In ancient times, the Chinese people revered their Gods. Animal paintings were considered auspicious and symbolized peace to the people. The animals were known to have their own individual characteristics, which were divine, majestic, and immensely spiritual.
King of animals — dragon
The dragon is the king of animals, the symbol of the emperor’s power; it is majestic and inviolable. It has natural ability, a long body with fish-like scales, and can live in deep rivers, lakes, and ocean settings.
It is extraordinarily mighty, with fierce features of a lion’s mane, antlers, a tiger’s beard, and eagle claws; it can move freely on land as well as in the sky, and rules over wind and rain. It obeys and does not violate the order of heaven. Man respects it and is, at the same time, fearful of it. This celestial animal can fly in the sky, as well as swim underwater.
In Chinese mythology, it was said that the dragon can bring water from rivers, lakes, and oceans to the sky, and precipitate water on the Earth at Heaven’s orders. Agricultural harvests are dependent on precipitation, and so man naturally has a sense of fear for the dragon. How and when the dragon brings rain decides man’s survival to a great extent.
The celestial dragon’s body manifests the two characteristics of “benevolence” and “mightiness.” It brings rain to man, life to all living beings, and benevolence to mankind; however, when it sees man doing evil and going against heaven and earth, it will be merciless in showing its fearsome side by punishing them with drought, red floods, and other natural disasters.
This is the Dragon King executing the order of Heaven. For example, at the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, there was drought in many places. Tang Xuanzong set up an altar to pray for rain, but did not expect the rain to be so heavy that it caused a disastrous flood.
In his anxiety, Tang Xuanzong sought guidance from his high level subjects and followed their advice to construct five to six mud dragons in a temple; this was provided so that the local people could splash water onto the bodies of the mud dragons as they recited incantations. After a while, the rain stopped.
Auspicious bird — Phoenix
The phoenix is the king of birds and an auspicious symbol. Unlike the dragon, which has a fearsome appearance, the phoenix is beautiful and has unparalleled beauty. The flying phoenix has the magical power of “communicating between heaven and earth.”
This beautiful and compassionate bird is remarkably dignified, and Chinese people often longed for the phoenix in the hope that they would be blessed with a happy and prosperous life. As the phoenix was known to be “auspicious,” Chinese people called its name, as it was believed that this would bring happiness.
Benevolent animal — Unicorn
The unicorn is a lucky animal. It has the head of a dragon, the body of a deer, the eyes of a lion, a body covered with the scales of a fish, and the hooves of a horse. Its presence was mighty. In ancient times, the unicorn was said to be a peaceful and benevolent animal; it appears when there is peace and prosperity and a sage is in administration and a kind emperor in power.
It was believed that the unicorn could bring benevolence. It appears only before the birth or death of a great and wise person. In ancient times, emperors liked to decorate buildings with pictures of unicorns and to pray for peace and prosperity. The Chinese people liked to call their clever and smart children “unicorn children”.
Paintings of unicorns coupled with a child were very popular. In addition, children were given ornaments of the animal as gifts, as it was believed that this would bless them and allow them to be a strong pillar of society.
Spiritual and kind animal — Tortoise
The mythical tortoise had a ferocious and aggressive appearance; the face of a male lion with protruding eyes, and sharp and long teeth. Its fierce appearance was believed to be directed at demons and diseases that harm the human world. To mankind, it is an auspicious and kind animal.
It is very loyal and faithful to its Lord; its character is upright and looked upon as the protector of the household, by warding off evil spirits. It is worth mentioning that the tortoise has either one or two horns on the head; when it has just one horn, it is called “Tianlu,” and when it has two horns, it is said to “ward off evil spirits.”
During the first Chinese emperor’s time, the tortoise put a lot of effort into taming the Yellow River and helping the emperor to lay the foundation for his empire. In recognition of its merits, the emperor honored the tortoise as “Tianlu,” and entrusted it to take care of the Imperial wealth. The tortoise then became known as the “Imperial treasure.”
For its bravery, the Chinese people recognized the tortoise as the animal that could “ward off evil spirits.” The Chinese people often placed pictures of the ferocious-looking tortoise in front of their houses to ward off disaster and to accumulate wealth.
However, these people did not realize that no matter how loyal the tortoise was, it would only ward off external disaster. It was believed that people should accept the tortoise wholeheartedly; if not, disaster could not be avoided.
Translated by Chua BC and Copyedited by Stef Cox
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