On Dragons. B51
CHAPTER XXIX. On Dragons (Lung-hsü).
When in midsummer during a thunder-storm lightning strikes
a tree or demolishes a house, it is a common saying that Heaven
fetches the dragon, which is believed to hide in the tree, or to be
concealed in the house. The lightning striking the tree, or demolishing the house, the dragon appears outside. On its appearance,
it is seized upon by the thunder, and carried up to Heaven. The
unintelligent and the learned, the virtuous and the wicked are all
agreed upon this, but trying to get at the truth, we find that it
is idle talk.
Why should Heaven fetch the dragon? Provided that the
dragon be a spirit and Heaven's envoy, as a virtuous minister is
the deputy of his sovereign, then it ought to report itself at a
fixed time, and would not have to be fetched. If, on the other
hand, the dragon sneaks away, and does not come back, it does
not behave like a spirit, and would be of no use to Heaven.
According to the dragon's nature its real abode is Heaven.
Being there it certainly must have offspring. There would be no
reason, why it should be on earth again. If there are rising and
descending dragons, the latter class might bear its offspring on earth,
and Heaven fetch it, when grown up. People call a tempest an
expression of Heaven's anger, but in fetching the scion of a dragon
it cannot be angry.
Further the dragon generally lives in ponds, not in trees or
houses. Whence do we know that ? Shu Hsiang's 1 mother said :
" In the depths of mountains and in vast marshes dragons and
snakes really grow." 2 And in books we read, "Where the
mountains are highest, the rain clouds rise, and where the water
is deepest, the different species of dragons are born." 3 The annals
1 A minister in Chin, 6th cent. b.c.
2 Quoted from the Tso-chuan, Duke Hsiang 21st year (Legge, Classic Vol. V,
Pt. II, p. 491). The mother of Shu Hsiang spoke these words in a figurative sense,
with reference to Shu Hsiang's half-brother, and his beautiful mother, a concubine
of her husband. Cf. p. 302.
3 A parallel passage, worded a little differently, occurs in Hsün Tse.
352 Lun-hêng: C. Physical.
go on to say that, when Yü crossed the Yangtse, a yellow dragon
carried his boat on its back,1 and that, when Ching Tse Fei went
over the Huai, two dragons swam round his ship. Near the
Eastern Sea 2 there lived Lu Chiu Hsin, a bold and strong man.
When he once passed the Spirit Pool, he ordered his charioteer
to give his horse to drink there, but when it drank, it sank down.
Lu Chiu Hsin got angry, drew his sword, and went into the pool
in pursuit of his horse. He then beheld two dragons just in the
act of devouring his horse. Sword in hand, he slew the two dragons.3
Hence it is evident that the dragons called " chiao " 4 and the others
always live in the water of pools, and not on trees or in houses.
Living in deep water dragons belong to the same category
as fish and reptiles. Why should fish and reptiles ascend to
Heaven, and what could Heaven use the dragon for, if it fetched
it up? If the Spirit of Heaven should ride on the dragon, a spirit
is something diffuse and incorporeal. Entering and departing, it
needs no aperture, neither would it require a dragon to ride upon.
Should the genii mount the dragon, then Heaven would fetch it
for their sake. But the genii are imbued with the fluid of Heaven,
and their bodies are so light, that they can fly up like wild geese.
Therefore, why should they ride upon dragons?
People in general say that Huang Ti ascended to Heaven on
a dragon. This statement is as inane as the other, made now-a-
days, that Heaven fetches the dragon. If the dragon is said to
rise to Heaven, it implies a dragon spirit, because only a spirit can
soar on high, this being in fact a characteristic feature of spirits.
Among the creatures produced by Heaven and Earth man
being the noblest, the dragon must be inferior. If the noblest are
not spirits, can the inferior be so? Let us suppose that the nature
of dragons be such, that some of them are spirits, the others not,
and that the spirits rise to Heaven, while those that are not spirits,
cannot: are turtles and snakes likewise partly spirits and partly not,
and can the turtle spirits and the snake spirits ascend to Heaven?
Moreover, what essence is the dragon endowed with, that it
should alone be a spirit? Heaven has the four constellations of
the Blue Dragon, the White Tiger, the Scarlet Bird, and the Black
1 This fact is recorded in the Lü Shih ch'un-ch'iu and in Huai Nan Tse VII,
8v. Vid. also Lum-hêng Bk. V, p. 4 (Yi-hsü).
2 The Yellow Sea, east of China.
3 This story is narrated in the Han-shih-wai-chuan 150 B.C. and the Po-wu-
chih, where the hero is called Tsai Chin Hsin however.
On Dragons. 353
Tortoise. Earth also has dragons, tigers, scarlet birds, and turtles.
The essence of the four constellations pouring down, produces those
four animals. The tiger, the scarlet bird, and the turtle not being-
spirits, wherefore should the dragon alone be a spirit?
Man ranks first among the naked creatures, as the dragon is
the foremost of the scaly animals. Both take the first place among
their kindred. If the dragon is believed to ascend to Heaven, does
man rise to Heaven likewise? If under the above respect the dragon
is on the same level with man, but alone credited with the faculty
of ascending to Heaven, the dragon must be supposed to be a spirit.
The world also says that the sages being spirits, have the
gift of prophecy, as they say that the dragon spirits are able to
soar to Heaven. The divination of the sages thus being accounted
for, it is but natural that the special talent of the dragon should
be found in its power to rise to Heaven.
That which amidst Heaven and Earth is vague and unsubstantial as the vapours of cold and heat, wind and rain, has the
nature of a spirit. Now the dragon has a body, having a body,
it moves about, moving about, it eats, and eating, it has the nature
of other creatures. According to the organisation of Heaven and
Earth whatever possesses a body, moves about, and eats, cannot
be a spirit. How so?
The dragon has a body. One finds in books the statement,
that out of the three hundred scaly animals the dragon is the first.
Being the first of the scaly animals, how can it be without a body?
Confucius said that the dragon fed in limpid places, and lived
there, that the tortoise fed in limpid places, and lived in the mud,
and that the fish fed in the mud, and lived in clear water. He
did not attain to the dragon himself, but was neither equal to
the fish, he was only to be compared to the tortoise, which takes
the middle rank.
The Shan-hai-king 1 relates that beyond the four seas there are
men riding on dragon snakes. As a rule, dragons are pictorially
represented with a horse's head and a snake's tail. Hence they
must be hybrids between the horse and the snake.
Shen Tse 2 informs us that the flying dragons mount the clouds,
and that the soaring serpents ramble through the fog. When the
clouds disperse, and the rain ceases, they are like earthworms and ants.
1 The " Mountain and Sea Classic," the oldest geographical work of the 4th
or the 3rd cent. b.c.
2 The Taoist philosopher Shên Tao of the 5th cent, b.c, of whose works
only fragments are left.
354 Lun-hêng: C. Physical.
Han Fei Tse 1 teaches that the dragon is a reptile, which obeys
a call, and allowes itself to be patted and mounted. But under
its throat it has a protruding scale over a foot long. If a man knocks
against it, the dragon always kills him.
In short, the dragon is compared with earthworms and ants, and
it is further said to be a reptile, which can be patted and mounted.
It must therefore have something in common with snakes and horses.
It is reported that when Chou 2 used ivory chopsticks, 3 Chi Tse 4
burst into tears. He wept, commiserating his excesses. There being
ivory chopsticks, there must have been jade cups also. These jade
cups and ivory chopsticks were certainly used to hold and to seize
dragon liver and unborn leopard.5 Dragon liver was eatable, but
a dragon hard to be found. This being the case, the emperor would
frown upon his subordinates. That would bring them into distress,
therefore Chi Tse's sympathy.
If the dragon were a spirit, its body could not be killed, and
its liver not be eaten. The livers and the unborn young of birds
and animals are not the same. Dragon liver and unborn leopard
being specially mentioned, man must have eaten them, and thereby
learned to appreciate their excellent taste.
During the epoch of Spring and Autumn, 6 a dragon appeared
in the outskirts of Chiang. 7 Viscount Hsien of Wei 8 interrogated
T'sai Mê saying, "I heard say that of all creatures none is as
intelligent as the dragon, which therefore cannot be caught alive.
Is it true what they say about its cleverness? " The other replied,
" Those that say so, really do not know. As a fact, the dragon
is not intelligent. Of old, dragons were domesticated, therefore the
empire had its families of Dragon Keeper (Huan Lung) and its
Master of the Dragons (Yu Lung)." 10
1 Cf. p. 170.
2 Chou Hsin, the last emperor of the Shang dynasty.
3 Ivory chopsticks are very common in China now, and no luxury.
4 Viscount Chi, one of the foremost nobles under Chou Hsin, 12th cent. b.c.
5 Dragon liver and unborn leopard would seem to have been considered great delicacies.
6 The historical period comprised by the Ch'un-ch'iu (Spring and Autumn)
between 722 and 481 b.c.
7 A principality in Shansi.
8 A feudal ford under Duke Ch'ou of Chin in Shansi, 530-524 b.c, whose
successors became marquises, and at last kings of Wei.
9 The grand historiographer.
10 The family names Huan Lung and Yü Lung, 豢龙, 御龙 which
literally mean Dragon Keeper and Master of the Dragons, have probably given rise
to this queer story.
On Dragons. 355
Viscount Hsien observed that of these two he had heard also,
but did not know their origin, and why they were called so. Ts'ai
Mê said, "In olden time there was Shu Sung 1 of Liao. 2 One of
his distant descendants, Tung Fu was very fond of dragons. He
could find out their tastes and likings, so as to be able to supply
them with food and drink. Many dragons came to him, and were
thus bred by him. With them he waited upon Shun, who bestowed
upon him the family name of Tung, and the clan-name of Dragon
Keeper (Huan Lung), and invested him with Tsung-ch'uan. The
T'sung-J family were his descendants. Thus dragons were reared
at the time of the emperor Shun."
"During the Hsia time K'ung Chia 3 was obedient to God,
who presented him with a team of dragons from the Yellow River
and the Han, there being a male and a female from each. K'ung
Chia was at a loss how to feed them, for no member of the Huan
Lung family was to be found. But among the remains of the T'ao
T'ang 4 family, which had perished, was one Liu Lei, who had learned
the art of rearing dragons from the Huan Lung family. With that
he served K'ung Chia, and was able to give food and water to the
dragons. The Hsia ruler was so pleased with him, that he conferred upon him the clan-name of Master of the Dragons (Yü Lung).
He took the place of the descendants of Shih Wei." 5
" When one female dragon died, he secretly had it chopped
up, and offered the meat to the ruling emperor of the house of
Hsin as food. The emperor had it cooked, and asked for more.
Then Liu Lei became frightened, because he could not procure
it, and emigrated to Lu-hsien.6 The Fan family were his descendants." —
Viscount Hsien asked, why there were no dragons to-day.
Tsái Mê replied, " Such animals have their officials, who know their
treatment, and think of them day and night. When they suddenly
lose their post, the dragons die. The cashiered functionaries do
not feed them any more. As long as the competent officials do
their duty, there are always animals coming to them, but, when
1 The Lun-hêng calls the man Shu Sung. In the Tso-chuan his name is
2 A small State.
3 The emperor K'ung Chia 1879-1848 b.c.
4 T'ao T'ang was the princedom of the emperor Yao in Shansi, whose descendants took their clan name therefrom.
5 A noble who flourished under the Shang dynasty.
6 The modern Lu-shan-hsien in Honan.
356 Lun-Hêng: C. Physical.
they are neglected, they lie down listless, and their production is
stopped." 1 —
Thus we may say that dragons can be reared and eaten.
What can be eaten, is certainly not a spirit. When the proper
officials are not at hand, nor men like Tung Fu and Liu Lei, the
dragons abscond, and hide themselves, and appear but rarely. When
they once come out, they also ride on the clouds, a course, man
can never take, and are then regarded as spirits. As long as there
are the proper officials, or the proper men, the dragon is like an
ox. Why should they be spirits?
Taking into consideration what the Shan-hai-king says, the
evidence of Shên Tse and Han Fei Tse, the usual pictorial representations, the despair of Chi Tse, and the information given by Ts'ai
Mê, we see that the dragon cannot be a spirit, nor rise to Heaven,
and it is evident that Heaven does not fetch it with thunder and
The common belief that the dragon is a spirit, and rises to
Heaven, is preposterous. But there is a reason for it. In light
literature we meet with the statement that without a tree one foot
high the dragon cannot ascend to Heaven. They speak of ascending
to Heaven, and of a tree one foot high, implying that the dragon
rises to Heaven from within the tree. The authors of this sort of
literature are uncultured people. They have observed that at the
same time, when the thunder rolls and the lightning flashes up,
the dragon rises, and when thunder and lightning strike a tree,
the dragon happens to be close to the tree, just like thunder and
lightning. When they are gone, the dragon rises on high likewise.
Therefore they pretend that it ascends to Heaven from within the
tree. As a matter of fact, the thunder and the dragon are of the
same kind, and mutually attract one another, when set in motion
by the forces of nature.
The Yiking says that the clouds follow the dragon, and the
wind the tiger. It is further stated that, when the tiger howls,
the wind passes through the valley, and that the variegated clouds
rise, when the dragon gambols. 2 There is a certain manner of
sympathy between the dragon and the clouds, and a mutual attraction between the tiger and the wind. Therefore, when Tung
1 This conversation between Viscount Hsien and T'sai Mê on the rearing of
dragons in ancient times is literally culled from the Tso-chuan, Duke Ch'ao 29th year.
Cf. Legge, Chun-ch'iu Pt. II, p. 731.
2 Yiking Book I, Ch'ien hexagram (No. 1). See also p. 279 Note 2.
On Dragons. 357
Chung Shu 1 offered the rain sacrifice, he put up an earthen dragon
with a view to attract the rain.
When the summer is at its height, the sun reigns supreme,
hut the clouds and the rain oppose it. The sun is fire, clouds and
rain being water. At the collision with water, fire explodes, and
gives a sound, which is the thunder. Upon hearing the sound of
thunder, the dragon rises, when it rises, the clouds appear, and
when they are there, the dragon mounts them. The clouds and
the rain are affected by the dragon, and the dragon also rides on
the clouds to Heaven. Heaven stretches to the farthest distance,
and the thunder is very high. Upon the clouds dispersing, the
dragon alights again. Men seeing; it riding on the clouds, believe
it to ascend to Heaven, and beholding Heaven sending forth thunder
and lightning, they imagine that Heaven fetches the dragon.
The scholars of to-day reading the Yiking and the historical
records, all know that the dragon belongs to the same class as the
clouds. They adhere to the common gossip without knowing, what
it means. Besides they look upon the light literature as an authority. Thus they say that Heaven fetches the dragon.
Heaven does not do that, nor does the dragon rise to Heaven.
When Lu Chin Hsin slew the two serpents, he dragged them out with
his hands by the tail, but the moment they were out of the pool, a thunder-bolt fell. Serpents are a species similar to dragons. When serpents
or dragons make their appearance, clouds and rain arrive, upon their
arrival there is thunder and lightning. If Heaven really fetched the dragon for its own use, what benefit would it have from dead serpents?
Fish, though living in the water, yet follow the clouds and
the rain flying, and riding on them ascend to Heaven. The dragon
belongs to the class of fish, it rides on thunder and lightning in
the same way as the fish fly. For following the clouds and the
rain, fish are not considered to be spirits, the dragons alone are
called spirits because of their riding on thunder and lightning. This
common belief is contrary to truth.
All the creatures in the world have their peculiar vehicles: —
The water serpents ride on the fog, the dragons on the clouds,
and birds on the wind. To call the dragon alone a spirit, because
it is seen riding on the clouds, would not be in accordance with
its real nature, and would only detract from its skill.
But the reason why the dragon is looked upon as a spirit is,
because it can expand and contract its body, and make itself visible
1 A scholar of the 2nd cent. b.c. See p. 39.
358 Lun-hêng: C. Physical.
or invisible. Yet the expansion and contraction of the body and
its visibility and invisibility do not constitute a spirit.
Yü Jang 1 swallowed charcoal and varnished his body, so that
he got ulcers, and nobody recognised him. Tse Kung 2 burned off
his beard, and took the semblance of a woman, so that nobody
knew him. When the dragon transforms itself and absconds, men
are also unable to perceive it, such is its skill in metamorphosing
and hiding itself.
Much in the nature of creatures is spontaneous: — The rhinopithecus 3 knows the past, 4 magpies foresee the future, 5 and parrots
can talk. These three peculiarities may be compared to the transformations, which are in the nature of dragons. If by astuteness
one could become a spirit, Yü Jang and Tse Kung would be spirits.
Confucius said, " The roving animals can be ensnared, the flying
birds be shot with an arrow. As regards the dragon, I do not
know, whether it can ride on the wind and the clouds, and thus
rise on high. To-day I saw Lao Tse. Should be perhaps be like
a dragon? " 6
Provided that the dragon rises, mounted on a cloud, and,
when the cloud disperses, comes down again, then the class of
creatures, to which it belongs, might be ascertained, and all about
its celestial and terrestrial state known. Yet they say that Confucius
did not know. A sage like Confucius ignored the nature of dragons.
How much less can common people know, whose learning is deficient, who are biassed in favour of the marvellous, and whose
minds are unable to decide, what is possible and what not. That
they should call the dragon a spirit, which rises to Heaven can
therefore be no matter for surprise.
1 A native of the Chin State, 5th and (1th cent. b.c. He twice made an attempt upon the life of Viscount Hsiang of Chao to avenge the death of his master,
the Earl of Chih, whom Hsiang had slain. Both attempts failed. The second time
he disguised himself in the way described here.
2 A disciple of Confucius.
3 A kind of monkey in western China.
4 This probably means that monkeys have an excellent memory.
5 Magpies are believed to know, whether the next year will be very stormy,
for in that case they build their nests near the ground. Moreover, they announce
future joy, hence their popular name " birds of joy."
6 A quotation from the Biography of Lao Tse in the Shi-cki chap. G3, p. 2 v.