In a previous blog post PPP II: Intrinsic Nature in Europe, the question was asked “How did we forget our relations with nature?” and an answer was provided with regard to Europe. In this post, we want to put together an answer to the same question but one that contrasts European and Chinese attitudes.
Ancient China had enjoyed a very different relationship with nature from that to be found in Christian Europe. Respective attitudes towards dragons may help to make the distinction clear.
In Europe, Saint George is famous for slaying a dragon. Saint George was born in Palestine towards the end of the third century AD. Before he became one of the most venerated saints in western Christendom, George was a soldier in the Roman army.
On a human level, the hagiography of Saint George is one of inspiring self-sacrifice in the name of faith. Diocletian was George’s Roman emperor and he favoured George. He promoted George to the rank of “Tribunus” and made him a member of the imperial guard. In AD 302, Diocletian saw the rise of Christianity in his armed forces as a threat to his own pagan sources of power and he commanded that every Christian soldier in the army should be arrested and every other soldier should offer a sacrifice to the Roman gods of the time.
George objected to this command. Indeed George made an issue of this attempt to extirpate Christianity from the Roman Empire. In front of the army, George affirmed his Christianity and declared his worship of Jesus Christ. Diocletian actually liked and admired George but he was an emperor and such an affront to his command could not go unpunished. Even so, Diocletian offered George land, money and slaves if he would only make a sacrifice to the Roman gods. George refused to back down and he was decapitated on April 23, 303.
Christianity could have been content with the human Saint George who assumed, after all, a super-human stance in staying true to his faith. But it seemed as if this remarkable human story was in itself not persuasive enough. So early Christianity borrowed, as it so frequently did, from pagan mythology: Perseus for example had saved the fair Andromeda from the clutches of a dragon long before Saint George ever took up a lance.
The variations of the theme of Saint George slaying the dragon are several and various. However the allegorical meaning of Saint George and the dragon is about the triumph of Christianity over pagan beliefs. Furthermore since the recognition of the divine in nature is at the heart of Pagan belief, Saint George is effectively slaying not only a dragon but a deep human awareness of the natural world. The dragon is the power of the divine that pagans recognise in the ongoing cycles of life and death and the natural world.
|The Chinese Dragon at the source of Primal power. |
By courtesy of bfc-creations.com
In contrast in China to his day, the dragon is a metaphor for worthy and admirable people; in Modern China they say “Hoping one's son will become a dragon" (望子成龍).
The Chinese Dragon breathes the essence of life and power in the form of the seasons, bringing water from rain, warmth from the sunshine, wind from the seas and soil from the earth. The Chinese Dragon is the ultimate representation of the forces of Mother Nature. The greatest divine force on Earth.
With all of this power, it is not surprising that the Emperor of China used the dragon as a symbol of imperial power and strength. In other words, Chinese history had no George to slay the dragon or indeed to overcome pagan beliefs. Unlike the dreadful Western Dragons, Chinese Dragons are beautiful, friendly, and wise. They are the angels of the Orient. Instead of being hated, they are loved and once worshiped.
So at least in ancient times, nature was intrinsic for the Chinese. They placed faith in nature, not just as the symbolic dragon but more substantially in the Taoist religion.
For a Taoist, naturalness or being true to nature is a central concern. It describes the "Primal" condition of people and the world. It is a dynamic, restless concept associated with spontaneity and creativity.
Taoism is a study of the Tao or the Way of All Things. Whilst in Taoism a precise definition of Tao is regarded as infeasible we may think of it loosely as the ultimate creative principle of the universe. All things are unified and connected in the Tao.
Today there are around 25,000 Taoists priests and nuns in China and over 1,500 temples.