A Dragon King is a deity in Chinese mythology commonly regarded as the divine ruler of an ocean. They have the ability to shapeshift into human form and live in an underwater crystal palace. They have their own royal court and command an army comprising various marine creatures. Apart from presiding over aquatic life, a Dragon King can also manipulate the weather and bring rainfall. Dragon Kings are a recurring feature in classical Chinese literature. Detailed descriptions are given of the grandeur of their palaces.
They are believed to be the rulers of moving bodies of water, such as waterfalls, rivers, or seas. They can show themselves as waterspouts (tornado or twister over water). In this capacity as the rulers of water and weather, the dragon is more anthropomorphic in form, often depicted as a humanoid, dressed in a king's costume, but with a dragon head wearing a king's headdress.
Dragon Kings of the Four Seas
There are four major Dragon Kings, each ruling one of the Four Seas corresponding to one of the four cardinal directions: the East Sea (corresponding to the East China Sea), the South Sea (corresponding to the South China Sea), the West Sea (sometimes seen as the Qinghai Lake and beyond), and the North Sea (sometimes seen as Lake Baikal). They appear in the classical novels like The Investiture of the Gods and Journey to the West.
Because of this association, they are seen as "in charge" of water-related weather phenomenon. In premodern times, many Chinese villages (especially those close to rivers and seas) had temples dedicated to their local "dragon king". In times of drought or flooding, it was customary for the local gentry and government officials to lead the community in offering sacrifices and conducting other religious rites to appease the dragon, either to ask for rain or a cessation thereof.
The four Dragon Kings in Journey to the West are:
- Ao Guang (敖廣), Dragon King of the East Sea
- Ao Qin (敖欽), Dragon King of the South Sea
- Ao Run (敖閏) or Ao Jun (敖君) or Ao Ji (敖吉), Dragon King of the West Sea
- Ao Shun (敖順) or Ao Ming (敖明), Dragon King of the North Sea
The origin of their family name, Ao (敖, meaning "playing" or "proud"), however, remains unclear. The names of the Dragon Kings also vary according to the stories they are featured in.
Worship of the Dragon King
There are numerous temples dedicated to Dragon King in China and one in Oregon, United States. One temple in Beijing was built during the Yuan Dynasty and renovated in the early 21st century. Chaotian Palace (朝天宮) of Beigang, Yunlin County in Taiwan, is devoted to the goddess Mazu, and also has human-shaped statues for the four Dragon Kings, each riding on a dragon. In contrast to the Dragon Kings, Mazu, although also a deity of sea, is a motherly figure who never wreaks havoc.