Saturday, 2 December 2006

Oriental dragons & mythical beasts

As a fantasy writer, I might reasonably be expected to be interested in dragons and mythical beasts, don’t you think?

Fortunately for me, dragons especially are prevalent in Chinese architecture, folklore, and even urban legend. And, even more fortunately, my hosts in China were exceptionally good at relating history, legend etc about dragons (among other things).

For instance, apparently Shanghai has a dragon living in it, and this has led to a couple of cool stories. First, there’s a building (the stock exchange building, from memory) built with a HUGE square in the middle of it: this is because it was built in the dragon’s flight path, so it’s to allow the dragon to fly through it. Second, as part of a complex multi-level road construction, they once needed to drive a massive (three-metre diameter?) concrete pylon into the ground. But they were having trouble. In the end, it turned out they were trying to drive it through the head of the dragon, so the answer was to carve 9 dragons (9 being the ultimate number for good luck—only slightly better than 8) on the pylon. They did this – 9 beautiful elaborate dragons spiraling around the pylon – and apparently it worked—the pylon was driven into the ground successfully!

There are also dragons everywhere as decoration. Apparently only the emperor was allowed to have a five-clawed dragon (his ultimate symbol), so others have claws corresponding to the rank of the official who commissioned it. In Yu Yuan (gardens) we saw a number of four-clawed dragons as sculptures atop undulating walls. Another impressive dragon site was the nine-dragon screen in the Forbidden City, Beijing. This is a wall (effectively) decorated with nine dragons, all different and in different colours. The central dragon is gold and face-on to the viewer, which was the traditional symbol of the emperor.

Whereas dragons are associated with the emperor (and the masculine), the empress’s symbol is a phoenix. So you frequently see a dragon and phoenix intertwined, or in some form of synergy.

The lions are interesting as well. At the entrance of almost every official building, there is a pair of lions: a female on the left (as you face the entrance) playing with a cub, and a male on the right playing with a ball. Both may have a pearl in their mouths and often have bells carved around their necks. The image of the lion tends to be not very accurate, as evidently lions were unknown in China, and the carvings came from descriptions only. So they don’t look much like lions.

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