Hippopotamus

CatholicSaints

Marysville, United States

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Artist's Description

The Chinese word longma combines long 龍 “dragon” and ma 馬 “horse”.

Compare hema 河馬 (lit. “river horse”) “hippopotamus” and haima 海馬 (“sea horse”) “seahorse”.

In addition to naming the mythic creature, longma 龍馬 “dragon horse” can mean “an eminent person” and occurs in the four-character idiom longma jingshen 龍馬精神 “vigorous spirit in old age”.

Longma interconnects traditional Chinese beliefs about dragons and horses.

An early example comes from the Zhouli “Rites of Zhou” (夏官司馬), which differentiates names for horses of different heights, measured in the chi 尺 “Chinese foot” (historically around 23-33 centimeters.

Horses up to 8 feet tall are called long 龍 “dragon”, those up to 7 feet are called lai 騋, and those up to 6 feet are called ma 馬 “horse”.

The Han Dynasty scholar Wang Fu says, “The people paint the dragon’s shape with a horse’s head and a snake’s tail.”

Edward H. Schafer describes the horse’s “tremendous importance” to Tang Dynasty rulers for military tactics, diplomatic policy, and aristocratic privilege.

Still, this patrician animal owed his unique status to more than his usefulness to the lords of the land.

He was invested with sanctity by ancient tradition, endowed with prodigious qualities, and visibly stamped with the marks of his divine origin.

A revered myth proclaimed him a relative of the dragon, akin to the mysterious powers of water.

Indeed, all wonderful horses, such as the steed of the pious Hsüan-tsang which, in later legend, carried the sacred scriptures from India, were avatars of dragons, and in antiquity the tallest horse owned by the Chinese were called simply “dragons”.

This “steed” refers to Xuanzang’s famous bailongma 白龍馬 “white dragon horse”.

The Japanese loanword ryūma or ryōma 龍馬 (simplified 竜馬) has several meanings.

Ryūma refers to the legendary Chinese “dragon horse” and the name of a chess piece in shogi (translated “promoted bishop”, also pronounced ryūme).

Ryōma is commonly used as a Japanese name, for instance Sakamoto Ryōma.

Many Chinese classic texts refer to the longma “dragon horse”.

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