The dragon is the mythical being, that comes first to our mind, when thinking of the magical beasts of China.
The dragon is an emblem of spring, a guardian of the east, a healer, a magician and a bringer of rain.
In times of drought it is supplicated for rain and worshipped with processions and plays.
Serpents were thought to be incarnations of the dragon king; statues and images of dragons were placed as guardians to entrances of temples and houses.
The art of riding on a dragon to heaven is described in the first Chinese book of magic, which according to myth had been given to the emperor Huangti by the “dark maiden, daughter of the not personified sky”.
Occasionally the goddess Kwan Yin is depicted with a dragon, and a lovely fairy tale explains the mythical being’s presence in the iconography of the goddess.
Once the dragon king’s eldest son had enjoyed himself playing and swimming in a river’s waters in the shape of a fish, when he was caught in a fisher’s net and brought to the market.
Kwan Yin had seen the unfortunate incident from her heavenly seat, and instantly sent her acolyte to save the young dragon prince from his unpleasant situation.
The acolyte hurried to the market, bought the fish and ran to the river, where he set the watery being free to swim away happily.
The dragon king was so glad to see his son rescued that he decided to present Kwan Yin with a precious gift. As he knew, that the heavenly lady loved to study the wisdom scrolls, his choice fell on a huge luminous pearl, which was radiating light from it’s inside.
He sent his favourite daughter to bring the gift to the goddess’ heavenly abode, and Kwan Yin happily accepted the gift, as now she was able to study the wisdom scriptures by day and by night, as the pearl’s radiating glow served the goddess as a reading lamp in the night.
The dragon king’s daughter became Kwan Yin’s second pupil and stayed with her.
Another mythical animal which appears in the magical scriptures is the three-legged toad, which transformed everything into gold by spitting on it.
The wish to make gold wasn’t a revery dreamt by the alchemists and Magicians of the western hemisphere alone.
Alchemists in the east and the west aspired for the making of gold and the achievement of longevity and even immortality.
The latter was attributed to the crane. according to folklore the “patriarch of the feathered tribe” can become hundreds of years old, is a vehicle for the deities and lead the souls of the deceased safely on the journey to the Netherworld, granting protection against the spirits of darkness, luring along the way.
The same task is fulfilled by the white cock. Cocks enjoy great popularity in the mythology and folklore of China. It is even admitted into their astrological symbolism.
Red cocks are said to protect the house from fire; a drawing of a cock killing a centipede protects from poison and all kinds of diseases, as the centipede is thought to be a vehicle for several demons.
This is not the only example for the use of a drawing or statue presenting the real animal.
The dog protects the house from thieves; cats protect the silk worms from being eaten by rats. It was also thought to communicate with the spirits, who were underway at night.
So statues of dogs were put up in the entrance area of temples, palaces and houses; statues of cats decorated the tops of roofs and walls.
Some animals are thought to be vehicles of good fortune, because the term for them is identical with a word describing some goodies, as the following examples may show.
The Chinese term for a stag is “luh”, a word, that means also honours and good income; hence the painting of this animal is thought to attract exactly these goodies.
The bat is another symbol of luck, as the term for it – “fuh” – has also the meaning
“happiness”, “joy”. Therefore a picture of this winged and furry little friend was expected to attract blessings, good luck and happiness.
A painting or statue of an eagle was thought to ward off all kinds of evil spirits and the only animal that was able to overcome the spirit fox.
The fox is an animal, which appears with extremely contradictory characterisations in the mythology and folklore of ancient China. The fox is said to be out to do mischief at night and may even strike fire from it’s tail in the hours of darkness.
Chinese mythology is also full of examples of fairy foxes assuming he shape of seductive maidens to lure men into an unhappy love affair or even marriage with them.
These associations are much different from the portrayal of the fox as the “old and venerable father of the genii”. The genii are spirits, who are contacted by rituals, including evocations and the drawing of sigills in an hermetic space.
Chinese mythology knows also three fairy foxes, who are sisters and addressed as the “three venerable fairy damsels”.
Those, who dedicated themselves to their service are according to folklore able to heal all illnesses, often with water – it’s energy as well as with the actual fluid. Women, who worshipped these fairy foxes were also thought to be able to enter a house, even when all doors and windows are closed and locked.
Their fairy magic enables them also to transport people through the air and to heal all diseases when being possessed by them. These female mediums, who were healing with the magic of the spirit animal were called “Kuniang – Tsu” – little girl.
The fairy fox damsels and their mediums were protected by the goddess T’ai-Shan niang-niang, who has her abode on the summit of the sacred mountain.
A traveller, who had visited the north of China in the 19th century noticed the immense conscientiousness he perceived in the worship the inhabitants of that region showed in the worship of the five sacred animal families.
These were fox, hedgehog, weasel, rat and serpent. All these animals have in common the ability to disappear into the earth. Therefore they could travel as messengers between the living and the spirit world into the subterranean regions, where the Netherworld was located.
Each of these animals ad to be addressed correctly: the hedgehog was the “old white dame/lady”; the weasel is the ” young yellow mistress”; the fox is “Aunt Hu”.
The women, who worshipped one of these spirit animals dedicated a shrine made of millet stalks and coloured paper as the being’s abode. Meat, incense and light were offered there.
The mediums, who executed this kind of healing magic had been healed with the help of a spirit healer and her animal before and stayed afterwards with her healer to learn her craft.
In other cases the spirit animals called a mediumistic woman into it’s service by making it’s present felt in causing strange behaviour of the future healer.
The hedgehog spirit could rise an appetite for alcoholic beverages in it’s future acolyte.
The serpent / dragon made the chosen person show an obsession for theatricals.
The fox rises a desire for nice and expensive clothes, jewellery and decorative cosmetics in the worshipper.
(Those readers, who are familiar with the African / Caribbean spiritual traditions may recognise here some similarity with that of the manifestations of the loa.)
In the procedure of a healing the first step was the consultation of the healer in her house to ask for her help.
Now the healer went into trance to give an oracle, which contained the client’s chance to be healed by the present medium, the cause for the illness and the modus operandi for the healing procedure.
Chanting, drumming and dancing were part of the methods to induce trance.
The medium was accompanied by some assistants, who were drumming and chanting. The mediums as dancing until sliding into trance. The spirit helper manifests it’s power by letting the dancing medium perform funny jumps. In that moment the members of the woman’s entourage were instantly at her side to uphold her and bring her to her seat.
This method appears in ancient mss as “spirit jumping” – T- iao- shen.
A lot of the spiritual traditions of China had been destroyed by the troops of Mao during the so called cultural revolution, which in reality had been far more a de-culture revolution between 1966 and 1976. Thousands and thousands of Buddhist monks and nuns, Taoist teachers, healers, village witches and shamans were killed or imprisoned in concentration camps and prisons. The scriptures and temples were destroyed, the practice made illegal.
But nothing is forgotten….
Nowadays we may read of holy scriptures, well hidden in caves and only found by some funny “incident”, a runaway goat finding a cave, a man looking for a cool space in a half forgotten room to store food, detects a giant store of sacred scriptures. Teachings come back to the light of day. Rising numbers of people in China feel attracted by the teachings of the Buddha, the goddess Kwan Yin or by the Tibetan goddess Tara.
Next blog: Kwan Yin’s Garden of Magic
Sacred plants of China