Nine Offspring of Chinese Dragon: The Origin and Cultural Impact

UDC 930.85
Publication date: 31.01.2022
International Journal of Professional Science №1-2022

Nine Offspring of Chinese Dragon: The Origin and Cultural Impact

Somkina Nadezhda
PhD in History, Dept. of Chinese Philology, Faculty of Asian and African Studies,
St. Petersburg State University
Abstract: The paper considers the origin, areas of circulation, and cultural and applied significance of such phenomenon as the ‘nine offspring of the dragon,’ wherein Chinese folk beliefs from the times of yore took shape.
Keywords: Chinese culture, long sheng jiu zi, nine offspring of the dragon, nine sons of Chinese dragon, Chinese popular beliefs

The nine offspring of the dragon (long sheng jiuzi, trad. 龍生九子, simpl. 龙生九子) is one of the most widespread themes in Chinese animal symbolism. The creatures entering into this set became an integral part of the Old China’s image – in the context of both architecture and decorative and applied arts. The set varies, just as the number of the offspring does. Some researchers suggest that number nine has not a quantitative but a symbolic meaning, for ‘nine’ represents a triple three (Yang number) and, in addition, the greatest number out of single-digits, therefore having the transferred meaning of ‘many’.

The exact time of the phenomenon’s origin is unknown; each of the offspring of the dragon appeared and developed independently of the others, the most ancient of them being over 5 thousand years old, and the youngest being about a thousand years old.

The earliest references to the group per se appear in the Ming period (1368‒1644) in the following treatises:

  1. Lu Rong (1436-1494) “Shuyuan Zaji” (“Miscellaneous Records from the Bean Garden” 菽園雜記) [1, 10a-10b]
  2. Li Dongyang (1447-1516) “Huai Lu Tang Ji” (“Collection from the Hall at the Foot of the Mountain” 懷麓堂集)[2,11b-12b]
  3. Yang Shen (1488-1559) “Sheng’an ji” (“Collection by Sheng’an” 升庵集) [3, 1a-1b]
  4. Li Xu (1506-1593) “Jie’an laoren manbi” (“Writings by Elder Jie’an” 戒庵老人漫笔)
  5. Xu Yingqiu (?-1621) “Yuzhitang tanhui” (“Selected Conversations from the Hall of Yuzhitang” 玉芝堂談薈)

It should be noted that Lu Rong’s treatise lists ‘beasts depicted on utensils’ that had nowhere been called ‘offspring of the dragon’ and appear in the number of 14 creatures. Lu Rong himself notes, “All of them are featured in the treatises ‘Shan Hai Jing’ and ‘Bo Wu Zhi.’ I found the above travelling through a village, when saw in a villager’s house his ‘Notes on Miscellaneous Things,’ wherein these names were mentioned, and wrote them down to check afterwards. <…> I consulted ‘Shan Hai Jing’ and ‘Bo Wu Zhi,’ but found nothing” [1, j. 2, p. 10b]. Although the later ‘regulated’ list from Lu Rong’s treatise features by no means all the offspring and a considerable part of the ones featured is introduced under different names (see Table), it is Lu Rong who is considered the pioneer in the issue of the dragon’s children.

Li Dongyang was the first to mention ‘nine offspring of the dragon’ per se in his treatise “Collection from the Hall at the Foot of the Mountain”. There is a legend that one day, Ming emperor Hongzhi (1470‒1505) suddenly took interest in the issue and addressed the State Chancellery with a request to provide him a list of names and traits of the nine songs of the dragon, of which he had heard frequently. Li Dongyang could not fulfill the request overnight and therefore made inquiries from acquainted scholars, gathered lore and made an offhand list that was thereafter included in the abovementioned treatise.

Following him, Yang Shen presented his list. Subsequent authors ‒ Li Xu, Xu Yingqiu and others ‒ referred to predecessors without proposing their own candidates for sons of the dragon.

The Table below shows revisions of the list of the ‘nine offspring of the dragon’:

Lu Rong Li Dongyang Yang Shen
屭贔 bixi 囚牛qiuniu 屭贔bixi
螭吻 chiwen 睚眦 yazi 螭吻 chiwen
徒牢 tulao (corr. to pulao) 嘲風chaofeng 蒲牢 pulao
憲章 xianzhang (corr. to bi’an) 蒲牢 pulao 狴犴 bi’an
饕餮 taotie 狻猊 suanni 饕餮 taotie
蟋蜴 xiyi (corr. to yazi) 屭贔bixi 𧈢𧏡 baxia
䘎[虫全 ]  wanquan 狴犴 bian 睚眦 yazi
螭虎 chihu (corr. to fuxi) 負屭 fuxi 狻猊 suanni
金猊 jinni (corr. to suanni) 螭吻 chiwen 椒圖jiaotu
椒圖 jiaotu
虭蛥 daoshe[1] (corr. to chiwen)
鰲魚 aoyu (corr. to chiwen[2])
獸(虫勿) shouwen
金吾 jinwu

So, as we can see, the permanent entries of the three lists are: bixi, chiwen, pulao, bi’an, and suanni. The rest of the three lists vary, but throughout the history, the most popular set of sons was that of Li Dongyang.

Let us consider it in more detail:

  1. Qiuniu (囚牛) is a small dragon with a yellow head and horns, who likes music and is therefore carved on neck tops of Han erhu and huqin, three-stringed qin of the Bai people, yueqin of the Wu people and certain musical instruments of Tibetans. Is it suggested that initially, the tradition to decorate musical instruments with animal heads (particularly, those of a bull or a horse) was peculiar to nomadic people and was introduced to China together with a two-stringed huqin in the Tang era. During the reign of the Mongolian Yuan dynasty, the bull’s head was replaced by the head of a horse, and in the Ming era, by that of a dragon; thus, only horns and the ‘bull’ character (牛) in the qiuniu name remained from the original concept.
  2. Yazi (睚眦) is a creature with a dragon’s head and a jackal’s body, who is notable for contentious temper, likes to kill and fight, and loves the smell of blood and flesh – and is therefore carved on sword hilts and blades (in the latter case, in the form of a dragon’s head with open jaws on cross-guards), as well as on knife handles. His traits are vigilance, outsight and wish to instantly punish those who flout norms of virtue. Most frequently, his images appeared on weapons of honor escort or palace chamber guards.

In Standard Chinese, the word ‘睚眦’ also means ‘fierce glare’ and ‘quarrel’; its first attestation is found in the treatises “Zhan Guo Ce” (“Strategies of the Warring States,” 戰國策, 1C B.C.) and “Shiji” (“Records of the Grand Historian” 史記, 1-2CC B.C.)

In Lu Rong’s list, yazi corresponds to xiyi (蟋蜴) – a beast with a demon’s head, who loves the smell of blood and meat and likes to kill [1, j. 2, p.11a].

  1. Chaofeng (trad. 嘲鳳、嘲風 simpl. 嘲凤、嘲风) is a small dog-like dragon. He can be seen sitting on roof hips, whence he watches for any danger that may approach the house. Depending on the building and the statues of its residents, there may be just one chaofeng or a chaofeng may lead a troop of zoushou 走兽 – special animals that keep symbolic watch on house roofs [for more details, see 4, p.52–58]. It is suggested that he is able to warn the hosts of an imminent misfortune and even to prevent it.
  2. Pulao (蒲牢) is a beast that looks like a dragon but is much less in size. There is a belief that pulao used to live at the seacoast and most of all feared the whale, upon seeing which he began roaring loudly and would not stop until the whale went out of sight. His image crowns tops of bells so that he warns of upcoming enemies with his roar, simultaneously frightening them. For the same reason, the bell-striker is often made in the shape of a whale – so that the ringing, intensified by pulao’s fear, is louder.

In Lu Rong’s list, pulao corresponds to tulao.

  1. Suanni (狻猊)(corresponds to Lu Rong’s jinni金猊) is a lion-like creature, which may be seen on bases of incense burners, in Buddhist temples and at Buddha’s statues. Suanni is sluggish and most and best of all loves to sit calmly in a meditative pose, with his legs tucked under him, and enjoy the fragrance of incense. Certain sources, however, note that in a fit of anger suanni, just like the lion, is very fearsome and devours tigers and leopards. It is suggested that the image of a lion came to China from India on a Buddhist wave in the Han period, whereas the image of an incense-burner guardian suanni / jinni ultimately formed in the Tang era. The earliest references to him can be found in works by Tang poets – Madame Hua Rui (“Poems on Courtly Life”), Hu Ning (“Poems on Courtly Life”), etc.
  2. Bixi (trad. 屭贔, simpl. 赑屃; sometimes guifu, trad. 龜趺, simpl. 龟趺) is a son of a dragon, who looks like a tortoise and is extremely strong, wherefore likes to carry loads on his back. One can distinguish him from a tortoise by nothing else but the sharpest teeth in his jaws. Some assert that it was him and not a tortoise that helped Yu the Great, the legendary ancient ruler, to manage the flood and rebuild the world after it. It was on his back, and not on that of a tortoise, that the stone stelae were built. It is suggested that the stela erected on its back will stand for ages; besides, the sharp-toothed bixi will be able to defend it from external invasions as well. When old city walls of Beijing were being demolished, fragments of his statue were found at the base of the Dongbianmen and Xibianmen Gates, whence the belief that Beijing rests on the shell of bixi originated. Outstanding longevity was intrinsic to bixi, just like to tortoises, therefore his jade figurines were presented to elderly people on their sixtieth anniversary.

Emergence of the image of bixi (tortoise-dragon) scholars typically tend to link to ancient alliances of tribes, whose totemic animals were represented by a dragon and a tortoise; children born in such alliances already took a hybrid creature with prevailing tortoise traits (probably because the tortoise was a totem through the female line, which was preferential within matriarchal systems) as a totem. However, no archeological evidences of this theory have been found.

Others see his roots in the image of Xuanwu, the black guardian spirit of the north, who was often depicted as a tortoise entwined together with a snake, but strong arguments to support this hypothesis, except for “dragon is in fact a serpent” recorded in many sources (“Lun Heng”, “Shi Ji”, “Han Shu”, etc.), have not been found yet.

The earliest reference to bixi may be found in the work “Western Metropolis Rhapsody” (“Xi jing fu”, 1-2CC) by the Eastern-Han poet Zhang Heng.

  1. Bi’an (狴犴) (corresponds to Lu Rong’s xianzhang, trad. 憲章, simpl. 宪章) looks like a tiger. Due to innate propensity for justice, he likes to watch litigations; besides, just like the magical xiezhi ram of the judge Gao Yao, he could tell truth from lies and, consequently, knew the innocent from the guilty. That is why his image is often found on prison gates.
  2. Fuxi (trad.負屭, simpl. 负屃) (sometimes manquan [虫蛮] [虫全], also, wanquan 䘎[虫全 ] ) also took after his father in terms of appearance. Fuxi likes belles-lettres, literature and other manifestations of education, therefore he often appears on tops of memorial stelae. The classic ensemble – a stone stela standing on the shell of bixi and crowned with a couple of entwined serpentine fuxi – appeared in the Tang era.

According to the description (“looks like a dragon, likes literature and fineness and therefore stands on stelae with inscriptions”), fuxi corresponds not to wanquan 䘎[虫全 ] , as one would have thought judging by the similarity of pronunciation and common character in their names, but to chihu (螭虎) in Lu Rong’s list. Currently, however, chihu is used to name an ornament in the shape of a hornless dragon or in the shape of a hybrid tiger-dragon that adorns utensils and sometimes weapons and is not classified as an offspring of the dragon.

  1. Chiwen (螭吻) (chiwei鴟尾) is a half-fish, half-dragon. Chiwen figurines usually adorn ridgepoles of Chinese roofs – one at each end. He is deemed a marine animal able to invoke rain and spit water and is therefore placed on roofs as a fire chief. However, when there is no fire, chiwen becomes bored and even tries to desert his post. In order to prevent such an action, he is pinned to the ridgepole with a sword having a handle in the shape of a fan. According to a legend, such sword once belonged to Xiu Xun, a famous Taoist master of the Jin era, and served to horrify evil spirits. Is was assumed that the sword inside chiwen’s body was a much stronger argument than outside of it – therefore demons would be dismayed to a greater degree.

Sometimes chiwen may also be seen on multistoried structures – at the point where the ridgepole of the lower story interfaces with the wall.

In the south of Chine and Japan, it is almost impossible to distinguish chiwen from fish – only sharp teeth sunk into the ridgepole gives him away. This type is called ‘fishtailed wen’ (鱼尾吻).

If Yang Shen’s list is taken into account, the dragon’s sons should be supplemented with the following creatures:

  1. Taote (饕餮) is a voracious creature, who has nothing but a head with huge eyes and oversized jaws. Once taote even died of overeating, but death, as is well known, is no obstacle for magical creatures. Taote represents a famous symbol of greed and rapacity, whose first images appeared as early as on Shang bronze vessels and served as a protective amulet [5, p.15] or as a warning against the harm of intemperance [6, p.35-37]. Taote is one of the most ancient characters in Chinese mythology, who is mentioned in the “Classic of Mountains and Seas” (“Shan Hai Jing”) and whose images may be found of artifacts of the Liangzhu culture (3400-2250 B.C.).
  2. Baxia (霸下, sometimes gongfu 蚣蝮) is often confused with bixi. Baxia, even though he also resembles a tortoise, does not like to carry weights on his back at all – instead, he likes water, especially to spit it. Baxia can be seen on bridges and buildings located near the water. Besides, his head usually ends drains. Just Beijing Gugong numbers 1142 statues of the creature. Baxia has a specific appearance in every city: for instance, Beijing baxia is notable for a curved nose, Xian one – for a broad smile, etc.
  3. Jiaotu (trad.椒圖, simpl. 椒图) is an unsociable and withdrawn beast, who used to live in a bivalve shell and shut inside it immediately upon seeing someone on the horizon. That is why his head with a ring between teeth sometimes serves a substitute for handles on doors and gates. The symbolic function of jiaotu consisted in repelling evil spirits and other harmful forces from the house. It is remarkable that the famous Shenzhen company that specializes in information security Jowto Technology Co. presently bears the name of jiaotu (its Chinese name being Jiaotu keji 椒图科技).

Sometimes the following creatures are also numbered among the dragon’s children:

  1. Jinwu (金吾) is a creature with a beautiful human head, a fishtail and wings, who can communicate with spirits and never sleeps – therefore his duties include vigil over safety of the objects entrusted to him.
  2. Daoshe, also pronounced daoduo (虭多) is a small dragon who loves danger; he can be seen sitting on small roofs adorning some stelae or gates.
  3. Aoyu (鰲魚) is a mythical fish, on whose head Buddha and Guanyin often stand; it is said in Lu Rong’s list, that aoyu “resembles a dragon, likes to swallow fire and therefore stands on roof ridges” [Lu Rong, j.2, с.11а]. But the most common symbolic function of aoyu was to support young scholars who came first in the keju exams. When the list of successful candidates of the palace examination was published, all the names were read aloud in the presence of the emperor, the first ranked scholar received the title of zhuangyuan and stood in the middle of the stairs, right where aoyu was carved. This gave rise to the phrase ‘to have alone seized ao’s head” (獨占鼇頭). So, as we can see, despite similar exterior, aoyu and chiwen are two different creatures, but sometimes are still merged with each other.
  4. Pixiu (貔貅) is a magical whitish-grey creature with a dragon’s head, horse’s body and qiling’s hooves, looking like lion and able to fly. Pixiu feeds on gemstones, money and treasures; thereby, everything he eats does not come out naturally after a while, but is accumulated in its magical belly – therefore pixiu was regarded as an amulet contributing to wealth accumulation. None of the classical sources reckons him among the offspring of the dragon; however, certain folk legends name pixiu as the third or the ninth son of Long Wang. Probably this very fact constituted a ground for his inclusion into the list under consideration.
  5. Hou (犼) is a half-dragon, half-dog, whose statues are mounted on high stone columns in the Tiananmen Square; his task was to remind the emperor of the necessity to go outside of the palace and enquire after the state of affairs in the country. Hou became popular in the Ming-Qing period and although he is not listed among the sons of the dragon in any classical source, their kinship is sometimes acknowledged in the folklore.

In 2012, Shanghai Mint released a set of 10 coins made of silver and copper; nine coins feature nine sons, whereas the tenth shows the dragon father. The offspring includes qiuniu, yazi, bixi, bi’an, pulao, chiwen, chaofeng, suanni and fuxi. Thus, it is the set specified by Li Dongyang that is recognized at the national level.


  1. Formation of the ‘nine offspring’ took many centuries. Initially, the participants were developing independently and were separated by millennia. Moreover, each image had its own source – starting from the most ancient totemism (bixi, taote) and ending in relatively late elements of Buddhist (suanni) and nomadic (qiuniu) cultures.
  2. Initially, the ‘offsprings’ had a very indirect relation to the dragon: some inherited only some traits of appearance (pulao, qiuniu, yazi, etc.), others partly derived his functions (water control – baxia, chiwen), and still others had no relation to him whatsoever (taote). It is likely that the fathership of the dragon is but nominal and in this case denotes kinship of the creatures within the Chinese cultural pattern, since the dragon stands at the top of the Chinese symbolic hierarchy. This is indirectly proved by the fact that the idiom “long sheng jiu zi” in Chinese means “many relatives, good ones and bad ones”, as well as by variety of derivatives from this source. As alleged by the Ming writer and official Xie Zhaozhe, “the dragon is characterized by extreme lasciviousness; there is no one with whom he would not mate, therefore he has a great number of offspring” [7, 3b]. However, his treatise “Wu Za Zu” was released approximately half a century later than the ‘official’ lists of the offspring, and no one before him ever mentioned the dragon’s ‘lasciviousness’. (Thanks to his good grace, qilin was also labeled as an offspring of the dragon from mating with a cow, which contrasts sharply with the classical version of qiling’s origin.) Thus, the fathership of the dragon appears to be rather notional.
  3. The ‘nine offspring’ are united by a complex of beliefs that was forming throughout the entire Chinese history, encompassing virtually all the aspects of life and mindset of a man living in the Old China. It is not known when exactly this brotherhood formed, however, it is evident that is was known to common people knew much earlier than the educated elite took interest in it. The existence of various versions of the ‘offspring’ set indirectly proves the hypothesis that number ‘nine’ in this case performs a merely symbolic function.
  4. The nine offspring of the dragon primarily performed a protective (chiwen, chaofeng), an applied (bixi, baxia) or a symbolical esthetic (qiuniu, fuxi) function, sometimes fulfilling several at once. There were no regulations as to usage of these images as, for example, strict ones in the case of zoushou, when the number and the set of beasts varied depending on the status of the host, or partial ones as in the case of the dragon (the five-clawed dragon could only be pictured on clothes and household items of the emperor; in general, however, the image of the dragon was open for mass use).
  5. It is most likely that non-canonical children of the dragon appeared within the framework of folk legends, tales and stories; no documentary evidences of this have been found so far, for which cause we can only confine ourselves to a presumption.

[1] Sometimes incorrectly referred to as “daoduo

[2] Though only in appearance, as their functions were quite different.


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