Welcome back to Beyond Anime: Animals and Anthropomorphics in Asian Culture. Last time we looked at obakemono, the mythical beasts and spirits of Japanese folk religion, Shinto and fairy tales. This time?
Here be there dragons?
It's really difficult to write anything short about China. It's a big country. It's home to many native ethnic groups, each with their own myths. It's an old culture. From the prehistoric Yangshao culture and the semi-legendary Xia dynasty (founded around the 20th century BC) China's culture and history can be traced to the modern day with few significant breaks. Animals play a significant part in myths, legends and folk tales that reach back to those hazy Yangshao days. It's a lot of ground to cover.
It's also difficult to do any research about ancient China on the web. Every kook, crackpot and nut-job with a philosophy or "theory" to peddle seems to reference ancient Chinese philosophy and mythology. It's not even possible in many cases to use them to find original sources. Many of the best studies of ancient China are only available in Chinese.
That said, I'm still going to make an attempt.
Everything starts with references to the great sage-kings, the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors. The first Sovereign, Fu Xi, was said to have discovered the trigrams that are fundamental to so much of Chinese philosophy (including the I Ching, feng shui and many martial arts) on a tortoise shell. A rather auspicious start, unless you were a tortoise being sacrificed for purposes of divination.
This was all thought to be completely mythical until the discovery of the Erlitou ruins, the capital of Xia Dynasty China. The dig at Erlitou didn't just shine light on the historical basis of these myths and legends, though. It also shed light on the origins of a creature near and dear to the hearts of many folks here.
About two years ago, archaeologists at Erlitou discovered China's earliest dragon totem, a 3,700 year old turquoise mosaic.
Calling this "China's earliest dragon totem" may seem a bit misleading. There are older dragon sculptures, such as the 7,000 year old jade Hongshan dragon found at Chifeng City. Still, only the Erlitou dragon has a clear connection to what we now think of as the "Chinese dragon." It's the oldest and most elaborate of many dragon totems found at Erlitou; others have been found there that more closely resemble the dragons we're used to seeing.
That's a pretty serious lineage for a folk religion, and its reach has grown over time.
The Chinese "Zodiac" hasn't got anything to do with constellations in the sky, but has everything to do a 60-year cycle characterized by a dozen different animals. That's not to say heavenly animals don't exist, like the Jade Rabbit who lives on the moon. There are also the mythical chimarae, giraffe-like Qilin and dog-like Imperial Lions (often called "Foo Dogs").
I'm going to stop before this drives me further into madness. Had I the time and the inclination, I could probably write a daily series on Chinese animal legends and not run out before I die. As it is, there's just too much to write about, so I'm going to leave more research to you.
Allan, S. Erlitou and the Formation of Chinese Civilization: Toward a New Paradigm
Xinhua News Service, 2005-10-31, "Oldest Dragon Totem Found"
There is probably no better Western historical fantasy set in ancient China than Barry Hughart's Chronicles of Number Ten Ox. No, they're not furry stories. It doesn't matter. They're absolutely steeped in Chinese legend and tradition, and do a great job of illustrating how much animal characteristics were significant in the life of ordinary people. It's a shame he stopped writing them. The books are often available used at Amazon and other sources.
Almost half of Larry Gonick's The Cartoon History of the Universe II is dedicated to Chinese history. It's a great introduction.