A Feast of Lanterns, by L. Cranmer-Byng, , at sacred-texts.com
The Dragon is one of the four spiritually endowed creatures of China, the others being the Unicorn, the Phoenix, and the Tortoise. There are four principal Lung, or Dragons: the celestial Dragon, which supports and guards the mansions of the gods; the Spiritual Dragon, which causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall; the Earth Dragon, which marks out the courses of rivers and streams; and the Dragon of the Hidden Treasure, which watches over wealth concealed from mortals. Here, however, we are chiefly concerned with the significance of the Dragon in connection with Chinese art and literature. From earliest times it has been associated in the Chinese mind with the element of water. Most of the great philosophers have used this element by way of illustration, but Liu An, the mystical Prince of Huai-nan, has epitomised all that his countrymen ever felt or expressed on the subject:
"There is nothing in the world so weak as water; yet its experience is such that it has no bounds, its depth such that it cannot be fathomed. In length it is without limit, in distance it has no shores; in its flows and ebbs, its increase and decrease, it is measureless. When it rises to Heaven, it produces rain and dew; when it falls upon the earth, it gives richness and moisture; there is no creature in the world to whom it does
not impart life, and nothing that it does not bring to completion.
"It holds all things in its wide embrace with perfect impartiality, its graciousness extends even to creeping things and tiny insects, without any expectation of reward. Its wealth is sufficient to supply the wants of the whole world, without fear of exhaustion; its virtue is bestowed upon the people at large, and yet there is no waste. Its flow is ever onward—ceaseless and unlimited; its subtlety such that it cannot be grasped in the hand. Strike it—you hurt it not; stab it—you cause no wound; cut it—you cannot sever it in twain; apply fire to it—it will not burn. Whether it runs deep or shallow, seen or unseen, taking different directions—flowing this way and that, without order or design—it can never be utterly dispersed. Its cutting power is such that it will work its way through stone and metal; its strength so great that the whole world is succoured by it. It floats lazily through the regions of formlessness, soaring and fluttering above the realms of obscurity; it worms its way backwards and forwards among valleys and watercourses, it seethes and overflows its bank in vast and desert wilds. Whether there be a superfluity of it, or a scarcity, the world is supplied according to its requirements for receiving and for imparting moisture to created things, without respect to precedence in time. Wherefore there is nothing
either generous or mean about it, for it flows and rushes with echoing reverberations throughout the vast expanse of Earth and Heaven."
If you close your eyes after reading this passage, you will see in a vision the flight of the Chinese Dragon, soaring and fluttering above the realms of obscurity. He is greater than Leviathan, "that crooked serpent," the storm dragon, greater than Tannin, dragon of the streaming rain, greater than Rahabh, devourer of the westering sun, or Babylonian Tiamat, also the dragon deep. For these are the rude imaginings of early religionists, and no more resemble him than primitive scratchings on rock or bone resemble the vast brood of Sekko, who "in olden time fancied dragons, painted them, and spent days and nights in loving them." The former stand for chaos and rebellion, but the Chinese Lung is the ascending one, rising to power through adaptability to change, recoiling upon himself only to produce new forms.
"The dragon," says Kuan Tzu, "becomes at will reduced to the size of a silkworm or swollen till it fills the space of heaven and earth. It desires to mount, and it rises until it affronts the clouds; to sink, and it descends until hidden below the fountains of the deep." And so, from a symbol of spiritual power from whom no secrets are hidden, this dragon becomes a symbol of the human soul in its divine adventure, "climbing
aloft on spiral gusts of wind, passing over hills and streams, treading in the air, and soaring higher than the Kwan-lun Mountains, bursting open the Gate of Heaven, and entering the Palace of God."
The symbol suggests, and all Chinese poetry is the poetry of suggestion. A poem is not merely inspired, but inspiring. It implies collaboration between the poet and his audience.
Poetry, according to a Chinese commentator, is designed to raise the reader to a plane of mental ecstasy known to the Buddhists as samadhi. No great poem finishes when the last line is brought to a close. The poet has merely propounded a theme which the reader continues; "each stanza is but the unclosing of a door whose last swings out upon the eternal quest. Through the glimpse vouchsafed to us we ourselves become visionaries." In most early Chinese poems the influence of Taoism, the nature philosophy of Lao Tzu and Chuang Tzu, is felt. With a philosophy based upon the words of Chuang Tzu, "The true sage, taking his stand upon the beauty of the universe, pierces the principle of things," it is small wonder that the broad stream of speculative thought found its final outlet in Chinese art and poetry.
Its three most precious jewels were Weakness, Emptiness, and Humility, and their earthly counterparts Water, Space, and Flowers. To have the attributes of these three was to become
a Taoist. Artists and poets were the anchorites of Tao, and the secret places of nature their shrines. The savage transports of Alexandrian fanatics, the sensual raptures of later mysticism, and the torture lusts of Indian fakirs never shook them from their indomitable calm. The winds brought them romance from "a hundred moonlit miles," or sped them adventuring on strange waters. For music they had the waterfall and the twilight orchestras of birds preluding the dramas of dawn or shadow plays of night.
The souls of these ancient Rishis and Arhats were caravanserais of cheer for men, and their minds still waters reflecting the brief moonlight, the passing cloud, and the blossom ere it fell: Yet I should be the last to convey the idea that all Chinese poets and artists were anchorites. In the third century A.D. one of the earliest literary coteries known to history—The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove—found a common inspiration in wine. Wang Chi, of the seventh century, was known as the Five Bottle Scholar. Li Po, and his contemporary Tu Fu, were both hard drinkers. Moreover, many of China's greatest poets were also her greatest statesmen. This is especially true of the Tang dynasties which produced Wang Chien, Han Yü, and Po Chü-i, and the Sung, which includes Wang An-shih, the great social reformer and poet, Su Tung-p‘o, and, to a lesser degree, others innumerable.
[paragraph continues] Such a combination would be almost impossible in the West, and it is difficult to recall any name that is associated imperishably with both. Yet the following passage from the writings of Chuang Tzu will show clearly how the men of ancient China attained their dual citizenship and achieved greatness in two worlds through the doctrine of the guarded life:
"Outwardly you may adapt yourself, but inwardly you must keep to your own standard. In this there are two points to be guarded against. You must not let the outward adaptation penetrate within, nor the inward standard manifest itself without. In the former case you will fall, you will be obliterated, you will collapse, you will lie prostrate. In the latter case you will be a sound, a name, a bogie, an uncanny thing."
And of those who carried out these precepts he says:
"They seemed to be of the world around them, while proudly treading beyond its limits… they saw in penal laws a trunk, in social ceremonies wings, in wisdom a useful accessory; in morality a guide. For them penal laws meant a merciful administration; social ceremonies, a passport through the world; wisdom, an excuse for doing what they could not help; and morality, walking like others upon the path."