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A solution to drought, with the help of little "dragons"


During the Xining era [1068-1077], a serious drought hit the capital. [The authorities], following an ancient method, ordered districts and alleys to put out big urns with water, insert willow branches and float skinks [1] therein, and have children dressed in azure encircle the urns, calling:

Skink, Skink,

Stir the clouds and spit forth mists.

When rain streams down,

[We] shall let you go home.

The Superior Prefecture of Kaikeng issued an edict, strongly urging temples in the city to pray for rain. Yet [people] could not all get [real] skinks and many substituted them with geckos,[2] which drowned immediately in the water and could not work magic. The children then changed the text, saying:

[What an] injustice, [what an] injustice!

I am a gecko.

Being so dim-witted,

How can you possibly summon a good rain?

* From Peng Cheng 彭乘 (fl. 11th century), Moke huixi 墨客揮犀 (Quan Song biji 全宋筆記 edition, Zhengzhou: Daxiang chubanshe, Series III, Vol. 1), annotated by Kong Fanli 孔凡禮, 22; see also the Wenyuange yingyin Siku quanshu 文淵閣景印四庫全書 edition (vol. 1037, Shanghai: Shanghai guji chubanshe, 1987), 3.8a:

[1] Inconsistent uses and contradictory theories of the common names of lizards litter classical Chinese literature, making it difficult to determine to which ones this anecdote is referring. The translation here uses “skink” and “gecko” for convenience and despite the fact that geckos are capable swimmers. The xiyi 蜥蜴 here can probably be identified as the Chinese blue-tailed skink (Plestiodon chinensis) used in traditional Chinese medicine. Also known as shilongzi 石龍子 (“little stone dragon”), they are often associated with rain; for a detailed synthesis (with amusing elements) of various lizards and their names, see Li Shizhen 李時珍, Bencao gangmu 本草綱目:

[2] Xiehu 蠍虎 (literally “scorpion tiger”) refers to the flat-tailed house gecko (Hemidactylus platyurus) in modern taxonomy.

Handscroll by an unidentified artist (14th–15th century); traditionally attributed to Chen Rong 陳榮 (d. 1266) under the title "Yunxing yushi tu" 雲行雨施圖 (Clouds coming, rain falling)

Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Five wall lizards (Podarcis muralis) accidentally trapped in my bucket.


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