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D: Dragon Throne

D: Dragon ThroneDragon

Way of the dragon

Most commonly depicted as a snake-like creature with four legs, the dragon is a powerful symbol in Chinese history and culture. As a metaphor, it is commonly used in proverbs and idioms to describe outstanding people. The dragon is also one of the 12 Chinese zodiac signs.

Most importantly, the dragon is an emblem of imperial authority. Emperors designated themselves “the true dragon and son of heaven”, although they could only sit on the Dragon Throne if they were worthy rulers. Otherwise they risked losing the ‘heavenly mandate’ and being overthrown. Accompanying this ancient social contract was a common belief that natural disasters such as droughts or floods were signs of an emperor losing his heavenly mandate too. Rebellions would often follow, toppling erstwhile stable dynasties.

The Chinese people sometimes call themselves “Descendants of the Dragon” as well. However, this is a more contemporary term and derives from a song of the same name released by Taiwanese singer Hou Dejian in 1978, which became an instant hit. Hou moved to mainland China in 1983 and was warmly received by China’s leaders including Xi Zhongxun, whose son Xi Jinping leads the country today.

Who was the first ‘descendant of the dragon’?

Over the course of thousands of years, only a handful of laymen won the heavenly mandate to become emperor of the Middle Kingdom.

The first was Liu Bang, or Han Gaozu. Prior to coming to power, Liu was a minor security guard (the equivalent today of a chengguan, the unpopular street management officials operating in Chinese cities). His political career only took off when he was 46 and he joined with rebel forces as the unpopular Qin Dynasty crumbled (see Q for Qin Shi Huang). He climbed the ranks and after defeating archrival Xiang Yu – a fearsome warrior from a noble clan – Liu became the first emperor of the Han Dynasty in 202 BC when he was 54.

One problem for Liu and his heirs: as the first layman to rule, he needed to convince others that he was “the true dragon” and that his non-aristocratic family was bestowed with the rightful mandate to govern.

The Liu family decided a history book was the answer. In the Records of the Grand Historian, Liu Bang was described as having a “dragon-like face” and it was said he was literally a “descendant of the dragon”.

That book also concocted a story that when Liu Bang’s stepfather was looking for his wife one rainy day, he saw her procreating with a dragon and Liu Bang was born thereafter.

Any other heirs of the dragon?

Shiji is the first of the authoritative Twenty-Four Histories of China yet most historians agree that its author Sima Qian deified Liu Bang. This is easy to understand: Sima was ordered to pen Shiji by emperor Wudi of Han, the great-grandson of Liu Bang.

History is written by the victors, as the saying goes, and at least half a dozen later emperors borrowed this history lesson from the Shiji, and claimed their mythical association with the dragon. Typically, they did so when their own legitimacy as rulers was in question. Take emperor Taizong of Tang, one of the most influential emperors of all time (See L for Li Shimin), who maneouvred his way onto the dragon throne by killing his two brothers. According to the Old Book of Tang, another of the Twenty-Four Histories, two dragons hovered outside the room of Tang Taizong’s mother on the three days prior to his birth.

What is the emblem of power today?

Being superstitious is considered ‘feudal’ and thus much frowned upon by the Communist Party of China (CPC). As such, Chinese leaders in the modern day have tended to shun imperial symbols such as the dragon.

Chinese leaders these days seem to be keen to show that, true to the name of the People’s Republic of China, their power come from the mandate of the people.

Before taking office, for instance, ministerial bosses of the State Council now need to swear to uphold the constitution. It became a standard practice for senior officials after Xi Jinping became the first Chinese leader to take a constitutional oath when he was re-elected as the Chinese president in March 2018.

This was a moment of pure political symbolism as Xi took the oath. He held his right fist aloft while leaving his palm firmly on the Chinese constitution. Officials now all adopt the same pose when being sworn into office.

The ceremony was introduced to convey a message: civil servants and CPC members alike have to stay loyal to the constitution and follow the laws. Yet for some more acutely sensitive observers it could still imply “the grip on power”.

Why so? In Mandarin the word for the palm of the hand is zhang, which can also denote the action of gripping, while ‘fist’ (or quan) sounds the same as the word for ‘power’. That’s why in official portraits from the Qing Dynasty, the emperor would often hold one hand in a fist while showing the palm of the other, which was a symbol of power.

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