere coincidence that northeastern China, home to the aforementioned granite stone dragon, has also yielded some of the oldest jade dragons found in the country.

These jade dragons, dating to 3500 BC, fall largely into two categories, Guo says.

One, commonly referred to as the pig dragon, is noted for the creature's wrinkled snout, pricked ear and rounded body, all pointing to a possible connection with a boar, or, as some other scholars have suggested, a bear, which at the time was probably worshiped by people living in the region.

The other, known as the C-shaped dragon, was characterized by an elongated snout, an extremely streamlined body and flowing mane, which collectively imbued it with a dynamism and gracefulness, and made it appear to be ahead of its time.

"The mane could as well be deer horns," says Guo, who worked for nearly 40 years on the sites that yielded the two types of dragons.

What he has in mind are some pottery pieces unearthed in the area in which the C-shaped dragons are believed to have emanated. These pieces, about half a millennium older than the dragons, are decorated with mythical animals featuring a serpentine body and a dear head or pig head.

A turquoise dragon-shaped artifact from Erlitou Culture, dating to around 1600 BC. (HUANG YI / FOR CHINA DAILY)

A totem complex is what many researchers believe a Chinese dragon is. In a 12th-century piece of writing, a dragon is described as having "the antlers of a deer, the head of a camel, the eyes of a rabbit, the neck of a snake, the belly of a mollusk, the scales of a fish, the talons of an eagle, the paws of a tiger and the ears of an ox".

Wen Yiduo (1899-1946), a celebrated Chinese scholar and poet of his time, posited that the image of a Chinese dragon formed gradually during tribal wars: One particularly powerful snake-worshiping tribe, during their subjugation of other tribes, combined the features of their enemies' totem animals with their own one, to create something truly invincible.

This mighty tribe, which played a leading role in shaping the arch emblem of China, could have been led by Huangdi, the Yellow Emperor.

Su Bingqi (1909-97), one of the foundational figures of modern Chinese archaeology, proposed that the Yellow Emperor lived around 3000 BC, a time marked by "incessant wars given rise to by a combination of factors, including the accumulation of social wealth and the stratification of the society itself", to use the man's words.

A dragon pieced together by clamshells, found in Puyang city of Henan province, and dating to around 4500 BC. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In 1980, four painted pottery plates with dragon design, dated to around 2600 BC, were found in four burial chambers in a huge archaeological site of 40,000 square meters. The site is in Xiangfen county, Shanxi province, in the Yellow River Basin area where the Yellow Emperor is believed to have been active.

"Out of the 1,309 crypts excavated on the site, only four contained the plates," Guo says. "Judging by their scale and holdings, all are high-level ones belonging to members of the social elite. It is clear that the dragon, which most probably commanded a spiritual significance in this context, had become a symbol of power and privilege, and most likely of civilization and early statehood."

If one thing unites the myriad forms of early jade dragons — more were made during the Shang Dynasty (c. 16th century-11th century BC) — it is their circuitous shape.

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"If you look really closely, they resemble an embryo, or a newborn — be it a pig, a bear or a deer — which always tend to curl up, until it's time to stretch," says Teng Shu-ping, a leading scholar from Taiwan specialized in ancient Chinese jade.

These jade dragons, created by people whose society and art were still in their infancy, are "a reflection of a deep-felt amazement with the transformative force of life, and an intangible, cosmic energy that breathes vitality into the whole universe", she says. "This life force, an eternal pulse behind all creation and renewal, gives the Chinese dragon its heartbeat."

Contact the writer at zhaoxu@chinadaily.com.cn