Whether or not you agree that legends about the giant unicorn Elasmotherium inspired the myth of the unicorn zhi, there is no doubt that from ancient times the Chinese believed that prehistoric animal fossils were the longgu (bones) and longya or longchi (teeth) of mythic dragons. Thought to contain great healing power, dragon’s bones and dragon’s teeth have been mined and ground up for use in Chinese medicine from time immemorial down to the present. Today in China, caches of fossils continue to provide a source of great wealth for local peasants who keep their locations secret as long as possible, thus greatly frustrating the work of Chinese paleontologists (fig. 35).
Figure 35. An open air “drugstore” in Guilin where fossil bones and teeth are sold for medicine
According to Bruce MacFadden, “the Chinese value teeth more highly, and teeth are therefore more expensive than bones” (MacFadden, 1992, 52).
The curative powers of these fossils are legendary, and in texts on Chinese medicine they are recommended for a multitude of ailments.
According to the ancient pharmacopoeia many diseases may be cured by dragon’s bone: dysentery, gall-stones, fevers and convulsions in children at the breast, internal swellings, paralysis, women’s diseases, malaria, etc.
Dragon’s teeth are also highly esteemed as medicine, and according to the oldest medical work, written by the mythological emperor Sheng Nung (Shennong), dragon’s teeth drive out the following afflictions: spasms, epilepsy and madness and the twelve kinds of convulsions in children.
According to another author dragon’s teeth have the quality of appeasing unrest of the heart and calming the soul. According to a third they cure headache, melancholy, fever, madness and attacks by demons. All the authorities are agreed on one point, that dragon’s teeth are an effective remedy for liver diseases. (Andersson, 1934, 75–76)
The origin of the mythic Chinese dragon has long been the subject of intense debate, but its symbolism has never been in dispute (colour plate 14).
Plate 14. Qing Dynasty dragon buzi (rank badge). (ROM
The dragon embodies the supreme benevolent force active in the world because it symbolizes rainwater. By controlling the rain and rivers which fertilize the soil, the dragon bestows on the earth the most precious gift of all—the gift of life. Thus according to ancient Chinese mythology, it is the most fabulous of all the mythic beasts, endowed with immense magical power. In the Han Dynasty Shuowen the dragon is described as follows: “The foremost among scaly and reptilian creatures, the dragon could hide in darkness or appear in daylight. It could diminish or enlarge, shrink or elongate. It ascends the sky in spring and dives to the depths of the pool in autumn.”
According to ancient Chinese belief, the mythic dragon was capable of transforming itself at will from one shape to another. Spitting lightning, roaring thunder, and surrounded by vast clouds of energized water vapour or qi, the great dragon was believed to pass swiftly between its realms of air and water, leaving the spectacular electrical storms of Spring and Autumn in its wake. The dragon in China thus embodied the essence of what we would call hydro-electric power or dianqi (lightning-qi). No one has described the mysterious concept of qi better than Nathan Siven:
There are certain words in Chinese natural philosophy whose functions are so basic, and whose meanings have been so enriched by two or more millennia of use in an unbroken tradition, that it would take many English equivalents to render accurately the technical senses of each in various contexts. The most important of these words “qi,” occurs often in the sources of this study. It stands for a conception similar in breadth to the Stoic pneuma. On one level it names the air we breathe, the subtle material breath of life. In cosmology it is used for a terrestrial effluence through which the planets move. In chemistry it can refer to an aroma, to fumes, to smoke, or to the activity of a reagent. In medicine the homeostatic force within the body is a qi, so is any pathological agent which disturbs the balance, so, for that matter, is abdominal gas. That all of these are to us fundamentally different meanings is a statement not simply about the Chinese language, but about the mapping of Chinese upon English. (Siven, 1968, xviii)
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the medicinal use of dragon’s bone fossils led directly to the discovery of the earliest surviving form of Chinese writing, on the oracle bones of the Shang Dynasty (colour plate 15).
Plate 15. Shang Dynasty oracle bone. ROM (920.77.1)
As with so many discoveries, there are varying accounts of how this occurred.
It is possible that oracle bones were unearthed as early as Sui and Tang times, but people did not pay any attention to them. Often peasants sold them to medicine shops where they were ground into powder to make an ointment for healing knife wounds. In 1899, according to one story, the epigrapher Wang Yirong bought some medicine to treat his illness. In the herbal medicine were bone fragments with characters carved on them. When he examined them he realized that they were valuable ancient objects. According to another account, an antique dealer brought them to Wang Yirong, at which point they began to be collected for a high price, causing peasants to vie with each other to dig them up. (Hsü, 1996, 4)
For the Chinese, whose reverence for the written word is legendary, the characters carved on the dragon’s bones were of paramount importance (fig. 36).
Figure 36. Detail of the ancient pictographs on the ROM oracle bone (920.77.1)
However, for Europeans visiting China around the turn of the twentieth century, their primary interest was scientific. In 1903, Professor Max Schlosser of Munich published a treatise on dragon’s bones entitled Die fossilen Saugethiere Chinas. According to his research, these prehistoric animal fossils, known collectively in China as “dragon’s bones” and “dragon’s teeth,” comprised a wide variety of species, including many extinct Perissodactyla. In fact, among the approximately 90 mammal forms which Schlosser identified were several ancient species of rhinoceros. He concluded that “the dragon’s bones had no connection whatever with any kind of reptile, but were on the contrary fossil remains of mammals which lived on the Chinese steppes and beside the rivers during the Tertiary and Pleistocene ages” (Andersson, 1934, 76).
The Dictionary of Traditional Chinese Medicine lists “Dragon’s Bone and Dragon’s Teeth” under the category of Sedatives and Tranquillizers, describing them as follows:
Dragon’s Bone; Os Draconis. The drug consists of the fossil bones of ancient large mammals, such as Stegodon orientalis and Rhinocerus sinensis. It is used as a sedative and tranquillizer for the treatment of palpitation, insomnia, dreamfulness due to neurasthenia and hypertension.
Dragon’s Teeth; Dens Draconis. The drug consists of the fossil teeth of ancient large mammals, such as Stegodon orientalis and Rhinocerus sinensis. It is used similarly as [longgu] with a stronger action. (Xie and Huang, 1984, 202–03)
Even as late as the early twentieth century in China, the Chinese believed that a sick person “who buys from the chemist in his native town, let us say, a rhinoceros tooth, is assuredly convinced that he is enjoying the help of his revered patron, the dragon” (Andersson, 1934, 82).