Are Dragons Evil, Part 7 – Korean and Vietnamese
This is the final part of my series on dragons.
Korean dragon or yong has many similarities to the Chinese dragon. They are generally benevolent beings related to water and agriculture, and bringers of rain and clouds. Dragons reside in rivers, lakes, oceans, or even deep ponds within the mountains. Three variants are yong, which is the most powerful and protects the skies; yo who lived within the ocean, and kyo, found in the mountains. As with Chinese dragons, number nine is significant and they are said to have 81 scales (9×9) on their backs. Korean dragons too often appear without wings and may be depicted carrying a dragon orb, said to give powers of omnipotence and creation to its wielder. Only four-toed dragons (with thumb) are wise and powerful enough to wield those orbs, as opposed to lesser three-toed dragons that lack the thumb.
Dragon in Korea is generally a spiritual symbol, living in mystical palaces beyond the physical realm, representing the power of the soul, spiritual clarity and good fortune. Under Chinese influence, dragon came to be connected with the Emperor, who himself was associated with rain and agriculture. Dragon is a spiritual being and is a mediator between the gods and humanity, fulfilling the role of Western angels. Dragon may also be the motive spirit power of the Banya-yongseon (Wisdom Dragon Ship) that carries human beings from one shore of the Ocean of Suffering to the Jeongto (Pure Land). Buddha Hall as a whole is believed to be a large boat, carried and sheltered by dragons whose heads at the entrance represent the prow.
Ancient Korean texts sometimes mention sapient speaking dragons, capable of understanding complex emotions (such as gratitude). Great king Munmu (the unificator of Korea) wished, on his deathbead, to become a “Dragon of the East Sea in order to protect Korea”. Dragon is indeed perceived as a protector of the state, a concept that combined dragon worship in folk religion and the dragon as the protector of Buddhism; but the king as a protector of the state is uniquely Korean motif. Dragons were displayed on the robes for royalty to wear as a symbol of power. Gonryongpos or Dragon Robes were a symbol of royal power and authority, and were worn by members of the royal family. Crown prince and his first son wore blue robes, while the king was the only one to don the scarlet robe with a five-clawed dragon in a round emblem (ohyoriongbo). Crown prince wore the four-clawed dragon in emblem (sajoryongbo) while his first son wore the emblem with a three-clawed dragon (samjoryongbo).
Korean folk mythology states that most dragons originally were Imugis, or lesser dragons, said to resemble gigantic serpents. Koreans thought that an Imugi could become a true dragon, or yong or mireu, if it caught a Yeouiju which had fallen from heaven. Another explanation states they are hornless creatures resembling dragons who have been cursed and thus were unable to become dragons. Yet another variant is that an Imugi is a proto-dragon which must survive one thousand years in order to become a fully fledged dragon (500 years as a snake, 500 years as an Imugi). No matter their nature however, Imugis are large, benevolent python-like creatures that live in water or caves, and their sighting is associated with good luck.
Korean cockatrice also exists; it is called gye-long (chicken-dragon) and serves as a chariot-pulling beast for important legendary figures or for the parents of legendary heroes. Princess of Kingdom of Silla was also said to have been born from a cockatrice’s egg.
In Vietnam, the dragon (rong or long) is the most sacred cultural symbol, and is extremely prevalent in the architecture. Like in other Asian countries, dragon brings rain, essential for agriculture. It represents the King, the prosperity and power of the nation, and is the symbol of yang, representing the male. Physically, it is a combination of crocodile, snake, lizard and bird.
A magician king of ancient Linh Nam, called Kinh Duong Vuong, lived in Linh Nam. He was able to walk on water as if it was terra firma, and during one such pleasant walk on a lake, he met Long Nu, the Dragon Maiden, daughter of the Long Vuong (the Dragon King of the Sea) and married her. Their son, Lac Long Quan, became the Dragon King of Lac Viet – ancient Vietnam, having inherited power of dragon from his mother and magic from his father and used them to restore order all over Linh Nam. In the South Sea he killed a gigantic fish demon, and cut it into three parts. The tail became the present-day island of Bach Long Vi (Tail of the White Dragon) in the southern part of Ha Long Bay. Afterwards he also killed the nine-tailed demon which often appeared in human form, siezing the young women and carrying them to his cave to rape and murder them. Cave was destroyed, turning into present-day West Lake in Hanoi. He also overpowered the demonic Evil Tree, which had to flee to the southwest.
When northern chieftain invaded the country, Lac Long Quan drove him back, and took his daughter – Au Co – as a queen. His queen later bore a sack containing a hundred eggs, and these, after seven days, hatched a hundred babies. They eventually grew up into strong and handsome youngsters. King took half of them with him to the sea, and the queen took another half with her to the mountains. They thus created two domains, one with population living in the lowlands and on the coasts, and another with population living in the highlands. Lac’s son inherited the throne under the name of Huong Vuong, inaugurating a line of 18 sovereigns called the Hong Bang Dynasty. Vietnamese people are the descendants of these 100 children. Thus Vietnamese rulers are “children of the dragon, grandchildren of the fairy” (“Con Rong, chau Tien”).
Dragon is often seen as a protector of the Vietnamese people. It is believed to have saved Vietnam from Gengis Khan’s northern invasion by decimating enemy army with its fire breath. A dragon also warned the emperor Ly Thai To to move the country’s capital away from the overflowing water of the Red River. Thus in 1010, king left Hoa Lu (Ninh Binh province) and chose Dai La as the capital of Dai Viet, renaming it into Thang Long (the rising dragon). From then, the dragon became the noble symbol, the power of the royal family and the religion. Emperor Ly Nhan Tong (1066 – 1127) and Emperor Le Thanh Tong (1442 – 1497) were also said to have seen several golden dragons during their reigns.
Even before the unification, dragon was seen as representing talent, nobility and beauty. This is also shown in proverbs – chữ viết đẹp như rồng bay phượng múa, “handwriting is as beautiful as a flying dragon and a dancing phoenix”. But with time, dragon became a symbol of authority of the imperial family. Vietnamese imperial throne is called the “dragon throne”, and the throne hall was also decorated with dragons. Imperial attire and accessories were also related to the dragon: the imperial gown was called long bào and his hat was called long quân. Dragon with five claws was reserved for imperial use, while one with four claws was reserved for use by royal dignitaries and high ranking court officials. Commoners’ dragons oculd only have three claws.
Shape of Vietnam itself also enhances the dragon myth. The Vietnamese consider the shape of their homeland to be similar to a winding dragon. The northern part is its tail, central Vietnam is its body with the Trường Sơn mountain range as its back and spine, and the southern part is dragon’s head, with its open mouth spraying water into the South China Sea. When the Mekong River reaches the South of Vietnam and branches into nine tributaries in the Mekong River Delta, it is called Sông Cửu Long or the “Nine Dragon River”.
Dragon dance is organized on auspicious occasions, such as the Vietnamese New Year. The Nguyễn court (AD 1802-1945) declared Dragon Boat Day one of the three great holidays in Vietnam. The boat race festival was celebrated on the fifth day of fifth lunar month by peasants in South China and Vietnam, to ward off poisonous spirits. Many Vietnamese proverbs and names relate to dragons.
As it can be seen, dragons can be good, evil, ambivalent, or even some combination of the three. Their nature varies from mythology to mythology, but these are really variations of degree: all mythologies have full range of morals for dragons. The question is not whether dragons in certain mythology are morally good, evil or neutral, as there are always all three personalities present. Rather, question is where the emphasis lies.
Thus, it is wrong to say that “Western dragons are evil”, or “Eastern dragons are good”. Things are much more complex than that. So if one wants to use dragons in a story, he can do so without worrying for implications.