Brian Salter's Blogs:
Here Be Dragons!

 

We all know that English mapmakers of yesteryear placed the phrase "here be dragons" at the edges of their known world. I mean … it’s common knowledge isn’t it. Or is it? For I was recently reading an article written in April 1999 by Erin C. Blake, a cartographer, who reported a list of all known historical maps upon which these words appear: • …

There aren't any! Of course, she argued, it is not surprising that the English phrase cannot be found on maps from a time and place where Latin was the language of learning, so here is her list of all known historical maps where the phrase appears in Latin:
• The Lenox Globe (ca. 1503-07), in the collection of the New York Public Library which has "HC SVNT DRACONES" ("hic sunt dracones ") on the eastern coast of Asia.
...And that’s it. In other words, there is just the one!

According to Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, "The animal called a dragon is a winged crocodile with a serpent's tail; whence the words serpent and dragon are sometimes interchangeable… The word ‘dragon’ was used by ecclesiastics of the Middle Ages as the symbol of sin in general and paganism in particular. The metaphor is derived from Rev. xii. 9, where Satan is termed 'the great dragon'.”

Dragons are something that the Chinese knew much more about than their European contemporaries. You have only to go around the southeast second ring road in Beijing to Longtan Park and you’ll see what I mean.

Longtan Gōngyuán – 龙潭湖公园 (literally "Dragon Pool", to give it its proper name) – was built in 1952 and has a total area of 49.2 hectares. The park is a fusion of northern classical architecture and modern garden art, highlighting the Chinese "Dragon" culture.

OK. Longtan Park rarely features on must-see lists of Beijing’s many tourist sites, probably because it is within a (1.5km) flick of a dragon’s tail from the eastern gate of the Temple of Heaven; but it is no-less worth seeing for that. The park is relentlessly themed with dragons – with pavilions, bridges, gates, halls, islands, lake and trees and almost anything that moves having some kind of a ‘dragonian’ connection.

According to the official blurb, there are as many as 100 carved dragons scattered around the park, though I have to admit to losing count after I’d passed the 60+ mark.

You cannot possibly miss the entrances, all featuring golden dragons prancing around and doing what dragons like to do best – ie look awesome…

… and sometimes cute, but rarely frightening!

Lest you could possibly get lost in a place like this, there are maps liberally scattered with gay abandon throughout the park.

It is obvious that the designers have thought long and hard about where they could possibly cram in extra dragons. You just have to look beneath your feet and voilà, out pops another one…

Even the lamp posts have a kind of dragon motif on them…

… while the dragon trees, which always look so beautiful in winter and early spring are pleasing on the eye.

These trees even manage to steal one’s attention away from some of the beautiful structures behind them.

In common with so many parks and open spaces in Beijing, it is normal to find people practising their tai-chi or shadow boxing, and twirling ribbons or swords.

For the more adventurous, there is even a climbing wall, though today it has been closed to the public.

I often think that China is a place where you are forever being told what you’re not allowed to do. Longtan Park is no exception, and I am glad I never thought to bring any wheels with me on this jaunt.

Something that is definitely NOT dragon related is as equally unexpected, as I turn a corner and am confronted by an old MiG fighter jet with a No Entrance sign in front of it. Children are encouraged to stand on the wings to have their photos taken, while others pose in front of it. You can see much better examples of this plane in the Military Museum, and perhaps this is why this sad-looking specimen ended up here – the only place left they could dump it?

With 40 per cent of the park being given over to the Dragon Lake itself, it is of course impossible to miss. This patch of water has been expertly beautified to ensure charming vistas all the way around its banks.

A beautifully curving pavilion with a dragon roof and pillars – called Longyinge House – is decorated with golden dragons, and is the largest piece of wooden architecture in the park.

Elsewhere near a Lotus Pond in the southeast of the park, is a dragon-motifed wooden bridge which has the appearance of having been put there simply because they couldn’t think what else to do with the space. But I guess it’s pretty all the same…

For those of a less athletic bent, there is a double croquet pitch laid out where a number of seniors are expertly knocking their balls – hmm, I don’t think that is the correct expression to use  – through the hoops.

And again, in the Chinese tradition, the sounds of instruments being practised waft throughout the park. Today there is a man practising his mandolin, and just along the track in yet another dragon-themed pavilion is a saxophone combo.

Further on the sound of bouncing balls emanates from a special ping-pong arena.

Rockeries play a big role in Longtan Park, especially in the eastern sector where seemingly haphazardly placed rocks connect different parts of the lake’s bank.

One of the prettiest bridges in Longtan is a moon bridge located at the western end of the lake. Moon bridges are highly arched pedestrian bridges which originated in China and were later introduced to Japan. They were originally designed to allow pedestrians to cross canals while allowing the passage of barges underneath. They had the further advantage of not using up too much space from the adjoining fields for the approaches. In formal garden design, a moon bridge was placed so that it was reflected in the still water below; and the arch with its reflection formed a circle, symbolizing the moon.

Unfortunately, together with the pretty, is the comically trashy kitsch that the Chinese seem to love. Close to Wanliutang Hall in the northeast section of the park, is this dragon boat, for instance, used in the summer for pleasure rides on the lake.

But it is quickly set off by the more elegant looking dragons carved into the stone balustrades just a few paces away.

Meanwhile there is another pretty bridge, some 40 metres long, which connects two small islands in the middle of the lake…

Dragons are, literally, everywhere in this park. Can one ever get a surfeit of them, I wonder? A touch of “dragophobia” perhaps?

Who knows? But as it’s time to leave by a different exit, the last thing my eyes fall to rest on is a pair of columns covered in… yes, you guessed it …

But now it’s time to wend my weary way home, where I can finally find the time to catch up with the latest episode in the Game of Thrones series that has become such a worldwide phenomenon, featuring, would you believe… dragons!