Saturday, September 08, 2007

fire-breathing dragons

Charles and I agree that Asian dragons don't breathe fire. But here's a passage from a book titled How Koreans Talk: A Collection of Expressions, by Sang-hun Choe and Christopher Torchia. From p. 196, the entry for "dragon-whisker steel (yong su ch'eol)":

258) Dragon-whisker steel. Yongsucheol, 용수철

A spring, coil. In paintings, the Korean dragon looks like a large serpent with shiny scales, a wild hog's snout, deer antlers, four legs with eagle claws and fish fins on its back and tail. It has coiled whiskers. It breathes fire and carries a large red bead called a yeouiju, or "magic bead," in its mouth or one of its claws. In folk tales, men seek the dragon bead, which had the power to make their dreams come true.

Dragons were of many colors. The roller coaster in an amusement park is a "blue dragon train" because it "flies" through the air. (underlining added)

Was denkst du, Karl? Where did these guys get their info? Do other Koreans really think dragons breathe fire? Is there a chance you and I are wrong? Another reason to ask is that, during the huge parade in Chongno for the Buddha's birthday, the dragon floats are often depicted as emitting steam or neon flame. (Perhaps I'm mistaking the latter for the dragon's tongue.)

So I put it to the public: do Asian dragons breathe fire?


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Interesting. To me it makes no sense for dragons to breathe fire because dragons are the embodiment of eum, while fire is yang. However, the Korean Wikipedia entry on dragons has this sentence:

"용은 입에서 기를 내뱉어 불꽃을 일으키게 할 수도 있다."

"Dragons can also spew gi (ch'i, 氣) from their mouths, causing flames to be kindled."

I've never seen the dragon float, but in no other visual depiction of a dragon have I seen it spewing flame from its mouth. This does not mean that some dragons might not breathe fire, though. My best bet is that fire breathing was not originally a trait of dragons but a later accretion.

It is often very difficult to nail down exact characteristics of mythical beasts, especially when ideas concerning these beasts cross cultural boundaries. Take the Korean Dokkaebi for example. I was once privy to a discussion where a number of Korean scholars argued over whether or not Dokkaebi should have horns. Some argued that horns were adopted from Japanese Oni and thus not purely Korean, while others argued that the horns had become part and parcel of Dokkaebi lore, whatever their origins might have been.

I am guessing that the same thing is happening here. As I mentioned above, in no traditional visual depictions of dragons have I seen them breathing fire, and no tales or legends of dragons that I have read have them spewing flames. It is entirely possible that flames are an accretion that resulted from contact with Western conceptions of dragons, and that the sentence I quoted above is merely an attempt at explaining the phenomenon so that it will fit with the rest of Korean dragon lore.

I cannot say for certain, though. I have not specifically studied dragons, so I can't really speak with any authority. One of my projects for after my dissertation, though, is to put together an encyclopedia (in English) of Korean beasts both mythical and mundane. The dragon will probably have a rather large entry in that encyclopedia, and I'll probably better be able to answer this question then. For now, though, this is my best guess.