In Memoriam

In: The Dragon and the Rainbow
Laura Chang-Blust
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To everyone who knew him personally, Bob was a good storyteller. I vividly recall how, in the early nineties after we were married, Bob amused my family, especially the younger generation, with fascinating stories of unusual encounters during his extensive fieldwork, and how intrigued they were to learn about the taboo of pointing at rainbows. During his first sabbatical in Taiwan (1994), Bob and my father would always have a joyful time at our Saturday dinners exchanging wishes for good health and happiness over a drink and engaging in small talk about their life experiences. Once, out of curiosity, Bob asked my father, Chang Hsiang-shun (1917–2004), a retired WWII air force pilot originally from China, if there was any story that he recalled from childhood about rainbows. Much to my surprise, my father not only confirmed the rainbow taboo as what Bob had described, but also mentioned taboos against pointing at agricultural crops, such as budding cucumbers. In conversations that later ensued with a Mr. Du, also a veteran of my father’s generation from China who worked as our building manager at the time, the rainbow narrative became more complex. Instead of just being associated with the rain and crops, it was frequently tied to the appearance of dragons and the omens associated with them. Upon reflection, these beliefs must have been salient in the minds of people who lived an agricultural lifestyle in the bygone time in which my father and Mr. Du grew up.

In modern times, any Chinese urbanites untrained in archaeology or historical linguistics like me may still discern the rainbow-dragon connection in a variety of commonly known remnants of the past. First, the word ‘rainbow’ is written in Chinese characters as 彩虹 (lit. ‘colorful worm-creature hóng’), with the second character consisting of the ‘worm’ (虫) radical on the left, corresponding to a semantic root encompassing worms, insects, and reptiles (e.g., 蛇 ‘snake’). Second, a substantial amount of the dragon motif has been found on ceremonial and burial objects made of jade and bronze in early archeological sites, dating from the Shang (1600 to 1046 BCE) to Western Han period (206 BCE to 9 CE). Among such artifacts preserved and exhibited in museums today, the most intriguing are the jade pieces that present the dragon in an arched or curving shape (often with a cloud motif), in a half-circular jade huang (璜) form (see cover photo) and occasionally in a circular bi (璧) form similar to the ‘uroboros’ described in Bob’s book. It is also a widely held view that the jade huang (璜) form symbolizes the rainbow. In addition to these historical relics, the dragon has persisted as an imperial symbol throughout the various Chinese dynasties, right up to 1911. Many Chinese, including me, may have seen a Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) emperor’s robe on display and found themselves baffled by the rainbow-colored bands, and the waves, clouds and lightning symbols surrounding the imperial dragons on it. Finally, the mere fact that the dragon is included as an ‘animal’ in the Chinese zodiac, the only one of the 12 signs that does not represent a real creature, continues to arouse curiosity among the Chinese about its origin. I believe the thesis presented in Bob’s book offers a convincing solution to this puzzle in Chinese culture.

Because of my entirely different professional focus, I had not been involved in Bob’s scholarship over the years, and, in fact, had little knowledge of the extent of Bob’s research on this project until his passing in early 2022. Just a couple of months prior to that, he was delighted to get his manuscript ready for publication. It was an unorthodox project, outside his expertise in historical linguistics, yet he considered it to be one of “[my] life’s most important works”. It wasn’t until I started to read through the pages that I realized how much information he had collected from a wide array of sources. Even though the exposition of his thesis is at times intricate, largely due to the breadth of the data cited, Bob’s effort to peer into human cognition through the window of folklore and animistic beliefs is both daring and enlightening. It allows both a reconstruction of the origin of the dragon myth and an explanation of its connection to a natural phenomenon, i.e., the rainbow. Extending far beyond the mythical dragons of Chinese culture, Bob’s undertaking not only offers a solution to a longstanding trans-global mystery, it underlines the critical importance of pre-modern beliefs and folklore. In our high-tech world in which so much human ingenuity is dedicated to exploring the possibilities beyond ourselves, Bob’s work points to a path for understanding the almost unfathomable workings of the human mind throughout history. I hope that his work will inspire more careful and respectful study of the indigenous cultures in our search to better understand ourselves through the clues that come from the creative mind of our forebears.

In the long journey of his research on this topic, Bob received immense help, moral support and constructive feedback from his friends, colleagues and students alike, many of whom have been included in his Acknowledgements. In addition to all who have contributed to make his work possible, I would like to express my sincere gratitude to several people who have assisted me in the long and arduous process of preparing this book for publication. First, sincere thanks are due to April Almarines, who faithfully read through Bob’s earlier chapters, offered editorial assistance and collected relevant images to better conceptualize descriptions of the dragons. In the latter regard, my deep gratitude goes to Orlyn Esquivel, a multi-talented graduate student in Linguistics at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, who patiently worked with me on the illustrations for this book, drawing on her artistic skill to bring to life the various dragons about which Bob described. I also wish to thank Eline van der Veken, who has helped prepare the index of this book with unparalleled professionalism.

On a broader scale, I am profoundly grateful to Professor Kenneth Rehg, a close friend of Bob’s for over half a century, who has graciously provided numerous helpful pieces of advice and input, from sharing his knowledge and insight to proofreading the manuscript. I am also thankful to my daughter, Jasmine Blust, for being my other “second pair of eyes”, with her gift for spotting typographical errors and suggesting stylistic improvements. Throughout the entire process, no words of gratitude could be adequately given to Professor William O’Grady, also a longtime friend of Bob’s, who voluntarily took on the role of facilitator from day one, always looking out for Bob’s best interests, synthesizing communication from all sides, and working as the driving force behind the scenes to make things happen. His selfless acts of kindness and unwavering support have meant everything to me and my family. Last but not least, this project could not have become a reality without the guidance and support of Dr. Uri Tadmor, Publishing Director at Brill, who has been a godsend. I owe my deepest gratitude to him for his stewardship and faith in Bob’s scholarship.

On behalf of the Blust family, I would like to dedicate this book to the inquisitive minds and creative humans that came before us, whose legacies we now inherit.

Laura Chang-Blust

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