Writing

Tanka: Dragon King of the West Sea and Chinese Mythology

I've always held a fascination for ancient mythologies. They are the dawn of the coalescence between art, religion, and storytelling.

Ao Run spreads his wings
taking flight on autumn’s breeze
a journey West
he cries out to see
and become King of West Sea

Love of East Asian and World Mythology

I’ve always held a fascination for ancient mythologies. They are the dawn of the coalescence between art, religion, and storytelling. We see the beginnings of a culture take root. Each story can contain a tale of morality or be an analogy for what those early people struggled with—and overcame.

Indeed, the very nature of mythology can be tied to the identity of a civilisation, such is the case with the history of the Chinese and their mythologisation of dragons.

They are legends to be seen and heard, to be passed down to your children, and their children’s children. And for us, in the here & now; they offer a wonderful insight into the past.

It’s easy to think of all the stories that have been lost due to the—sometimes—violent sands of time and lament their loss. But we should be ever grateful that mythologies across the world that can be viewed thousands of years later with ease thanks to the tireless efforts of archaeologists, historians, and the internet.

A Word on Ao Run: The White Dragon King & Chinese Mythology

The White Dragon (白龍 Báilóng) is the Dragon God of the West and the essence of autumn. He has other names including: Ao Jun (敖君) or Ao Ji (敖吉) and is the patron of Qinghai Lake—China’s largest inland saltwater lake set in NW Qinghai Province.

Qinghai Lake in the autumn

Ao Run’s journey to become a king came with a snag. ‘The King of Dragons‘ had decided to separate the four young dragons after their mischievousness had become too much for him to bear. So while the other three became kings of their respective seas, The King of Dragons wanted to keep Ao Run—the youngest prince—close to him. Though Ao Run proudly declared:

“I will be the King of the West Sea!”

Ao Run’s father, perhaps full of pride for his youngest, then sent him westward.

Poem note: this is why I decided to use the phrase ‘spreads his wings’ in the first line of the tanka. It’s an idiom used to show a character trying out new experiences or skills for the first time. Much like a bird learning to fly. However, in Chinese mythology dragons are typically wingless and fly due to their mystical nature.

Alas, after arriving at the foot of Qilian Mountain and finding no sea, Ao Run weeps and wonders how can he rule without a kingdom. He climbs the mountain and musters all of his might to summon a storm. Unfortunately it isn’t enough but it’s at this point ‘The Jade Emperor‘ sees his struggles and takes pity on Ao Run. The Emperor sends Leigong, Fengbo, and Dianmu to help. Gods and Goddess of thunder, wind, and lightning. Once there, they concoct a storm large enough to create the Qinghai Lake. A king now has a domain.

Modern Interpretations

So what lesson could we take away from this story? We see a familiar theme of a young, headstrong child wanting to come-of-age, perhaps too early, but also a father willing to recognise his child’s desire, and allow him to go on a journey of growth. Though as with many things in life, it isn’t always so straightforward and sometimes you need a bit of luck. The emperor plays the role of benevolent monarch; sending aid once he realises that Ao Run is struggling. There’s also the huge display of respect shown for the power of nature and how it shapes the very land on which people live on. It can be a give or take life and we are at its mercy.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately a story can have many interpretations, especially over the course of thousands of years. Even viewing mythology through a contemporary lens can provide fresh insight. Though remembering how they were first viewed gives us a wonderful place to jump off from. It’s that fusion of old & new views that will inspire the mythology of tomorrow.

Could the tales of Godzilla become ancient mythology to a future society? (probably not)

Do you have a favourite story from Chinese mythology or any other mythology? Feel free to comment below.

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