Dragons as Water Spirits

xishuipo dragon and tiger

The Chinese dragon is ancient. In Handbook of Chinese Mythology, Yang Lihui and An Deming refer to archaeological evidence from the Xishuipo excavation, where the above photograph is from:

The figure of the dragon appeared within the modern boundaries of China at least 6,000 years ago. In 1987, at Xishuipo Cemetary Ruins in Puyang County, Henan Province, figures of a dragon and a tiger were unearthed in a tomb. Both of them were made from numerous shells. The dragon measured 1.78 meters (nearly 6 feet) in length and 0.67 (2.2 feet) in height. Dating back to over 6,400 years, it is presently the earliest image of a dragon uncovered in Chinese archeology. (100)

In the Classic of Mountains and Seas, or Shanhaijing, dragons appear in various roles including as controllers of rainfall. For example, “In a text from chapter 14 of Shanhaijing, Yinglong [the “responding dragon”] is described as a god who had the power of controlling the rain” (Yang 234).  Regarding the timing of composition, Yang and An write:

Most scholars believe that Shanhaijing was written by many different authors in different times. As for dating Shanhaijing, most think this book was written in the period from the middle of the Warring States era to the beginning of the Western Han era (ca. fourth century BC to the early second century BC). (7)

By most accounts, this predates the introduction of Buddhism to China. The active spread of Buddhism is dated to the latter half of the Han Dynasty (the first two centuries CE), though there are stories of earlier missionaries.

nagaNaga Kanya (Snake Woman)

In Chinese Mythology, A to Z, Jeremy Roberts claims that Buddhism introduced a negative view of certain dragons. This may not be true, since I don’t know much about nagas, but I present it here anyways, as part of the larger inquiry into the influence of Buddhism on Chinese conception of the dragon:

The portrayal of dragons turned more negative as Buddhism spread through China. The Indian naga, or dragon, was most often associated with evil or destruction. In these stories, nagas were terrifying, spiteful dragons of the mountains. They guarded fantastic treasures, fought with the garuda, or vulture, which in China became associated with Lei Gong, the god of thunder, and raided the villages. (34)

He then clarifies that these views did not apply to the water dragons, or to the “dragon kings” which originated in India:

Buddhists made a distinction between the evil mountain dragons, which made trouble for the people, and water dragons, which were considered beneficial. They also brought the myths of eight dragon kings of India […] these Indian dragon kings were more reason- able creatures than the mountain nagas. They ruled their own underwater kingdoms and lived in palaces built in caves under the sea, where they were often visited by deities and immortals.” (34)

Yang and An agree that Buddhism introduced the concept of dragon kings, and assert that they were seen positively and became very popular, as proved by the spread of their worship:

Though the dragon shows up very early in Chinese history and culture, and dragon kings have become popular gods in Chinese beliefs nowadays, the figures of dragon kings actually did not appear until the Eastern Han dynasty, when Buddhism was imported into China. A deity named Naga was linked with the divine dragon originating in Chinese Buddhism. Because it was thought of as the main god that took charge of rain, a vital resource for agricultural society, the dragon king emerging from Chinese Buddhism received positive feedback from people. Inspired by this, Taoist leaders created their own dragon kings to meet ordinary people’s needs and hence attract followers. Therefore, many dragon kings emerged from Chinese Buddhism, Taoism, and popular religion. (108)

Yang and An suggest that this is when an animistic view of dragons residing in every body of water began:

People began to believe that in every sea, river, lake, spring and even well there must be a dragon king reigning, and numerous temples for dragon kings were built throughout the country. Each dragon king was different in power, rank, and ability, but they all were worshiped as important deities by people in different areas. (108)

There is a Dragon King temple on South Lake Island, which is located in the middle of Kunming Lake, inside the grounds of the Summer Palace.

Regardless of the specific point in time when the link between dragons and rainfall was generalized to all bodies of water, the belief matches the process of evaporation well:

According to ancient legends, if a yellow dragon entered a very deep cave, a spring of yellow water would spontaneously bubble out of the ground and flood the cave, which then became the dragon’s home. The ancient Chinese book Yih Ling says “a dragon hidden in water is useless,” referring to the belief that dragons could only bring life-giving rain when they came out of the water. But dragons had to preserve their rain-giving powers by resting in their dragon wells through the winter, which explained why there was often a drought in that season. Spring came when the dragons began to wake up. (Roberts 37)

There are numerous rain-bringing rituals in China, but some particularly interesting ones involve the deliberate provocation of dragons living in the water. Personally, I wouldn’t suggest utilizing these practices unless they are the tradition of one’s community or unless you are a farmer who actually needs it to rain desperately (and all propitiatory methods have failed), but they are fascinating to know about:

One of those was to throw a tiger’s bone into the pool where a dragon was thought to live. The dragon would be irritated and would fight with the tiger, and this would cause heavy rain. The reason for this that the dragon and the tiger are the most fierce and powerful creatures, therefore they cannot bear each other. Whenever they see each other, or even sense a part of the other, they will fight. Another method was to throw dirty things into a pool. Because the dragon could not bear filth, it would create rain to clean its pool. (Yang 108)

As the Xishuipo excavation shows, the pairing of dragon and tiger is as old as the dragon itself. Typically, they are seen as opposites, as in the quote above. In the wu xing or Five Elements, the dragon is associated with the direction East and element of wood, while the tiger is associated with the West and metal (which destroys wood). Roberts relays accounts that dragons hate iron:

Dragons had a unique relationship with metals. Ancient accounts claimed that dragons hated iron. When Chinese wanted rain, they threw iron bars into the waters where a dragon lived. The iron was believed to irritate the dragon’s eyes, forcing it to rush out of its watery home and hover in the air, breathing out colored mists that brought rain. On the other hand, dragons were said to love copper, gemstones, and, most of all, pearls. (33)

Again, I personally am not planning to adopt the provocative method into my practice. I am interested, though, in how copper, gemstones and pearls could potentially be used as offerings to dragons. Incidentally, the U.S. quarter is 91.66% copper, the rest being nickel, while the penny is a mere 2.5%. Furthermore, cupronickel was used in China as early as 120 BCE. However, one must also consider that standard 90-10 cupronickel alloys also typically have 1-2% iron content: I’m not sure if that little makes a big difference, and perhaps a 1-2% prayer for rain isn’t a bad thing.

The depiction of dragons with pearls (often wreathed in flames, possibly to symbolize the sun) is common in Chinese art, as can be seen at the Nine Dragon Wall at Beihai Park in Beijing.


It appears that certain theories about the origin of dragons actually suggest a connection to metal, or at least gold, while another links them to pine trees:

There were different mythological theories about where dragons came from. […] The most ancient myths described them as colorful creatures, born in caves or mountains with veins of gold. A yellow dragon, for example, was believed to have been born in a cave made of 1,000-year-old yellow gold, while a blue or azure dragon was born in a cave made of 800-year- old blue gold. […] A later myth told how very old pine trees with bark covered in scales would eventually turn into dragons. (Roberts 33)

Pines are usually symbols of longevity in Chinese culture. It is interesting that this myth reinforces the link between the dragon and the element of wood, though there is no indication that this is anything more than a coincidence.

When it comes to living creatures that become dragons, there are, of course, also the famous carp that jump through the Dragon Gate and thereby become dragon kings:

In their transformative leap, these special carp kept their fish heads and gills while their bodies assumed the shape of a dragon. (In some stories, dragon kings are described as being able to assume a human shape, as well.) The dragon kings rule the seas but are required to report to the Jade Emperor in Heaven in the spring when the constellation of the dragon is at its highest point. (Roberts 36)



Roberts, Jeremy. Chinese Mythology, A to Z. 2nd ed. New York: Chelsea House, 2010. PDF accessible online here.

Yang, Lihui and Deming An, with Jessica Anderson Turner. Handbook of Chinese Mythology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Image Credits: First picture by Marilyn Shea of the University of Maine, Farmington.

The naga image is from Exotic India.

Third, fourth and fifth pictures via Wikimedia Commons. The third and fourth are licensed under Creative Commons, the last is in the public domain.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s