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In China dragons are said to influence every aspect of life. Representing the highest spiritual power, the Chinese dragon can represent the sun, the heavens and the life-giving rain. In addition to their complex mythological and symbolic status, many in China have regarded dragons as actual living beings – shapeshifting creatures with the ability to make themselves invisible.1
In ancient times dragons were regarded as especially important, with evidence suggesting that people made offerings to these great, spiritual creatures. The ancient Chinese philosopher-historian Wang Fu described dragons as having horns which “resemble those of a stag”. The beast’s head was supposedly like “that of a camel, his eyes those of the demon, his neck that of the snake”. 2
Far from being confined to ancient times, the existence of dragons in China was still very much openly discussed centuries later. In 1271, a seventeen year old Marco Polo set off from Venice, with his father and uncle, for Asia.3 It was during his travels over the next few years that Marco Polo supposedly encountered oriental dragons.
Discussing his adventures years later in his book, The Travels of Marco Polo, Polo describes arriving in the province of Carajan, where “great serpents of such vast size” were said to live.
Relating the existence of these “great serpents” from what seems to be personal experience, Polo states that the creatures “strike fear into those who see them”, for they are not only “hideous” to behold but also “long and big”. 4
“You may be assured that some of them are ten paces in length; some are more and some less. […] They have two forelegs near the head, but for foot nothing but a claw like the claw of a hawk or that of a lion. The head is very big, and the eyes are bigger than a great loaf of bread. The mouth is large enough to swallow a man whole, and is garnished with great teeth.”
According to Polo’s interactions with local merchants, “the gall” of these great serpents was extremely valuable as a “precious medicine”. As such, many huntsmen were known to seek out these fearsome beasts, hunting them at night when they emerged from underground lairs.
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Despite Polo’s accounts having been previously criticised for being overly fanciful, and possibly fraudulent, modern studies have revealed that his Travels are remarkably accurate. Details such as currencies used, salt productions and revenues, have been proven to be not only accurate, but unique to Polo, with such detailed descriptions not being found in other non-Chinese sources of the time. 5 All of this makes one wonder whether or not his descriptions of “great serpents” were also accurate, and if Marco Polo truly did encounter the long-revered dragons of China.
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