The Four DragonsPosted: 5 February 2011
If there’s an animal the Chinese venerate more than any other, it’s the dragon. In ancient China, only the Emperor could wear such an emblem of supreme power; it was a capital offence even to be found with the symbol of a dragon on your person. In western folklore the dragon is a frightening and dangerous monster; intelligent, but cruel and destructive. In China however, the dragon is a noble creature of the heavens and even kind to humans; as this popular folk tale will tell.
A long time ago when there were no rivers but only the vast eastern sea, where dwelled four great dragons; the Long Dragon, the Yellow Dragon, the Black Dragon and the Pearl Dragon. The dragons were boisterous creatures and the Jade Emperor had long bade them out of his court. They loved to play among the clouds and paid little attention to the people living far below them, until one day they saw a spiral of fragrant smoke emerge from between the clouds.
Looking down, they saw a gathering of many people on the ground. The sweet smoke came from the incense they burned and put out fruits and cakes as an offering. As they did this they prayed. So earnest were their faces that the dragons were compelled to listen.
The people prayed to the Jade Emperor, crying, “Lord of Heaven, please send rain quickly to give our children rice to eat!”
The dragons saw that the land was dry and cracked; there had been no rain for some time and so the crops had not grown. Famine was ravishing the land. The people were starving and the dragons pitied them.
“Let us go to the Jade Emperor and ask for rain on their behalf,” they agreed, and flew to the Heavenly Palace where the Lord of Heaven dwelt.
The Jade Emperor was not pleased to see them, nor was he moved by their petition. However, the dragons made such a racket that he promised to send rain. The four dragons left the Heavenly Palace happily, knowing that the people would now be able to grow food.
However, ten days passed without rain and the people down below suffered. They ate bark and grass roots, and when there was no more food left they ate white clay. When the dragons saw this they were saddened, for they knew that the Jade Emperor cared only for heavenly pleasures and not the starving people. The dragons decided to do what they could to help them, though they knew they would go against the Jade Emperor’s wishes.
Together they flew back to their homes in the eastern sea and scooped up the water in their mouths. They hurried back to where the people lived and flew among the clouds, making them dark, and sprayed the water onto to the ground. This they did many times. The people rejoiced when they saw the water fall from the sky, singing, “The rain has returned! The crops are saved!”
Before long, the Jade Emperor heard of what the dragons had done. The Sea God came to him, complaining of the water the four dragons had stolen. Angered at their disobedience, the Jade Emperor called for the four dragons to be brought to him.
“You have disobeyed me and given the people rain against my wishes. Therefore you will be punished,” he said. Turning to the Mountain God, he continued “Take four mountains to lay upon them so that they may dwell forever in the land they love so dearly!”
Knowing that they could not fight against all the powers of Heaven, the four dragons were each imprisoned under a mountain. The Black Dragon lay in the far north, and the Yellow Dragon in the middle of the country; the Long Dragon was laid in the south and the Pearl Dragon the southernmost of all.
Yet even in their predicament the four dragons did not regret what they had done, nor did they forget the starving people. Determined to help them forever, the four dragons turned themselves into rivers, which flowed around high mountains and down into the valleys and plains. They crossed the land from west to east and the people they so loved came to live on their banks.
So the rivers were named;
the northern Hēilóngjiāng [黑龙江] or Black Dragon River, which flows along the border between China and Russia;
the Huánghé [黄河] or Yellow River which flows through central China;
the Chángjiāng [长江] or Long River in the south known as the Yangtze;
and the Zhūjiāng [珠江] or Pearl River which lies in the southernmost province of Guangdong.
Picture credit: From a scroll depicting the Nine Dragons by 13th century artist Chen Rong [陳容]