Beastly tales: Unearthing Shanghai’s Nine Dragon Pillar

Beastly tales: Unearthing Shanghai’s Nine Dragon Pillar

We dig into Shanghai’s surprisingly little known legend about a dragon that lives beneath one of the city's busiest intersections
Shanghai highway intersection
At night, the Chengdu Bei Lu and Yan'an Lu intersection, the heart of the city's above-ground transportation system, lights up beautifully.

Shanghai’s Nine Dragon PillarShanghai’s Nine Dragon Pillar was designed by renowned designer, Zhao Zhirong.Shanghai traffic might seem like a never ending battle, but next time you find yourself stuck at the Chengdu Bei Lu and Yan’an Lu intersection, relax for a moment to enjoy a piece of local legend. 

Smack in the middle of this downtown intersection, below a snarl of bustling roadways and overpasses, stands a pillar like no other. Glittering, golden and garnished in dragons, thousands drive or walk by it every day, some never noticing and many merely catching a glance between the blur of passing traffic.

Even fewer know its name, much less the story behind it.

The tale of the sleeping dragon

While loquacious cabbies and grandmas are always eager to tell the tale, the details of this relatively recent addition to Shanghai’s urban legends can vary depending on the storyteller (or baijiu consumption).

Here is one of its versions:

The massive construction of the city’s Yan’an elevated highway (1995-1999) had been going relatively smoothly until reaching its hub point at the Chengdu Lu crossing. Oddly, defying all explanation, the digging crew’s endless pounding wouldn’t budge the ground beneath the site of its central pillar.

After a stream of engineers couldn’t figure out the cause of the delay, a priest was summoned to the site. After many lengthy prayers, the priest informed the workers of a most unusual problem -- a dragon was sleeping beneath their work site. The construction had awoken it, and it was stopping the pillar from being installed.

Dragons are proud creatures, the priest explained, so a simple yet noble gesture in its honor would restore its slumber allowing construction to continue. The workers complied, the pillar was erected and they all lived happily ever after. 

Reality check

People like folk tales whether they’re true or not ... Whether they believe it or not, the most important thing is that its story has been told and continues to carry on.— Echo Li, tour guide for Visitour China

While old folks still swear that dragon decided the road’s fate, city planning records say otherwise.

So much more than just decoration, this is indeed no ordinary pillar or intersection. The Yan’an and Chengdu roads form a merging point for all major city highways –- the heart of Shanghai’s entire above ground transport system. Now that’s a lot of steel, pressure and concrete (no wonder that dragon was pissed).

Enter renowned Shanghai designer, Zhao Zhirong. The now-retired deputy director of Shanghai’s Oil Painting & Sculpture Institute was approached by local officials concerned about the unsightliness of a very large but vital central pillar planned for the intersection. Zhao, no stranger to city beautification (he helped design the city tunnels), put his imagination to work, and the Nine Dragons Pillar was born.

Zhao spoke of the pillar, and further spoiled the myth, in an interview on That’s Metro last year. (Chinese only)

The story of culture

Dragons were an obvious choice. Not only, according to Zhao, did the crossing highways resemble a flying dragon, but as a mythological staple throughout Chinese history, how could he go wrong?

But why nine of them? Ancient lore is filled with tales of the dragon’s nine children and as with many Chinese characters, the number nine (jiu) is a pun on the word ‘long lasting’. Not a bad pick for something literally holding up several hundred tons of concrete.

Its pillar companions the phoenix, sun and moon, all renowned symbols of happiness and fortune in China, couldn’t have added to a better mix.

And as for that sleeping dragon, let the smug skeptics wallow in their facts. Whichever tale you choose, everybody likes a good story.

Shanghai tour guide, Echo Li of Visitour China, who regularly includes the pillar as a destination, says: “People like folk tales whether they’re true or not. China has a 5,000 year treasure trove of culture and folk tales. Some people believe that these folk tales are not merely superstition, but necessary for sustaining the culture as stories to be passed down from generation to generation. Whether they believe it or not, the most important thing is that its story has been told and continues to carry on.”

Have you heard other versions of this dragon tale? Let us know your favorite in the comments section.
Stephanie Thomas is a freelance writer of all trades based in Shanghai.
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