Dragons and Dragon Lore
"THE MEN OF THE DRAGON BONES"
WHEN IN September, 1923, Dr. Henry Fairfield Osborn, President of the American Museum of Natural History in New York, was on his way to visit the camps of the Third Asiatic Exploring Expedition, conducted by Dr. Roy Chapman Andrews, aided by a staff of expert assistants, he halted for the night at a frontier Chinese village. Strolling about the station in the early evening, as he relates in the Museum's magazine Natural History (May-June, 1924):
I suddenly noticed a small group of men in the darkness pointing toward Andrews and myself. I asked Andrews to listen to what they were saying, and it was here that I learned the Chinese designation of our party, for the words were:
"There go the American men of the dragon hones!"
I was delighted with this Chinese christening, because it seemed to me both a tribute to the valour of our men and a wonderfully apt designation of the main objective of the Third Asiatic Expedition as it impressed itself upon the Chinese. For what purpose were we in Mongolia? Obviously enough to the Chinese mind to collect the bones of dragons--the dragons which for ages past had ruled the sky, the air, the earth, the waters of the earth, and which even today are believed in implicitly by the Chinese. Of course we should find small bones corresponding to small dragons, large bones corresponding to remains of large dragons--also of vast dragons, some of which, according to Chinese myth, leave their tails in the eastern part of the desert of Gobi while their heads rest on the slopes of the Altai Mountains, four hundred miles distant!
Here is the sum of the paleontology and zoology of the native Chinese--the dragon and the phenix.
The 'dragon bones' were the fossilized remains of prehistoric animals for which the men of science were searching the deserts of Mongolia, the discovery of which, then and since, have added vastly to the sum of paleontology and increased the world's knowledge of and interest in China and Central Asia, and in their inhabitants and history. Incidentally these explorations have illuminated certain obscurities in the broad and antique myth now engaging the reader's attention.
Fossil bones have long been known to the Chinese, although almost nobody, even the wisest, had any just notion of the sort of creatures they represented. One may find in every apothecary's shop their fragments, or the powder made by crushing them, but rarely can a druggist tell you whence they came, for the wholesale dealers are loath to reveal trade-secrets. They offer them as the bones of dragons which, when properly administered, must have strong curative virtues; the source of supply is, in their view, unimportant either for trade or healing the more mystery about it the better. As everybody believes this, not suspecting any magic in the matter, the demand is so extensive that an immense supply of bones is annually gathered and dispensed.
Various theories exist among the people, however, as to the nature of these bones. It was generally agreed in the past that they were the cast-off skeletons of living dragons which had sloughed away their bones as well as their hides--once in a thousand years according to one authority; but some persons, with less credulity even in those ancient days, pronounced them the bones of dead dragons. This was much nearer the truth, for we now know that they are the fossilized skulls and limbs of real animals of long-past eras; and in our own time it has been soberly argued that from these fossils has been built up the whole fabric of faith in the reality of dragons past and present.
From this universal faith has arisen the popular trust in the therapeutic value of these mid-Tertiary fossils. According to the Pen-ts'ao Kang-Muh, the best source of information as to medical practice among the ancients, and extensively quoted by Visser, from whom I borrow again, the best bones are those having five colours, corresponding to the five visceral parts of the human body, namely: liver, lungs, heart, kidneys and spleen. White and yellow specimens rank next in healing value, and black ones are poorest, while those gathered by women are useless. Thin, broad-veined bones are regarded as female; those coarse and with narrow veins as male.
The preparation of the bones for administration in medicine is described as follows by Lei Hiao: "For using dragon's bones first cook odorous plants; bathe the bones twice in hot water; pound them to powder, and put this in bags of gauze. Take a couple of young swallows, and after having taken out their intestines and stomach, put the bags in the swallows and hang them over a well. After one night take the bags out of the swallows, rub the powder, and mix it into medicines for strengthening the kidneys. The efficacy of such a medicine is as it were divine." An author of the Sung dynasty recommends that the bones are to be soaked in spirits for one night, then dried on the fire and rubbed to powder. Another authority warns the people that some bones are a little poisonous, and in preparing and using them iron instruments and utensils should be avoided, because, as is well known, dragons dislike iron.
The list of illnesses curable by means of dragon-bones is a long one. Their curative power is attributed to the strong yang virtue in the bone, which makes yin demons abandon those portions of the body in which they have been trying to establish themselves. The teeth and horns of dragons are especially good for diseases developing madness, or difficulty in breathing, or convulsions, also for liver diseases. A Sung physician explains that, because the dragon is the god of the Eastern Quarter, his bones, horns and teeth can conquer any disorganization of the liver.
A book of the ninth century carries the information that when dragon's blood enters the earth it becomes amber; and in the Pen-ts'ao Kang-Muh you may read: "Dragon saliva is seldom used as a medicine. . . . Last spring the saliva spit out by a herd of dragons appeared floating [on the sea]. The aborigines gathered, obtained and sold it, each time for 2000 copper coins." Another treatise, written in the Sung period, instructs us that the most precious of all perfumes is seadragon's spittle, which is hardened by the sun, floats, and is blown ashore by the wind in hard pieces. This may be amber, or ambergris. Another source of perfume is the froth produced by fighting dragons.
From the same book, says Visser, we learn that anciently, at least, dragons' blood, fat, brains, saliva, etc., were also deemed useful as medicines, but how obtained is not clear from the classics. "Perfumes were made from the spit; hence it was asserted that fighting dragons might be smelt. An old emperor used dragon's spittle for ink for writing on jade and gold. Having got a quantity of saliva he mixed it with the fruit of a herb which bore flowers in all four seasons. This produced a red liquid which penetrated into gold and jade."
Many more particulars as to this medicinal use of the bones are given by H. N. Moseley in his book Notes of a Naturalist on the Challenger.
When, early in the present century, the Geological Survey of China was organized, little more was known of the geology of that country than its broad outlines. Well aware that thousands of fossil skeletons of the utmost importance to science were being ground to powder and swallowed by millions of people daily, it was plain that the discovery of the sources of supply would lead to the paleontological knowledge so much desired; but between general ignorance and the jealousy of wholesale collectors and merchants of the bones it was difficult to learn where the fossils were found. Therefore when, in 1921, Professor Osborn and Mr. Walter Granger sought to co-operate with the China Survey, all the Director of the Survey could say was that he had been told that at a place in eastern Szechuan a short distance above I-chang, on the Yangtse River, many fossils had been excavated for the medicine dealers. Mr. Granger went there and finally learned that the spot was near a small village called Yin-ching-ao, twenty miles from the town of Wan Hsien, and there Granger made his residence. He described the situation in Natural History, for May-June, 1922, as follows:
The fossils at Yinchingkao occur in pits distributed along a great limestone ridge about thirty or forty miles in length and rising ibove our camp more than 200 feet. These pits are the result of the dissolving action of water on limestone, and some of them have a depth of one hundred feet or more. They are of varying sizes averaging say six feet in diameter, and are filled with a reddish and yellowish mud, which is, I take it, disintegrated limestone. The fossils are found imbedded in the mud at varying depths, usually below twenty feet. A crude windlass is rigged up over the pit, and the mud is dug out and hauled to the surface in scoop-shaped baskets. At fifty feet it is dark in the pit, and the work is done by the light of a tiny oil wick. . . . The excavation has been going on for a long time--possibly for several generations. Digging is done only in the winter months.
The excavation of the pits is opening up just now on a large scale, and in the coming month will probably give us about all we can take care of. The fauna is Stegodon, a primitive elephant, Bison, Bos, Cervus, Tapirus, Sus, Rhinoceros, besides many small ruminants, several carnivores, and many rodents; no horses, queerly enough.
The natives in taking out the bones used no care to preserve them whole; they knew they were destined to be pulverized for medicinal purpose, so why be careful. Each day's 'catch' was brought down to the village and piled up in a corner of the digger's house to await the coming of the buyers, who from time to time visited the village and collected the stock, paying about $20 a picul (133 lbs.). One can imagine the heartsick emotions of a paleontologist exploring an unknown fauna, as he viewed these local heaps of fragments of skulls and skeletons, or the many tons of them heaped in the warehouses at I-chang--how he would pick out teeth and recognizable pieces and attempt to interpret them. By careful watching, instruction and rewards to the diggers, however, many skulls and other parts were procured uninjured, and so on this and subsequent visits a valuable collection was gradually accumulated, and divided between the museums in Peking and New York. As the report of such operations rapidly spread, it is not surprising that the wondering Chinese dubbed the American scientific staff "Men of the Dragon Bones."