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Ryujin › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 28 June 2017
Ryujin (Utagawa Kuniyoshi)

Ryujin (aka Ryu-o) is the dragon king, sea god, and master of serpents in Japanese mythology. With his magic jewels he is responsible for the tides, and he represents both the perils and bounty of the sea and so was especially relevant to an ancient island nation like Japan. Ryujin is often associated with or considered the same as Owatatsumi-no- kami, another water deity or Shinto kami (spirit), better known as Watatsumi. Believed to have a useful knowledge of medicine and considered the bringer of rain and thunder, Ryujin is also the patron god or ujigami of several Japanese family groups.


Ryujin is one of the eight dragon kings which were originally imported from Indian mythology via China and Korea. He is the lord of the sea and snakes, who may be his avatar and which were considered by the ancient Japanese to be a form of dragon. Snakes were also considered the messengers of Ryujin and provide the dragon king with a link to the outside world from his residence in a palace beneath the sea or in the lake of an extinct volcano. The depths of Lake Biwa, north-east of Kyoto, are often cited as Ryujin's home. Snakes were associated with death and thunder which link with Ryujin's role as a bringer of rain and storms. Ryujin was thought to appear in people's dreams and briefly in the moment of waking up. The god of the sea has a handy dispensary of useful medicines, too, especially those which can guarantee a long life. Finally, the god is often linked with sujin, the minor kami of fresh water, springs, and wells.
The god has shrines across Japan and especially in rural areas where fishing and rains for agriculture are so important for local communities. In art, Ryujin is typically portrayed as a sea-dwelling dragon or a giant snake. He may carry the magic round jewel which represents power and monarchy in Japan and with which the god can control the tides.



Ryujin is a protagonist in several Japanese myths but, reflecting the fickle nature of the sea, he can be either a sinister force or a kindly ruler who helps heroes in distress. In the guise of Watatsumi, for example, he helped Hoori against the hero's brother Hoderi. However, Ryujin also stole the jewel which belonged to Kamatari, the founder of the Fujiwara clan. The jewel was only retrieved after Kamatari's wife dived down to the god's palace below the sea and took it back, tragically drowning in the process.
Tawara Toda & the Centipede
In a more flattering story, Ryujin gave a bell (albeit having previously stolen it) to the hero Tawara Toda (aka FujiwaraHidesato) in gratitude for him saving his palace from a fearsome centipede whose body was so long it covered an entire mountain. The 11th-century CE warrior-hero was famous for his archery skills, but it was not until he magically tipped his fourth and last arrow in his own saliva that he managed to fell the giant creature. The bell was left in the Miidera temple, and it is possible that Ryujin's other gift of a huge inexhaustible sack of rice explains the hero's title as 'Lord Rice Bale' (another reason could be his reputed ability to lift a 60 kilo/132 pound bale of rice). Yet more gifts from Ryujin to Tawara Toda were a magic cauldron that could cook food without the necessity of a fire and a never-ending roll of brocade.
Another myth involving the dragon king is that of Urashimataro. One day the fisherman saw some children tormenting a turtle on the beach and he shooed them away. In gratitude, the turtle offered to take Urashimataro on a sea voyage and a free tour of Ryujin's undersea palace. On arrival the fisherman was given a feast by the dragon king's daughter and, when he finally left, a parting present of a jewellery box. When Urashimataro made it home he saw that the village had changed since he had left, he could not find his own house or his family either. Then he met one old lady who only just remembered being told as a child of the mysterious disappearance of one of the fishermen of the village. On top of that, when he opened his jewellery box a mist came forth that instantly changed him into a very old man with a long white beard. At the bottom of the box was a single feather, and when Urashimataro took hold of it, he was transformed into a crane, the symbol of happiness, which then flew off in the direction of the far away palace of Ryujin.
Hoori & the Fishhook
Ruyijin, this time as Watatsumi, features prominently in the story of Hoori (aka Hoho-demi or Hikohohodemi) which is told in the Kojiki ('Record of Ancient Things') which was compiled in 712 CE. Hoori, the youngest son of Ninigi (grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu ), one day borrowed the magic fish hook of his brother Hoderi. The hook allowed the user to catch a vast number of fish without any effort at all. Inexplicably, though, when Hoori tried it, the hook would not get a single bite and to make matters worse the hapless fisherman dropped it so that it sank to the depths of the sea.
Not best pleased to find out what had happened to his prize possession, Hoderi refused his brother's offer of a new batch of 500 hooks made from his broken sword. Sitting on the beach in tears, Hoori was approached by a kami who, on discovering his anguish, told him to visit Watatsumi, who would surely be able to find and return the hook if asked nicely enough.Accordingly, Hoori built himself a small boat and after a long voyage finally arrived at the sea god's palace. There he was greeted by Watatsumi's daughter Toyotama-hime and, awestruck by the princess' beauty, promptly forgot why he had sailed there in the first place.
Hoori and Toyotama-hime married with the blessing of Watatsumi who gave them so many gifts it took 100 tables to display them. However, in their blissful youth, they rather lost track of time so that several years passed before Hoori remembered that his brother was still waiting for the fishhook. When he told Watatsumi, the god gathered all the fish in the sea and discovered the hook in the mouth a sea bream (or dorado). He cursed the hook and then gave the departing Hoori two jewels with which he could control the waters that would irrigate his rice fields. Back home after a helpful shark (or crocodile) had given him a lift, the magic jewels ensured that while ruin befell his brother, Hoori became very prosperous and lived for 500 years.
This article was made possible with generous support from the Great Britain Sasakawa Foundation.

Cao Cao › Who Was

Definition and Origins

by Mark Cartwright
published on 08 September 2017
Cao Cao (Shizhao)

Cao Cao (c. 155-220 CE) was a military dictator in ancient China during the end of the Han dynasty. Something more than a mere warlord, Cao Cao supported a puppet emperor and governed a large area of northern China. His attempts to unify China ultimately failed, but he did found the large state of Wei and introduced various administrative changes including a new social ranking system and land reforms. Cao Cao's ruthless objective of recapturing the lost glory of the Han empire, his manipulation of the imperial court and association with unsavoury political intrigues have resulted in an ambiguous reputation which has darkened ever since his portrayal as the villain of the popular 14th-century CE epic the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.


The early life and biographical details of Cao Cao are sketchy and disputed, facts being difficult to separate from legend. Cao Cao was born in c. 155 CE, the son of Lady Ding and Cao Song, who was himself the adopted son of Cao Teng, an influential and powerful eunuch at the Han court. The association with the eunuchs, who pulled the strings of imperial politics behind the scenes, was, no doubt, one of the reasons for Cao Cao's meteoric rise. Cao Cao may also have been adopted, possibly from the Xiabou, an aristocratic family group in the Pei district, modern Boxian. Cao Cao had many children of his own, the most famous being his sons Cao Pi and Cao Zhi.



Cao Cao's first role of note was as Commandant and police chief at Luoyang, the capital, during the 170s CE. He early-on established a reputation for being a stickler with the law and was not afraid to challenge the rich and powerful. He came to wider prominence when he famously put down the Yellow Turban rebellion in the second half of the 2nd century CE. The rebellion was so called because the protagonists wore a turban whose colour represented earth, an element they hoped would put out the fire which was the element selected by the Han. A religious movement, the Yellow Turban cult probably derived from Tibet and was closely associated with Taoism. Its popularity was helped by the promotion of aid to the poor and criticism of the discrimination against women and the lower classes, which was rife in Chinese society. The cult eventually turned into a major military rebellion, which was rather ironic considering its leader Zhang Jue preached the objective of a Great Peace.
China Warlords, 2nd-3rd century CE.

China Warlords, 2nd-3rd century CE.

Strong in eastern China, the rebels, nevertheless, coordinated a series of uprisings across China in 184 CE which attacked the offices of local government. The whole of the country was split into pockets held by rebels, warlords, or regional governors still loyal to the state. The confusion, constant warring, and deprivation of the Chinese people were summarised in a poem attributed to Cao Cao, who, like many leaders of the period, had a serious literary bent.
My armour has been worn so long that lice breed in it,
Myriad lineages have perished.
White bones exposed in the fields,
For a thousand li not even a cock is heard.
Only one out of a hundred survives,
Thinking of it rends my entrails.
(Lewis, 28)
The rebellion was brutally quashed by an army sent by Cao Cao, and Zhang Jue was killed or executed. The movement did rumble on under new leadership in eastern Sichuan province but was finally stamped out in 215 CE, again by a Cao Cao-sent force.
An unfortunate consequence of the rebellion was that several local warlords had been backed to raise their own armies and deal with the Yellow Turbans in their area. When the rebels were dealt with, these armies often clashed with each other and there followed a sustained period of civil war during which Luoyang was sacked in 189 CE.
Cao Cao, after several setbacks, eventually established himself as the powerful governor of Yan province by 196 CE. He made his headquarters at Xu in Yingchuan (Henan province). Cao Cao would eventually become the most powerful of the Chinese warlords, particularly following his victory over rival warlord Yuan Shao at the battle of Guandu in 199-200 CE. Cao Cao took on a series of impressive titles in his role as the most powerful man at court: Marquis, Director of Retainers and then Excellency of Works. By 205 CE he was able to take the reigns of government, with the emperor left in place merely as a token gesture to past tradition. Choosing Ye as his capital, Cao Cao took many of the emperor's previous privileges for himself and adopted the titles of chengxiang or Imperial Chancellor in 208 CE and Duke of Wei in 213 CE. In 216 CE he went a step further and declared himself the King of Wei, as his state was now known. The year before the former warlord had made one of his daughters empress, completing his stranglehold on power.


Cao Cao, although having conquered the Yellow River valley, the Wuhuan in the northeast (207 CE), and now holding much of northern China, struggled to control all of the former Han territories. Large areas under the jurisdiction of rival warlords still remained. His attempts to unify a greater area of China met with spectacular failure in the form of a resounding defeat at the battle of Red Cliffs in the Yangtze Valley in 208 CE. Disease and unfamiliarity with both local geography and southern fighting techniques may have combined to frustrate Cao Cao's empire-building ambitions. The victor that day was the young warlord Sun Quan who would later become the emperor of the rival Wu state.
Cao Cao

Cao Cao

In order to consolidate the lands he did control, Cao Cao embarked on a series of administrative reforms which were designed to reinforce the centralisation of Chinese government and ensure the tentacles of the state were far-reaching and unchallenged. One of the features of the reforms was to curb excessive state expenditure. For this reason, there were laws passed which, for example, forbade the use of costly jade funerary shrouds.
Other measures included the introduction of a nine-level ranking system for court officials ( jiupin zhongzheng ), a system which lasted right through several later dynasties. This is not to say that there were any significant changes in the recruitment process, though, as Cao Cao continued the tradition of selecting ministers and officials based on who they knew, what their standing was in the local community, and where they came from rather than pure talent. Designed to exploit the official's local contacts and knowledge, the system only ended up favouring those with the right connections who could jump several steps in the nine-rung ladder of promotion.


Another policy of Cao Cao's was designed to break up traditional regional loyalties and fill up the state coffers. This involved allowing the resettlement of peasants left homeless on to abandoned lands reclaimed by the state after war had ravaged the area. The peasants and defeated rebels similarly resettled became paying tenants and thus a useful source of income for the state without the middleman of a local tax collector.


Cao Cao died in 220 CE but his second son, Cao Pi, would go on to outdo his father. Forcing the last Han emperor to abdicate, he then founded the Wei dynasty (221-265 CE). Calling himself Emperor Wen, he also became an accomplished and pioneering poet and literary critic. Cao Cao was, meanwhile, given the posthumous title of Emperor Wu of Wei, but his goal of a unified China would not be realised for another three centuries. The life of Cao Cao was recorded in his own book, Apologia, written in 210-211 CE and one of the earliest autobiographies from ancient China.
Cao Cao's life is also the subject of a celebrated novel from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 CE), the Romance of the Three Kingdoms ( Sanguo yanyi ), where he is the deliciously Machiavellian villain of the piece. Operas, too, cast him as a villain, with actors portraying the dictator usually wearing a snarling white mask with sinister eyebrows. More recently, the military leader has become the subject of several popular television series and computer games. Again indicative of the dubious reputation of the dictator, his name lives on in the Chinese expression “Speak of Cao Cao and he appears” which is broadly equivalent to “Speak of the devil” in English.
Tomb of Cao Cao

Tomb of Cao Cao


Interest in Cao Cao was further piqued in 2008 CE by Chinese archaeologists claiming they had discovered his tomb.Excavated near Xigaoxue in Henan province, the tomb consists of two main chambers connected by an arched doorway and covers 750 square metres (8,000 square feet). Unfortunately, the tomb had already been looted and its connection with Cao Cao has been difficult to ascertain with certainty. The tentative link is based on three stones inscribed with “Wu of Wei”, one discovered some distance from the tomb itself, one which may have been removed from the tomb, and a third found by archaeologists in the tomb itself and describing several bronze weapons as belonging to Wu of Wei. However, the absence of corroborating evidence, coupled with past cases of the Chinese state making similar premature claims for important historical figures, has led to archaeologists and historians outside China (and some academics inside it) to dispute the claim that it is the dictator's tomb. The tomb does seem to belong to the right place and period, and an important person was certainly interred there. Time and further study may well tell if the tomb at Xigaoxue is indeed the final resting place of Cao Cao, one of ancient China's most enigmatic figures.


Article based on information obtained from these sources:
with permission from the Website Ancient History Encyclopedia
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