While Europe’s shining knights spent their lives slaying dragons, the Chinese sought after and worshiped Eastern dragons as the most benevolent, wise, and generous of all creatures. Indeed, to be called “dragon face” was a great honor, and it was believed that emperors received counsel and aid from dragons in times of need. A few emperors even proudly claimed to be direct descendants of dragons. Pairings between humans and dragons were thought possible, since dragons were capable of changing their shape and size to assume whatever form they desired.
Unlike the fierce western dragons who hoarded treasure and demanded virtuous young women as sacrifices, the dragons of Chinese legend showed tenderness toward humans, and even acted in their behalf many times, sometimes at great cost. This is seen in one of the oldest legends about the Four Dragons. According to this legend, China once had no rivers. The people were dependent on the gods to send rain for their crops. One year the ruler of the gods, Yu-Huang-Shang-Ti, or the Jade Emperor, did not send rain in due season. As the crops began to wither and die, the people turned to the heavens for help.
In the Eastern Sea lived four dragons which heard the cries of starvation, and were moved with compassion. Eagerly they left their comfortable underwater home and sought out the mighty Jade Emperor. In behalf of the starving people below, the dragons pleaded with the emperor to send rain and save the crops. But the emperor was not pleased with the dragons and he refused their request. Ten days passed, and still no rain fell. The people were so hungry they were eating bark, grass roots, and white clay. Undeterred by the cruel and selfish emperor, the dragons devised a plan to create a rainstorm and thus save the villagers. Rushing to their home in the Eastern Sea, they scooped up the water and sprayed it into the sky. The water fell like raindrops over the crops, and the hopeful people leaped with joy.
But when the sea god told the Jade Emperor what the dragons had done, the emperor grew very angry. How dare the dragons rebel against his word! He was in charge of all the affairs of heaven, earth, and sea, and did not like his authority to be questioned. The dragons were arrested and taken to the heavenly palace. Then the Jade Emperor ordered the mountain god to separate the four dragons in different corners of the country and imprison each under a mountain.
The four dragons were unrepentant, and as the mountains were pressed upon them they thought of yet a new way they could help the people. So each dragon transformed itself into a river, winding out of its mountain prison back to the people and their crops. The black dragon in the far north became the Heilongjian, the yellow dragon and the long dragon in central China became the Huanghe and the Changjiang (Yangtze), and the pearl dragon in the south became the Zhu. And this, according to legend, is how the four great rivers in China were formed.
As in the ancient telling of the four dragons, water and rain were often associated with Eastern dragons. It was believed at one time that dragons existed in every storm and pool of water. Although they sometimes caused severe rains that destroyed houses, uprooted trees, and flooded inhabitants, the Chinese never regarded the dragon as malevolent. Because of the prevalent belief in yin and yang, it was accepted that to reap the benefit of the storm, one had to survive the horror of it. In this way Eastern dragons were seen as the givers of life while at the same time the cause of great death and destruction.