The legend of the Jade Dragon is very old though not a lengthy tale. Long ago, there lived a beautiful young woman, the most beautiful woman who had ever lived. Her name was Thong, and she lived in the village, Muang Ou Nua. In a neighboring village, Muang Ou Tai, there lived a young man named Mon Keo. One day Mon Keo met Thong in the forest between their villages and they fell in love. Mon Keo went to Thong’s father, Sisavath, and asked to marry his daughter. Sisavath could see that his daughter loved Mon Keo very much. However, Sisavath had promised Thong to another man’s son. That family was rich and respected. Sisavath explained he would never give his daughter to a poor man, a man with no money. Thong began to cry, and Sisavath hated to see his daughter cry. He told Thong and Mon Keo it was tradition for a woman to go into seclusion for one year before marriage but, should Mon Keo become wealthy in one year, then he could have Thong. Mon Keo thanked Sisavath for the opportunity, embraced Thong, and then set out to make his fortune. Thong quietly went into hopeful seclusion.
Mon Keo decided to travel north to the land of the Naxi in his search for a fortune. To enter this land he had to cross a large river. Mon Keo built a bamboo raft to cross the river, not knowing that there was a red-haired monster living in that part of the river named Jung Hungh. Jung Hungh liked to play jokes and often interfered in the lives of humans. Jung Hungh saw his chance and upset Mon Keo’s raft. Mon Keo just made it to shore but lost all his possessions. As he sat dripping and alone with nothing, he could hear Jung Hungh laugh. With nowhere to go, with no friends in this foreign land, Mon Keo slept on the bank of the river. During the night, Mon Keo pulled a large stone to him to use as his pillow. The stone felt strange, smooth and cool to the touch. In the morning, he saw that the stone was yellow and glittered. Mon Keo had never seen such a stone and, despite the warm early light, the stone remained cool to the touch. Curious and in need of companionship, Mon Keo put the stone inside his shirt and staggered north alone.
Late in the day, tired, defeated and hungry, no longer able to walk, Mon Keo lay down beside a large lake and began to doubt he could raise a fortune in the time that remained then fell into a fitful sleep. A man kicked Mon Keo awake. The old man introduced himself as Arhat, the stonecutter, and shared what food he had with Mon Keo then nursed the boy back to health. After several days, when Mon Keo was ready, Arhat asked him to travel north with him to Lijiang. Mon Keo agreed. The old stonecutter and the young man walked north. In a week’s time, they came to the place where Arhat was to work. A mandarin had commissioned Arhat to build a great pagoda, the Black Dragon Pagoda, and it would stand near the mountain known across the land as Jade Dragon Mountain. Mon Keo had never seen a peak as jagged and dangerous as Jade Dragon Mountain before. He was afraid.
Arhat introduced Mon Keo as his apprentice, and the people of Lijiang took him in. Mon Keo thanked Arhat then explained why he could not apprentice, how it was with Thong and Sisavath, his immediate need of a fortune, and how he had lost much time. As they spoke, the stone Mon Keo had used for a pillow, the stone he had carried all the way from the river, tumbled from shirt. Arhat saw it as a sign; he had never seen such a stone but explained that all such stones where guarded by dragons or monsters and valuable. Mon Keo told Arhat about his experience with Jung Hungh, but Arhat interrupted Mon Keo, telling the boy that he needed to search no further; he was wealthy beyond imagination. Mon Keo was overjoyed, but again interrupted by Arhat, who pointed out to the boy how important it was to guard the stone since there were many thieves and Jung Hungh was certain to miss it.
Together, Arhat and Mon Keo decided to hide the stone. With Mon Keo’s help, Arhat would fashion a statue out of jade and the stone would be hidden inside. Eager, they set to work, and soon they had hidden Mon Keo’s fortune. Arhat was such a skilled stonecutter that the statue he created, the jade statue of a sleeping dragon with one ear cocked and his tail curled to his nose, had no seam. No one could tell there was anything inside. The statue itself was nothing special, not a jade statue one would notice, just one of many lazing in the background at a pagoda. Mon Keo was overjoyed. He told Arhat he would leave the statue in safety while he traveled and would return for it when he was married but Arhat talked Mon Keo out of this, explaining that the year was almost up and that the boy might not be able to reach Sisavath in time. Instead, they would send an eagle with a message, Sisavath would receive the message in time, and Thong would not wed another. An eagle flew south in the morning and Mon Keo agreed to help Arhat finish the Black Dragon Pagoda while he waited for the eagle’s return.
Thong had three brothers, Gav, Ziang, and Zong, though none of her brothers was like her father. The boys were lazy and greedy, living off their father’s good will. One day, the worthless brothers saw the eagle winging in with the message, intercepted the tired bird, explained to the eagle that they were the sons of Sisavath, and that they should deliver the message. The eagle relayed the message and flapped north, eager to return to her family. But before the eagle had flown far, she began to have doubts about the brother’s integrity and turned back south to find them, realizing it was her responsibility to deliver the message to Sisavath.
The eagle discovered that she had been betrayed, the brothers had not delivered the message. Furious, she searched the forest until she found five tigers. After pledging lifelong servitude, the eagle asked the tigers to kidnap the brothers. The five tigers easily found the lazy brothers and kidnapped them. Her lapse in judgment covered and her need for revenge sated, the eagle went to Sisavath with the original message.
Sisavath was happy with the news, and he knew Thong would be happy too. However, the eagle did not tell Sisavath about his sons’ plight.
Sisavath sent the eagle north to tell Mon Keo he could marry Thong. At the completed Black Dragon Pagoda, the eagle delivered the message to Mon Keo, who was delighted with the news and made plans to leave the next morning.
The five tigers held the three brothers in their cave. Gav, the oldest brother, used his great vision to see what had happened at their home and told what he saw to his fat middle brother, Ziang and his fair youngest brother, Zong then the brothers agreed they must find a way to escape the tigers and steal Mon Keo’s fortune. Zong became invisible and whispered to the tigers. The tigers fell asleep and the brothers attacked them then escaped north, hoping to reach the Black Dragon Pagoda and steal Mon Keo’s fortune. None of the brothers wished for their sister to marry Mon Keo because the brothers had taken money from the Vongsa family to ensure Thong married there.
Scheming, each brother planned to have the fortune and the bribe money.
Now, they came to the great river and wondered how to cross. Jung Hungh surfaced and asked the brothers if they could help him find his favorite stone. They agreed. Jung Hungh ferried them across the river and gave them directions to the Black Dragon Pagoda. After they parted with the monster, the brothers hatched a plan to find the missing stone then ransom it back to Jung Hungh.
But one of the five tigers remained alive. Wounded and angry, the remaining tiger vowed revenge. After rushing through the forest to the place where Thong had been in hiding, the last tiger kidnapped Thong and sent word to Sisavath; if the brothers do not show themselves to the tiger, the tiger would eat Thong.
The news reached Sisavath as he was trying to explain to an angry family that Thong would not be marrying their son. The father of that family was Sulinya Vongsa. Sulinya Vongsa was not amused by this turn of events as he had paid the three brothers a handsome price for their sister and now he vowed revenge. His pride wounded, angry Sulinya Vongsa went to the tiger cave to strike a bargain.
As Mon Keo hurried to his true love, Thong, the brothers arrived at the Black Dragon Pagoda. They ransacked the temple looking for Mon Keo’s fortune but did not find it because they overlooked the statue of the sleeping dragon with the one ear cocked and its tail covering his nose. The brothers tormented the old stonecutter, Arhat, but he died without divulging the whereabouts of Mon Keo’s fortune. Desperate and dangerous, the empty-handed brothers departed for home.
Sulinya Vongsa arrived at the tiger cave to find that the tiger had not eaten Thong. Relieved, Sulinya Vongsa told the tiger how the brothers had deserted their father and sister but Sulinya Vongsa did not tell the tiger he wished to have Thong—not for his son—but for himself. Sulinya Vongsa and the tiger then struck a dark bargain. The man would kill each of the brothers and bring their hearts to the tiger as proof then the tiger would relinquish his captive to the man.
Thong’s brothers, Gav the oldest, Ziang the fat one, and Zong the youngest arrived on the banks of the great river. Using an old abandoned bamboo raft they found, they hoped to cross while the dragon slept, but Jung Hungh was not asleep and waited his chance. When the brothers reached mid current, Jung Hungh killed them one by one. As Gav pleaded for his life, he told Jung Hungh, it was Mon Keo who had betrayed him and taken the stone. Jung Hungh killed Gav anyway, killing the oldest last, as was the custom at the time.
A forest bird brought the news Jung Hungh had killed the brothers, and Sulinya Vongsa realized that with no heart to show, he would have to kill the tiger in order to take Thong for his own. The battle began but the tiger was too much for the man. The tiger ripped Sulinya Vongsa apart and ate him. Furious and not satisfied, he pounced on Thong and ate her and now he had his revenge.
The same forest bird approached Sisavath. The pain of the news, his children now dead, caused Sisavath to go blind. Mon Keo arrived to find Sisavath blind and Thong, his true love, eaten by a tiger. Mon Keo searched the forest for the tiger, but never found him. Heartbroken, Mon Keo wandered back to the monastery where he found Arhat dead and the Black Dragon Pagoda ruined. Mon Keo lived out his life rebuilding the temple and mourning for Thong as he worked. Mon Keo never married and he never told anyone the secret of the jade statue at the Black Dragon Pagoda. The jewel belonging to the red-haired river monster Jung Hungh remained hidden away and so did Mon Keo’s heart. Each day Mon Keo dusted and polished the statue of the sleeping dragon with one ear cocked and its tail covering its nose in memory of his true love.
When Mon Keo lay ready to die, he uttered four words, “fortune, hidden, jade, dragon,” and then he died, ending this tragic story of unrequited love but teaching any who might listen about the consequences of greed and the folly of revenge.
They say that if you sit at the Black Dragon Pagoda near the city of Lijiang under the mighty shadow of fearsome Jade Dragon Mountain and listen, you will hear jade being carved.
Centuries later, when Mongols invaded from the north, a monk named Erhai acted to hide the treasures of the Black Dragon Pagoda. In doing so, he noticed a weight difference in one particular jade statue, the one resembling a sleeping dragon with one ear cocked and his tail covering his nose. Erhai remembered the legendary words of the dying Mon Keo and hid the statue from the Mongols. Hundreds of years later, other monks kept that same jade statue from the Mandarin Chinese. Still hundreds of years after that, the statue of the Jade Dragon disappeared from the pagoda when the Japanese invaded during World War II.
And no one has seen it since, though there are rumors. It is legend in Yunnan, the land south of the clouds that Jung Hungh retook the statue from the monks. It is said in Laos, the Japanese found it and it is kept by the notorious Black Dragon Society. It is legend in Thailand that a great flood washed the treasure out to sea where Jung Hungh still searches. It is legend in Cambodia that the American general, Stilwell stole the Jade Dragon and took it to America. It is legend in Myanmar that a warlord pilfered the statue from Stilwell and keeps it hidden. But in America, they say the Jade Dragon is a myth, a story for children and nothing more.