【Interview】Luan Baoqun: The symbolic meaning of the dragon has always been limited to emperors and kings, and has never had anything to do with the common people

【Interview】Luan Baoqun: The symbolic meaning of the dragon has always been limited to emperors and kings, and has never had anything to do with the common people

Interface News Reporter | Pan Wenjie

Interface News Editor | Yellow Moon

During the Spring Festival, we unconsciously came into contact with many gods - the dragon, the god of wealth, the god of doors, and the city god...... These gods bring a joyful and warm atmosphere to the New Year, and also carry people's wishes for a better life.

Luan Baoqun, author of The Return of the Gods: A Genealogy of the Folk Gods in China, saw that all Shinto was created according to the needs of the people. Folk beliefs are all about pragmatism. He pointed out that there are immortals and Buddhas in Taoism and Buddhism, but gods and ghosts are the protagonists of folk beliefs. In China, no religion can become a "state religion", but folk beliefs are deeply rooted in the hearts of the people and have become a "state religion" that is not a religion, precisely because "this is the religious belief closest to the people's livelihood".

Between ghosts and gods, Luan Baoqun first came into contact with gods. As early as the 80s of the last century, he and Lu Zongli, the current dean of Daoyang College of Hong Kong Chinese University (Shenzhen), did some collection of folk gods and published the book "Chinese Folk Gods". "It was already risky to write about God at that time, and that book was probably the first of its kind after the Cultural Revolution," Mr. Luan recalled. After that, he sorted out materials related to the culture of the underworld and published the series "Talking about Ghosts and Ghosts". In his latest book "The Return of the Gods", Luan Baoqun sorted out the "divine genealogy" of the gods of various sects and families, from the Jade Emperor to water, fire, thunder and lightning, fish, dragons and insects. In the New Year, Interface Culture invited Luan Baoqun to talk about those gods with a New Year's flavor.

【Interview】Luan Baoqun: The symbolic meaning of the dragon has always been limited to emperors and kings, and has never had anything to do with the common people

The Return of the Gods: A Genealogy of Chinese Folk Gods

Luan Baoqun

Hantang Sunshine Shanxi People's Publishing House 2023-12

Interface Culture: In the book "The Return of the Gods", you talk about the fact that dragons don't have a high status, which seems to be different from what we usually think. Can you elaborate on that?

Luan Baoqun: There are two situations in which dragons are very sacred. One is that in the authoritarian society since the Qin Dynasty, especially in the Ming and Qing dynasties, the dragon was the symbol of the emperor, and out of a servile thinking, some people regarded the dragon as the supreme divine object. But it was also the same era when some people adopted a contemptuous attitude towards dragons. For example, in the "gods and demons novels" that appeared in the Ming Dynasty, dragons - especially dragon kings - are often very unbearable, in the hands of Sun Wukong and Nezha, the majesty of the dragon is swept away, and the ugly essence is completely revealed, and Sun Wukong and Nezha represent the wishes of many ordinary people.

There is also the saying that "dragons give birth to nine sons", which is also made up by the common people out of resentment towards the royal family, and the next sentence of "dragons give birth to nine sons" is "not a dragon" - dragons are not very good, and their second and third generations are not things. Everyone knows that Zhu Yuanzhang's descendants have multiplied hundreds of thousands, and these descendants of the royal family have not only consumed countless blood and sweat of the common people, but also oppressed and brutalized the Li people. When the phrase "the dragon gave birth to nine sons" reached the palace, Emperor Hongzhi immediately heard the "public opinion" in it, and asked the scholars to inquire about the specific names of the "nine sons"; if there was no name, it would be suspected of insinuation. Where do these nine sons have names, they are just a collective name for some mongrels. The scholars couldn't afford it, so they had to make up the names of some other monsters. Some people regard the "Dragon Nine Sons" as a mascot and the knowledge of "night sailing boats" with relish, and even stuff their favorite monsters such as "Pixiu" into the "Dragon Nine Sons".

The other thing is happening now, which I think is the result of an illusion. I can't remember what year it was, an overseas Chinese singer sang a song "Descendants of the Dragon" that didn't even understand the title (note: referring to the Chinese-American Huang Jinbo who sang "The Descendants of the Dragon" for the first time in the 1985 Spring Festival Gala), for some reason, many people, including ordinary people, suddenly felt that they had become a "dragon species". Of course, they are not inclined to attach themselves to the flames and stick them on the royal family, but they just regard the dragon as a symbol of the Chinese nation and are proud of the image of the dragon. As everyone knows, the symbolism of the dragon has always been limited to emperors and kings, and has never had anything to do with the common people. I don't see any need for this monster that evolved from a crocodile to be worshiped by the Chinese as an ancestor. The so-called "there is a dragon in the far east", we live in China, and we have always thought that we are among the world, although this is a bit arrogant, but we are also accustomed to it, so where is the "far east"? In other words, the dragon in the east is derived from the "Oriental dragon" in ancient astronomy, but the horns, Kang, Di, Fang, heart, tail, and Kei in the 28 Nakshatras included by the Oriental Canglong are only part of China's Henan and Hebei regions, and they cannot represent China.

【Interview】Luan Baoqun: The symbolic meaning of the dragon has always been limited to emperors and kings, and has never had anything to do with the common people

Dragon lantern (Image source: Visual China)

The status of the dragon in ancient times was not high, it could be ridden and raised, and of course it was raised for slaughter and food. But this thing is not easy to raise, and it is not easy to tame, it is necessary to have special skills, and dragon slaying has become an ancestral unique skill, so the only person who is qualified to ride a dragon and eat a dragon is a prince, or a top emperor, and the dragon and the emperor are hooked in this way.

As for whether the dragon has become synonymous with the emperor because of this, I can't say for sure. But there is one thing that everyone knows, that is, the emperor's household things - on the top of the head, sitting on the buttocks, painted on the walls, carved on the pillars - there are dragons everywhere, and the emperor of course refuses to sit the portrait of his ancestors under the buttocks, so the dragon not only represents the emperor, but also a royal symbol, and the lowly nature of the dragon has not been completely erased. But if someone thinks that he is also a "descendant of the dragon" and dares to decorate his own things in his house with dragons, not to mention painting them on the toilet, or carving them on the ancestral tablet, I am afraid that they will also be exterminated. As for some people saying that the dragon is a symbol of the nation, because the autocratic emperor can be the representative of the Chinese nation, it is even more absurd - if Emperor Chongzhen can represent the Chinese nation, then what are Li Zicheng and Zhang Xianzhong?

Interface Culture: When it comes to door gods, you say that the folk nature of door gods far overwhelms the nature of beliefs, so door gods are quite arbitrary. What is the nature of folklore and what is the nature of faith?

Luan Baoqun: The door god may have some elements of faith in ancient times, but it is not very reliable. As for the origin of the door god, it is now basically believed to be the "god of the gods", and the gods are said to be guarding the ghost gate in Taodu Mountain, preventing all kinds of evil spirits from entering and leaving at will. It's okay to turn this story into a door god and let them guard the tomb or burial chamber, but it is a bit inappropriate to move it to someone's gate. In fact, it is useless for the door of the common people's houses to stick to the door god, and can you stop "some officials catching people at night"? No one can prevent it, let alone ghosts? Qin Qiong and Wei Chi Jingde are the generalissimos of the imperial court, will they show the door to the common people?

So I think that the common people generally do not stick the door god, and it can only be called "door painting", some of the New Year's paintings in Mianzhu and Shanghai are pasted on the door, all of which are characters in opera novels, and those characters are many talented and beautiful, although some are military generals, but they are mighty but not terrible, and some are also very beautiful, so beautiful that they can almost attract ghosts. In my impression, it seems that I have not seen a few door gods, maybe at that time because of the destruction of superstition, not allowed to post, but more likely that I live in the place of Pengmen small households, no door to paste, poor people only have a broken door, every winter, the northwest wind will come in through the crack in the door, to the door paste only layer after layer of waste newspaper. Therefore, sticking the door god can only be a matter of the mansion door, two large wooden doors one zhang high, and pasting the eight-foot-high Wei Chi Jingde and Qin Shubao, don't talk about ghosts, the gods are afraid when they see it.

【Interview】Luan Baoqun: The symbolic meaning of the dragon has always been limited to emperors and kings, and has never had anything to do with the common people

Statues of Qin Shubao and Yu Chigong on the gate of the Hu clan ancestral hall in Longchuan, Huizhou (Image source: Visual China)

Interface Culture: During the Chinese New Year, everyone likes to go to the City God Temple to pray for blessings. For example, the Chenghuang Temple in Shanghai will clearly say that this is a Taoist temple in the introduction. You proposed that it was actually the belief in the god of the city god that existed first, and then Taoism did everything possible to incorporate it into its own system.

Luan Baoqun: How can the City God's Temple and the Land Temple be Taoist temples? How can there be thousands of City God's Temples and hundreds of thousands of land in China, and after two or three thousand years of accumulation, that number may be more than the old Taoism in the world, and Taoism cannot afford to buy them even if they want to. The people guarding the City God Temple look similar to the Taoist priest's dress, to be precise, they are temple blessings. You burn incense, he collects money, at most knocks on cloud boards and other things, this work doesn't seem to have anything to do with Taoism. For example, the city god in Shanghai, some say that it is Chunshenjun Huang Xie, some say that it is Huo Guang, the king of Jinshan, and in modern times, it is said that it is Qin Yubo, these people have high and low identities, but none of them are related to Taoism.

As for the classification of the City God Temple to Taoism, it is not to bully the small with the big, as if it is occupied, in fact, the temple Zhu who looks at the temple also wants to have a home, and when he returns to Taoism, he seems to have become a person in the "system". Not only the City God Temple, but also the Lao Ye (Guan Gong) Temple, looking at the little things in the temple, not only ordinary people are capable, but even monks may as well work part-time.

【Interview】Luan Baoqun: The symbolic meaning of the dragon has always been limited to emperors and kings, and has never had anything to do with the common people

Traditional City God Celebration at Shanghai City God Temple (Image: Visual China)

Now I see that a lot of the introduction of the gods in the temple is one-size-fits-all, except for Buddhism, the rest is Taoism. For example, there is a Pilu Temple in Shijiazhuang, and everything that cannot be classified as Buddhism is said to be Taoist deities, and as a result, an absurd conclusion of "the unity of Buddhism and Taoism" has been reached. In fact, the mountain gods and water gods, the gods of flowers and trees, and the thunder and lightning mothers are all gods of folk belief, and people exist when there is no Taoism. The folk beliefs we usually talk about cover the entire nation, and although some of them do not believe in gods or ghosts, many gods and ghosts can also penetrate into their consciousness as common sense or folk customs. As for Taoism, no matter what, its followers are only a small part of this nation, and the number of gods who really belong to Taoism is also insignificant compared with the gods believed by the entire nation. Thirty years ago, I went to Yandang Mountain Xianshengmen, passing through a small temple, only about 20 square meters, the walls and beams were covered with notes, written on the king, generals, there are always hundreds, you say these gods are given to Taoism, I think Taoist people dare not sign it.

Mr. Huang Xiaofeng and I have been discussing a problem that not only do some gods and ghosts do not belong to Taoism and Buddhism, but to put it more thoroughly, gods and ghosts have no religious significance in the eyes of Buddhism and Taoism. The Four Heavenly Kings and the Four Great Marshals are considered to be big names in the Second Sect, but what do they have to believe in? The Guan Sheng Emperor, who everyone is familiar with, is only an errand boy in the Second Sect, either taking care of the family and the hospital, or going to work as a thug, and if he is not satisfied, he will be sent to Luo Yu Prison by the little Zhang Tianshi to go to prison. Master Guan has no value of faith in their eyes, once the common people want to worship him, whether it is the god of martial arts and wealth, or the god of loyalty and righteousness, he has become the object of faith at that time, but he has broken away from the two religions and returned to the folk faith. Buddhas, Bodhisattvas, Arhats are the protagonists of Buddhism, and the three pure truths are the great gods of Taoism. Gods and ghosts are protagonists only in folk beliefs. This phenomenon is not surprising to us, but some foreigners see it more clearly from the outside. Barbara Hannah introduced Richard William's "On the Chinese View of Death and Rebirth" to describe her views on China's three major religions, namely Taoism, Confucianism and Buddhism:

"Buddhism is concerned with a long series of rebirth cycles, the highest goal of which is nirvana, in which the individual finally goes through all his calamities (karma) and merges forever into an eternal bliss that does not exist as a human being. Taoism also seems to be very concerned with the ultimate fate of the individual or the length of life that an individual can live, and only Confucianism attaches a higher importance to consciousness and human life, thus indirectly attaching importance to the survival of the individual in the other world. ”

The "Confucianism" she refers to is actually China's folk beliefs and national rituals. This is the religious belief that is closest to the people's livelihood, and all objects of faith are based on practical needs. Let's think about it, are the gods and immortals we love, the ghost stories we often tell, and even the heavens and the underworld all very pyrotechnic, secular, and utilitarian? Even those who are called living Buddhas and patriarchs, such as Jigong or Lu Dongbin, are in fact just warlocks, wizards, and even chivalrous people who wander all over the world in the cloak of Buddhism. 

Interface Culture: You think that the most influential religion in China is Buddhism and Taoism, and all dynasties and dynasties have stories of fighting for the wind and fighting for the first place, but the most powerful in China is actually folk beliefs, and the two major religions have to give in to folk beliefs. What's going on at this point?

Luan Baoqun: The fighting method of Buddhism and Taoism is actually a competition between believers. One of my favorite sayings from a great monk: "Monks also have to eat." That's a good thing to say. Some so-called laymen love to listen to myths, and regard monks as immortals, who can travel thousands of miles a day without eating or drinking, and subduing dragons and tigers. In the early days, the monks engaged in some things that made gods and ghosts, just to the favor of the local people, and only when you were convinced did they let you see the real thing.

Interface Culture: You study both gods and ghosts. Do you feel that ghosts and spirits have anything in common?

Luan Baoqun: The relationship between gods and ghosts, I think that in addition to natural gods, most of them are "human ghosts", ghosts after death. Just like what is written in "The Romance of the Gods", those big people who have made good luck to become gods, if they don't let the whip of the gods and the seal of Fantian hit their brains first, they will not be able to achieve "positive results". After death, most people want to be ghosts, and only a few become gods, in fact, they are just "elites" among ghosts.

Even if he is a king of Hades and a judge, although he is called a god, he is essentially a ghost. They are the big people in the ghosts, and it's already good for ordinary people to be able to make a land after death. Some county officials in the yamen opened the back door for themselves before their deaths, made a statue in the city god temple, wrote their names, and wanted to go to the city god temple on an errand after death. They feel that the way of reincarnation in Buddhism is a bit unreliable, and they are on an errand in the yamen, if they are reincarnated, eighty percent will be pigs and dogs, and the other two percent will not even be as good as pigs and dogs.

People always thought that the fairy world was not lively enough, and later, even some nature gods were filled by "human ghosts". For example, the four blasphemy gods (note: the water gods in charge of the four major water veins of the Yangtze River, the Yellow River, the Huai River, and the Jishui River in Chinese folklore) have become Qu Yuan and Chen Ping, and some are very incredible, such as the hail god is Li Zuoche, which makes people puzzled.

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