The Old Dragon’s Head, Guest Post by Justin Newland

The Great Wall of China may be constructed of stone and packed earth, but it is home to a supernatural beast – the Old Dragon. Both wall and dragon protect China’s northern borders from Mongol incursion. Just beyond the fortress of Shanhaiguan, the far eastern end of the wall protrudes into the Bohai Sea – that’s the Old Dragon’s Head.

Bolin, a young man working on the Old Dragon’s Head, suffers visions of ghosts. The local seer suspects that he has yin-yang eyes and other supernatural gifts. Bolin’s fief lord, the Prince of Yan, rebels against his nephew, the Jianwen Emperor. In the bitter war of succession, the Mongols hold the balance of power. While the victor might win the battle on earth, China’s Dragon Throne can only be earned with a Mandate from Heaven – and the support of the Old Dragon.

In every era, a man endowed with the powers of heaven – the Dragon Master – is born. Only he can summon the Old Dragon, providing he possesses the dragon pearl. It’s the year 1402, and neither the Old Dragon, the dragon pearl, nor the Dragon Master, has been seen for twenty years. 

Bolin’s journey of self-discovery is mirrored by that of old China, as both endeavour to come of age. When Bolin accepts his destiny as the Dragon Master, heaven sends a third coming of age – for humanity itself. But are any of them ready for what is rising in the east?

Construction of the Great Wall of China

Over 13,000milesin length, the Great Wall of China is so long that it can famously be seen from space. It is made up of many sections, like strands of DNA, some connected, some not. Here’s a picture showing its many segments and the history of its construction.

Like most nations, the Chinese knew that attack always came from the north. To the north of China were the Mongol hordes and the Manchus. So, the original purpose of the wall was to protect China’s northern border. Whenever the need arose, the Old Dragon would rise up and defend their northern borders from Mongol incursion.

But a wall is both a protection and a containment. In ancient times, the Chinese – a yellow people – believed that their yellow lands were occupied by a yellow dragon, which is why they named their leader the Yellow Emperor, a personage of high rank who sat on the Dragon Throne.  

The earliest sections of the wall date back to the 7th Century B.C. But it fell to the First Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (220–206 BC), to join three stretches of the wall together and form what became known as the Great Wall of 10,000 Li (a li is a Chinese measure of length). Later, successive dynasties carried on the construction work of what is, in effect, the longest border control in the world.

In China, people were highly superstitious and strongly believed in demons and ghosts. This mindset played into the construction of the wall. They employed the ancient art of Feng Shui to plot the route for the wall that was most in harmony with the surrounding locale. They checked almanacks and calendars to find the best days to work on the wall. For example, the doors of a house were always opened on the first and fifteenth of the month so that the little ghosts could run away.

In the 13th century, China was divided into two dynasties, Jin in the north and Song in the south. Genghis, the Mongol Khan, took advantage of this fractured state of affairs and, in 1211, launched an invasion – from the north.

But in 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang, at the head of a Chinese army, ejected the Mongols from China and founded the Ming Dynasty.

At the time, the eastern end of the Great Wall stopped in the Yanshan Mountains, leaving a land corridor about 6 miles wide from the foothills to the Bohai Sea. In 1381, the new Emperor was anxious about another Mongol intrusion through the corridor, so he ordered the construction of the fortress of Shanhaiguan, which means mountain-sea pass.   

Shanhaiguan is no ordinary fortress. It held a powerful strategic position that guarded the land corridor. It garrisoned 40,000 troops. Made of rammed earth, it’s surrounded by moats and rivers. Towers and gates marched along walls up to 40 feet high and 35 feet wide.

Stylised Map of the fortress of Shanhaiguan

But it’s more than an imposing physical obstacle. Like all Chinese buildings, it’s harmonised with the surrounding landscape according to the principles of Feng Shui. For example, the fortress is perfectly aligned to the four compass points.

At the eastern end of the fortress of Shanhaiguan is the Old Dragon’s Head or Laolongtou. Mind you, don’t disturb him; he’s taking a drink from the cooling waters of the Bohai Sea. This fable and the early history of the Shanhaiguan fortress inspired me to write my Ming Dynasty novel, The Old Dragon’s Head.

The wall and the fortress of Shanhaiguan served their purpose for many years, protecting and containing the borders. But in 1644, attack came from the north again, this time by the Manchus. The irony was that the fortress was never taken, never defeated. With the Ming Dynasty in decline, a Chinese soldier voluntarily opened the fortress gates, allowing in the Manchu army. Thus began the Qing, China’s last dynasty.

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Meet Justin Newland

Justin Newland is an author of historical fantasy and secret history thrillers – that’s history with a supernatural twist. His historical novels feature known events and real people from the past, which are re-told and examined through the lens of the supernatural.

His novels speculate on the human condition and explore the fundamental questions of our existence. As a species, as Homo sapiens sapiens – that’s man the twice-wise – how are we doing so far? Where is mankind’s spiritual home? What does it look or feel like? Would we recognise it if we saw it?

Undeterred by the award of a Doctorate in Mathematics from Imperial College, London, he found his way to the creative keyboard and conceived his debut novel, The Genes of Isis (Matador, 2018), an epic fantasy set under Ancient Egyptian skies.

Next came the supernatural thriller, The Old Dragon’s Head (Matador, 2018), set in Ming Dynasty China. His third novel, The Coronation (Matador, 2019), speculates on the genesis of the most important event of the modern world – the Industrial Revolution. His fourth, The Abdication (Matador, 2021), is a supernatural thriller in which a young woman confronts her faith in a higher purpose and what it means to abdicate that faith. His stories add a touch of the supernatural to history and deal with the themes of war, religion, evolution and the human’s place in the universe.

He was born three days before the end of 1953 and lives with his partner in plain sight of the Mendip Hills in Somerset, England.

Connect with Justin

Twitter: #drjustinnewland
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