LAST             MAIN PAGE             NEXT



RED DRAGON

Most dragons in Chinese art are shown with four toes and only the Emperor was entitled to five on his insignia. Anyone else who presumed to display a five-toed dragon without authorisation met with swift retribution. As a result anyone carrying a travel warrant sealed with the Emperor's five-toed dragon could travel safely from one end of the country to the other and expect hospitality all the way.

In the old days when it was usual to make offerings to dragons at lakes and rivers, people generally first burned incense to attract the dragon's attention and into the glowing brazier they would also throw little prayer papers declaring who they were and the specific object of their prayers. The offerings that rich people threw into lakes to please the dragon included gold, silver, precious stones (especially pearls and opals) and jade, which is held in peculiar reverence among the Chinese. In heaven there was said to be a particular form of jade which dragons and the gods ate. When crossing rivers, rich people also often threw in discs of jade to ensure safe passage, particularly on the Yellow River, known as 'China's Sorrow' because of the frequent devastation caused by its flooding.

Poorer people appealed to the dragon's appetites and offered various foods, including lotus flowers and roasted swallows, of which dragons are said to be inordinately fond. So much so that people were warned against venturing out on the waves after eating roasted swallows because the dragon might smell it, come to the surface for its snack and then grow angry at having been cheated. Cream is another favourite dragon delicacy and at many temples bowls of cream were kept filled at the water's edge. On the other hand the Mong plant, a favourite human delicacy, only made dragons irritable and could upset the weather.