Again on the Dragon

Again on the Dragon

In Vietnam, when one is visited by some distinguished guest or a rarely seen friend, one is wont to welcome him with these words, told either in a familiar, jocular or solemn, sententious way: “The dragon (that you are) deigns to visit the humble shrimp (that I am)” (rong den nha tom).

The implication is that in Vietnam – indeed in Asia as a whole- the Vietnamese dragon, far from being the cruel and maleficent monster depicted in popular tales in the West, is the symbol of honor and benevolence. It is the national master-myth, the object of a cult, the emblem of royalty and mandarin distinctions, the favorite motif of architecture, statuary, ceramics and embroidery as well as a theme often found in both classical and popular literatures.

Because of the confusion created by acculturation, it is difficult to determine the origins of the dragon in Asia. All hypotheses, however, converge on one point: the dragon is bound up with the agricultural society, to which this fabulous animal brings indispensable rain, hence its providential role and its predominance in the cult of fecundity. Even the naja, the master-myth of Hindu civilization and a possible ancestor of the dragon, is worshipped in a comparable way, for instance in Thailand.

It is presumed that the dragon of East Asian peoples comes more or less from the Chinese model. Two thousand years before the Christian era, the ideogram lung (meaning dragon) appeared on divinatory hones and shells. Starting from the Han Dynasty, the dragon with five claws was chosen to be the symbol of imperial majesty and power. The emperor heightened his prestige by attracting to him the people’s fervor reserved for the rain-making supernatural being This water god was represented with a crested animal head, a scaly snake body and tail, four legs ending in claws of birds of prey. It played with a ball of fire which could he the sun, the moon, thunder, the emblem of yin (the female) and yang (the male principles), the gem of fertility.

Its palace is located in the depths of the seas The ancient rituals of the dragon went with prayers for rain According to M. Granet, the singing and dancing matches were rituals of alliance and betrothal In the rainy season, male and female choruses would engage in a courteous struggle ending in sacred couplings simulating the fight and mating of dragons. Dragon- boats, dragon processions and dances are seen in our days.

Dragon symbol was popularly used in Architecture and construction in Vietnam
Dragon symbol was popularly used in Architecture and construction in Vietnam

Legend has it that the carp, which succeeded in swimming up a rapid rushing down a gorge cut in the mountains of Chan-si by Emperor Yu (Vu) in his effort to tame the Yellow River, was metamorphosed into a dragon. Hence, the scholar, who succeeded in passing the difficult examinations of the doctorate of humanities used to be compared to that fish.

The dragon was also related to geomancy (fengshui), the art consisting of selecting a site at which to bury the bones of one’s ancestors, this location being deemed to bring benefit to one’s posterity. The value of the site is determined by the water (shui) and air (feng) currents in their relation to the photography The breath of the Blue Dragon could give the family wealthy, noble descendants, even kings (if the bones are interred at a place evoking the Jaws of the Dragon).
Those beliefs and practices related to the Chinese dragon have spread in the countries of East Asia.

From what kind of animal prototype does the dragon, born of the cult of fertility, originate? It could doubtlessly be the crocodile which in China, according to De Groot, comes out of its hibernation in the swamps, heralding the fertilizing rains of spring. Or it could be the snake, particularly the naja of Hindu culture, which is also the symbol of water and fertility, for instance in Thailand. Many Dragon-kings were assimilated to the naja by Chinese Buddhists and lamas. Some scholars, venturing into paleontology, looked for an ancestor to the dragon among the fossil saurian of the secondary era. Dr. Gieseler (Science archeologique – 1917) attempted an astronomical explanation: the general idea of the myth is the transformation of a large-sized fish, the sturgeon, into the Constellation of the Dragon.

A new problem has emerged for some decades concerning the Chinese paternity of the dragon. While not calling into question the great influence of the Chinese model on East Asian countries, the primary origin of the dragon is brought up again. In the light of the development of research on Southeast Asia (SEA) following the end of the Second World War, researchers (including Chinese ones) have discovered that the authentically Chinese Han culture (basin of the Yellow River) had borrowed many things from Austreasiatic and Austronesian (SEA) peoples south of the Yangtse river before the creation of the Chinese empire (3rd century B.C.).

Together with many divinities born in Southeast Asia, the dragon was thus adopted by Chinese Han culture (according to Ja.V. Cliesnov. D.V. Deopik…), “made in China”, flavoured with Chinese sauce, to be re-distributed in Southeast Asian countries (according to Tran Quoc Vuong).

In Southeast Asia, a tropical region crisscrossed with rivers and dotted with lakes, ponds and swamps, rice growing calls for much more water than the dry crops of northern China (Yellow River). The cult of fertility seemed to spring from the abundance of crocodiles, snakes and other reptile prototypes of the dragon. The term krong of Southeast Asian languages, which means “rivers and waters”, could have given the Chinese world lung, the Vietnamese world long and rong, which mean “dragon”.

One undeniable fact is that the dragon myth is viscerally bound to the Viet people (Vietnam) who claim to be descended from a Dragon and a Fairy. Hence the practice of tattooing (a dragon figure on one’s body) as early as the period of the Hung kings. Dinh Gia Khanh has supplied a totemic explanation. Legend has it that the marriage between the Dragon-king who ruled over the tribes in the plain and along the coast (totem: crocodile or snake) with the Fairy Au Co, the head
of mountain tribes (totem: bird), gave birth to the Viet people Dinh Gia Khanh has counted many villages in the North worshipping the snake. Hanoi was the “City of the Soaring Dragon” (Thang Long).

Let us note that the antinomic duality “bird-snake is not peculiar to Vietnam but exists also in Hinduized countries in the form of the garuda (birth with human arms) and naja (for instance in Thailand and Laos with the garuda kud and the naja nak which recalls the dragon). I think that the autochthonous dragon of Vietnam made borrowings not only from the Chinese dragon but also from the Hindu naja.

Lastly, a comparison between the Chinese dragon and Vietnam- ese dragons of different periods is quite interesting. The most ancient dragon left to us dates from the Ly Dynasty (1010-1225). It looks natural and graceful and seems quite close to the snake. The S-shuped spirals, connected with our Bronze Age (Dong Son), decorate its big head; its four legs, rather thin, end in bird’s claws. The dragon of the Tran dynasty (1225-1400) is more robust, sprouts ears and moustaches, but lacks the S-shaped spirals. With the passage of time, under the influence of the Chinese dragon, it became more and more threatening, hieratic (15th century: Ming influence – 19th century: Qing influence…)