Excerpts from writings on the origin of dragon symbolism

Naga Serpent King

Above: The legend of the Naga Serpent King as depicted in Indian and SEA symbolism and iconography

Below: Qin Dynasty (475-207 BCE) bronze dragon  – Shaanxi History Museum, Xi’an, China

Qin Dynasty (475-207 BCE) bronze dragon design - Shaanxi History Museum, Xi'an, China

Qin Dynasty (475-207 BCE) bronze dragon design –

Below: China – BCE 6th c-5th c Eastern Zhou Jade Dragon Pendant 1 and dragon bronze bell  Smithsonian Sackler 


Above 4th-5th c. ceramic dragon tomb guardian, The Walters Art Museum

Tan Chung’s work “A SINO-INDIAN PERSPECTIVE FOR INDIA-CHINA UNDERSTANDING” (excerpted below) is an important work presenting an overarching theory of India and China as cultural twins from which the symbolism of the dragon in China is a kind of mirror of the naga-serpent symbolism in India. This work deserves our consideration in the light of genetic studies especially on the common genetic pool of Haplogroup O (Y-DNA) and its subclades in the two countries, and many other M derived lineages out of India into China.  In tracing the origins of early Buddhism, this work is also invaluable. It might also be read with a view to understanding the identity of  how “China” “cinas” came about see “The Polity of Yelang (夜郎) and the Origins of the Name ‘China’” ; see also the board discussion  on all mentions in India of Chinna especially in Indian sacred texts . Finally, these works are being examined for a background understanding of the development of early Buddhism, and the forms it took as it spread to East Asia, particularly to Japan. One of the important early symbols or icons similar to the naga serpent was that of the xuanwu found on tomb murals, the influences, ideas and iconic art hailed from Taoist monasteries of China, such those on the Wudang Mountain.

Turtle and Snake, symbols of Wudang Mountain Taoism

Symbol of Wudang Mountain, the Xuanwu tortoise-serpent-dragon at Purple Cloud Temple Photo: Silent Tao

Left: The Genbu black warrior seen on the Takamatsuka Kofun tomb mural in Asuka Village, Japan | Right: The Koguryo hyunmu that is regarded as a mythical beast (black turtle that has a snakes for a tail) guarded the north of a Koguryo tomb mural, National Museum of Korea

Xuanwu (or Genbu equivalent in Japanese ), whose shape is like the play between a tortoise/turtle and a serpent, is the god in the north in Chinese ancient legends as well as on East Asian constellation charts. Seen from the sky, the shape of Heavenly Pillar Peak of Wudang Mountain, is said to be like a large tortoise/turtle, and the walls and buildings are just like a divine serpent winding around the tortoise/turtle; which form a miraculous picture of tortoise/turtle and serpent.

However, this tortoise-serpent myth likely had its origins in the Indian mythical World Tortoise the Kurma or Kurmaraja. The Shatapatha Brahmana identifies the earth as its lower shell, the atmosphere as its body and the vault of heaven as its upper shell. The concept of World-Tortoise and World-Elephant was conflated in popular or rhetorical references to Hindu mythology. A tortoise Chukwa was said to be supporting the Mount Meru that is central to Hindu and Buddhist cosmology (Source: The Turtle and the Elephant).

The developed form of the iconic and ornate dragon actually emerges rather late in China, earlier Shang and Zhou dragon art appeared in cruder coiled serpent-like forms.


“If we regard India and China as cultural twins from the same cradle, it is important to find the cultural affinity of the two civilizations. One common symbol is the powerful snake whose legendary image is known as Nagaraja in India, and LonglDragon in China. In Chinese Buddhist literature, these two symbols have merged into “Long”. (Chinese translators, like the famous pilgrim Xuanzang, rendered the supernatural Naga in ancient Indian texts into Longldragon on purpose.) Ancient Chinese heard about the magical power of Indians to call rains whenever they wanted. Some Indian Buddhist monks, like Vajrabodhi and Amoghavajra etc., demonstrated such a power by playing with the symbol of NagalDragon. We have records of Indian monks presiding over imperial rain-invoking ceremonies when China was visited by severe drought in the years 366, 726, 772 and 889, the last occurred in independent Yunnan -the state of Nanzhao.2 Both India and China were agrocultures (I have coined the term to replace the tongue-twister “agricultural culture”) for which rain-fall assumed great importance. The imaginary powerful NagamjalDragon symbol definitely had a connection with it. We can describe the two civilizations as Snake-Power Twins before the advent of Buddhism in China.

I have taken this proposition of Naga-Long twinhood to the academic fora both in China and in Taiwan, and have encountered violent opposition. My opponents argued that Long had had its independent existence for five-six thousand years, that China was always the Homeland of Dragon, and the Chinese were famous for being the “Progenies of Dragon” {Long de chuanren). Even the idea of a part of the social functions of the dragon symbol might originate from India was unacceptable because it hurt the Chinese pride in their thousand years of affinity with Long. This, in a way, underlines the daunting task of popularizing the Sino-Indian perspective among Chinese (and also Indian) scholars while studying the history and culture of India and China. The Sino-Indian perspective involved here is to treat Chinese and Indian cultures not as two separate entities developing in isolation, but as the two faces of the same culture developing in different socio-cultural surroundings constantly benefited by interface synergy. The mystification of the supernatural power of snake in India and Long in China was the product of agriculture of both the countries. While we don’t have concrete evidence for the Indian input in the imagination of the pre. Buddhist Chinese Long, we certainly can trace the Indian influence on the Buddhist (and post Buddhist, if you wish) Chinese Long. For one thing, the artifacts that symbolize Long created in pre-Buddhist China are by and large free from the fierce look that typifies the Buddhist Long (like the Chinese say, “zhangya wuzhua”, i.e. baring its teeth and waving its claws) which clearly demonstrate the inner social function of LonglDragon as the guardian of the imperial system. It is in this function that we clearly see the Indian contribution.

To recapitulate what I have spelt out elsewhere, during the pre-Buddhist period, even as late as the Han Dynasty, the Dragon/Long was treated as a “beast” (chu). The famous Han scholar, Wang Chong (27-97?), cited Chinese traditions like Long being reared so that people could eat its liver.3 But, in Indian legends, Siva was a Naga, Buddha was also a Naga, and the Indian traditions of Nagaraja performing the role of a guardian-angel for the God/Buddha and the sacred treasure. It was this message which was driven home in Chinese oral culture as well as literary tradition. Only after absorbing this cultural function from the Indian Nagaraja did the Chinese Long become a close companion of the Chinese imperial families in all dynasties from Sui. Tang till the Manchu. Another clear Chinese borrowing from India is the “Dragon-King” (Longwang) from the Indian Nagaraja. China scholars have found that this cult of Longwang has settled deeply in China’s socio-cultural chemistry as many penetrating studies, like that of Prasenjit Duara, who has included Longwang in his projection of the “cultural nexus of power” in China.4 Longwang/Dragon King is undisputably the symbol of Sino-Indian cultural twinhood that demonstrates the existence of Snake- Power Twins of India and China.

As culture advanced, the Snake-Power Twins transformed themselves into a new and higher stage of relations. This was brought about by the “Great Carrier” Mahayana -here I use the Sanskrit word from a non-religious perspective, viewing it as the carrier of a large treasure of Indian culture to China in the name of Buddha. Before I delve into the Sino-Indian cultural synergy wrought by the Buddhist evangelic movement, let me take up the early Sino-Indian contacts from the firm ground backed by historical evidence. We are in a position to say that Indians were among the earliest foreigners to know about the Chinese silk, and also to engage in its international trade long before the famous “Silk Road” between Luoyang and Rome became a thriving international phenomenon. The first foreign words for Chinese silk were “cinamsuka” (Chinese silk dress) and “cinapatta” (Chinese silk bundle) enshrined in Kautilya’s Arthasastra which goes back to the 4th century BC. There was the famous “Chinese discovery of India” in the 1st century BC by Zhang Qian (also spelled as Chang Ch’ien), personal envoy of the powerful Han Emperor Wu (reigning from 140 to 87 B.C). When he was sent to Central Asia to conclude alliances against the Hun tribes, he saw silk fabrics, the products of the southwestern Chinese province Sichuan, in the market place of “Daxia” (probably Afghanistan or north of it). He was told that the fabrics were re-exported by the Indian merchants to the hinterland of Central Asia.5

When Yunnan was annexed into the Han Empire in the 1st century AD, the Chinese authorities found that among the foreign settlers there was an Indian community named “Shendu” (perhaps a corruption of “Hindu”) that was “Indians” or “India.” But, the Chinese knowledge about “Shendu” went back to as early as the pre-Han days (3rd century BC) according to some ficticious historical accounts. India also loomed large in the broad rubric “xiyu” (western regions), because if we glean the data from all early Chinese narratives about Xiyu, we definitely find the depictions of India. Another ambiguous rubric is “Daqin” which was connected with India in two ways. First, India was trading with “Daqin” (denoting Roman Empire) on the sea. Second, ancient Chinese confused Europe with India and other far-away lands which they had had contacts through the sea. For instance, the Chinese records attributed elephant-teeth and rhinoceros as products of Daqin (while these were clearly Indian specialities not produced in Europe). Thus when the Han records say that Daqin was keenly interested in Chinese silk it actually indicated a triangular route of the Chinese export of silk reaching India, and also Europe via India. In 166 AD, the Chinese recorded the arrival of an embassy probably sent by the Roman Emperor, Mareus Aurelius Antonius, in the Han court. The Roman embassy arrived by sea and landed somewhere near the present Guangdong Province in southern China, and journeyed to the Han capital, Luoyang, by road. The embassy made a present to the Chinese emperor which contained ivory, rhinceros’ hom (a precious ingredient for Chinese medicine) and the shell of haw”sbill turtle, all products of India.6 From these accounts, we see fairly brisk contacts between the two great civilizations across great distance either through Central Asia overland, or over the sea. This would not exclude the direct trans-Himalayan contacts as well. Only when there were contacts could legends travel between the two civilizations.

I now return to the legend of Longwang which forms a part of the “cultural nexus of power” in China. Longwang provides an interesting academic phenomenon of historical development of mythology through which an imaginary symbol has been transformed into material social power. Such a transformation is no strange phenomenon in India as well. When foreign and native tourists see historical sites in India and China they are fed with a lot of information originated from legends packaged as historical data. This commonality between India and China speaks of their shared richness of cultural traditions, and also their common possession of unscientific cultural temperament. But, as scholars of cultural studies, we scientifically recognize religion as a component of culture although religion is not science. A historian makes a scientific observation that Buddhism was spread to China, and, as a result, Chinese created some holy shrines on their soil. So, when we look at the cultural map of China we see the sanctification of mythology in China’s day-to-day life as if it forms a part of China’s historical development. Let me spell out a little.

Among the legends of Yunnan, there is one recorded in the Gazetteer of Yunnan Province compiled during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). A “Cock’s Foot Hill” (Jizushan) at Binchuan County in the province was obviously christened after the Sanskrit Kukkutapadagiri -the name of the hill only 50 kilometres away from the bodhi tree under which Gautama Buddha attained his enlightenment. The Yunnan legend claims that Jizushan, too, was the place where Lord Buddha had practised asceticism. A mystic fragrance would greet a visitor, says the legend.7 Here, the duplicating effect of culture was at work. Ramapithecus split into two groups and settled on both sides of the Himalaya, Kukkutapadagiri begot its double, and Lord Buddha pursued his enlightenment twice -once in ancient Bihar (Magadha), and another time in ancient Yunnan! My observation here is a mix between archaeological findings and legends, but it is an objective assessment of the cultural reality in between the Indian and Chinese civilizations. Many, particularly the people of Yunnan, have accepted the mix as a cultural heritage.

Let me give another example. In Chinese historical and semi-historical documents: there are places called “Shang Tianzhu”, “Zhong Tianzhu”, and “Xia Tianzhu” which literally mean, “Upper India”, “Middle India”, and “Lower India”. These three names actually indicate just a few square kilometres in Hangzhou City in Zhejiang Province in eastern China. How has such a mix-up come about? It is because of a legend that was the making of an ancient Indian Buddhist monk-scholar “Huili” (whose real identity is lost). In 326, this monk from western India came to Hangzhou. After seeing a hill in this area (in the vicinity of the scenic West Lake), he authoritatively proclaimed that the hill had been flown to China from Magadha (Bihar)! The Chinese believed him and, henceforth, called the hill “Tianzhushan”(the “Indian Hill”) and “Feilaifeng”(the “Peak that has flown here from India”).8 It was this legend that has contributed to the existence of “Upper” , “Middle” and “Lower” India on the Chinese map. …

Chinese legend-makers have claimed that four Indian Bodhisattvas have settled in China: Avalokitesvara at Mount Putuo in Zhejiang Province, Manjusri at Mount Wutai in Shanxi Province, Samantabhadra at Mount Emei in Sichuan Province, and Ksitigarbha at Mount Jiuhua in Anhui Province. Now, these legends have gone beyond their originally designed substance of oral literature. They have been utilized by people of China today, particularly the tourist departments, as facts confirmed by cultural traditions as well as by history and geography. China’s being a tourist attraction today (so is India) contrasts greatly to, say, America’s attraction. Millions of tourists go around China climbing mountains and reaching very remote corners of the country not only to appreciate natural scenery, but also pay homage to historical memories -visiting a Tang monastery, a Song pagoda, or a Northern Wei cave etc. Ninety per cent of these historical memories are associated with the spread of Buddhism in China. When we see architectural wonders being built hundreds and more than a thousand years ago in the remote corners of China to commemorate the arrival of Buddhism we know that in historical times immense human activities were attracted to these places surmounting many folds of difficulties than the tourists do today -being beckoned by legends and mythology. In other words, legends became an important investment in China’s cultural splendours. This is her gain as the Buddhist-twin of India -the country that has invented Buddhism.

It {urns out that though India invented Buddhism she benefited much less from this invention as compared with China. For Buddhism, it had a horizontal development, and for some time it was as if all the roads were leading to China -eminent monk-scholars, scriptures, artifacts, and legends. To the Chinese, the four great Buddhist Bodhisattvas (as alluded to just now) had left India for good, but not the Buddha. No Chinese account, however daring, has the audacity to claim that Buddha is no longer residing In India. Indian mythology, i.e. the Tantric traditions, however, reached a very daring and pro-China conclusion proclaiming China as the country where the true Buddha lives. The Tantric literature Taratantra in the section entitled “Rudrayamala”, described an Indian ascetic, Vasistha, having failed to obtain siddhi (divine power) in India, travelled to China -the “land of Atharvaveda” where he saw Buddha having an indulgence in meat, wine and women. Vasistha emulated such behaviours of Buddha and “attained final liberation”,10

All this shows that Buddhism has injected a special dynamism in our studies of the history of India, China and India-China relations, and should force us to adopt the Sino-Indian perspective, What we have cited above are indications of the non- demarcation of an international boundary between India and China in the cultural arena. As the Chinese say: “Ni zhong you wo, wo zhongyou ni,” (There is me in you, and you in me,) so is there India in China and vice versa. I should think that such a holistic phenomenon surely exists independent of Buddhism, but it is Buddhism which has made the phenomenon so obvious. The study of legends has served to sharpen our awareness of this holistic vision which is the essence of the Sino-Indian perspective I am discussing.

Let me move from legend to historical records which is a strong Chinese turf. According to a recent study the term “Zhongguo” (now the Chinese name for “China”) appeared 178 times in all written documents before China’s unification in 221 BC. “Guo” in the bisyllable denoted “country”, or “state”, while the other syllable “zhong” denoting “centre”, (This has given rise to the international term “Middle Kingdom”, and also the international stigma of “sinocentrism”.) But, politically China was not one state when these terms appeared. A detailed investigation of these 178 concepts proves that they mean different things in various contexts, and were anything but the suggestion that China lay in the centre of the universe. One scholar felt that “zhongguo” arrived as a symbol of a kind of unity in diversity,11 This shows clearly that the progenies of the Ramapithecus north of the Himalaya started an endeavour in the hinterland of present China to build up a commonwealth sharing a common cultural development, Such a commonwealth would not exclude communities from various directions who might not be the direct descendants of the trans-Himalayan Ramapithecus. It can be said that in ancient India, the same movement towards establishing a commonwealth was in action culminating in the establishment of the Maurya and Gupta empires.

To continue with the historical employment 9f the “Zhongguo” terminology. Chinese Buddhist scholars, from the early centuries of our common era onwards, attached to it a new signification, i.e. India, Daoxuan, In Shijia Fangzhi (Gazetteer of Sakyamuni World) wrote :

“When we discuss terminology we generally say ‘zhongguo’ is the western regions [xiyu], its another name is ‘Central Tianzhu’ [Central Heavenly India]. Sages of this land reiterate that the western country is Zhongguo.”12
Here, Daoxuan was citing the ancient Indiar) signification of “Madhyadesa” for Magadha. That he had no hesitation in transposing the Chinese term “Zhongguo” (Central state) to Magadha, the heartland of Buddhist India (in modern Bihar) may indicate his absolute loyalty to Buddha, but also indirectly reflects the open-mindedness among Chinese intellectuals of his times. He, further, in the same text, cited a debate taken place in the court of Emperor Wen of Song (reigning from 424 to 453 AD), In the presence of the emperor, Buddhist monk-scholar Huiyan out-smarted learned scholar He Chengtian by saying that in summer in India there was no shadow which proved that India was the real “zhongguo”, The emperor was pleased to hear that and offered an appointment to the monk.13 Once again, it was the Chinese ruler’s being convinced, (in this case, that India, not China, was the central state and lay at the centre of the earth) that should be noted than monk Hulyan’s going overboard to compliment India.

We notice that Shijia Fangzhi was a famous Chinese book penned in “High Tang”, i.e. when Tang Dynasty attained highest power and prosperity, while Tang Dynasty 1s generally regarded as the “golden period” of China’s cultural development. During such a period, Chinese Buddhist writers, Daoxuan and many others, used the term “Zhongguo” only to signify India, while calling China “Dong tu” (Eastern Land). In non-Buddhist literature during Tang one seldom comes across (if ever) the teim “Zhongguo” -and denoting China. But, terms like “Tianzhu” (Heavenly India), and “Xitian” (“Western Heaven” also denoting India), are replete in Tang literature, The conclusion drawn from this phenomenon is the absence of narrow feelings of nationalism, which explains how the name of India attained a special status of respect and intimacy when Chinese imperial power reached its zenith in the ancient period, Beyond doubt, this cultural intimacy was more because of the sharing of Buddhist culture as the two civilizations graduated from the stage of Snake-power Twins to a higher stage of Buddhist Twins.”


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