Highly articulated dreams are one of the things that define us as human. But what we take from them is highly cultural. Next to God, they have more power over our lives and political destinies than anything else that’s (possibly) not really here. That’s why the Beats loved Zhuangzi and his catch phrase, “Am I a person? Or am I a butterfly dreaming that I am a person?” There’s something undeniably humanist in this statement. After all, only humans can entertain the idea of being something other than we are.
Zhuangzi is one of the sources of a deep wellspring of Chinese actions and musings based on dreams. Dreams are everywhere. Here are two examples of dream inspired political action:
Various histories attribute the introduction of Buddhism into China to the influence of a dream. In 65A.D., a the Han Emperor Ming (r.58-75A.D.) dreamt of a giant golden man. The next day he asked one of his misters what it could mean. His minister replied that he had heard of such a figure worshiped in the far west. The emperor dispatched a mission to seek the figure out. They returned to Luoyang a few months later accompanied by two ‘western’ monks, and a white horse loaded with both scriptures and a statue that wan an exact copy of the ‘golden man.’
In 1008, the Song (960-1279) Emperor Zhenzong (r. 996-1022) dreamt that an immortal came to visit him. The immortal informed him that he would receive three ‘Texts from Heaven.’ He told his ministers, and soon after the texts started appearing. Although the texts have been unanimously declared apocryphal (his son buried them with him), his dream was viewed as a legitimate source for political action. It inspired the construction of a massive temple, and two hugely expensive imperial sacrifices.
On a more personal level, dreams were recorded by intellectuals as particularly useful for reflection. Man/y dreams are recorded in biji (usually translated as ‘jottings.’ Jottings usually consist of hundreds of small entries on anything (sometimes thematic). When complete then they would be published. In short, pre-modern blogs.).
Here’s are a couple of accounts about one of the people I’ve spent a great deal of time with, Yang Yi.
From a history of his home region, Pucheng Xianzhi:
Before Yang Yi was born, his mother, neé Zhang , dreamt of a Daoist priest. He said that he was the reincarnation of the Immortal of the Wuyi [Mountains].
Later she gave birth to a crane chick. Everyone in the room was frightened, so they laid it aside and then abandoned it in a river. The hatchling’s paternal uncle said, “I’ve heard that in this mundane world of men, there are those whose birth’s must differ. This birth is of the same sort as Jiangyuan having Qi , and Jiandi giving birth to Ch’i. ” He searched on the bank of the river, and its crane form having already been shed, [found] a baby boy.
From the Song Shi, the standard history of the Song dynasty.
Yang Yi, known by the literary name ‘Great Year’, was from Pucheng, Jian Prefecture. His grandfather was Wenyi, the Southern Tang Director of Yu Shan. When Yi was to be born, Wenyi dreamed of a mendicant. [The Mendicant] claimed that an person from Huaiyu Shan was coming to pay his respects [to him]. Soon after, Yangyi, with a coat of hair over 8 inches in length covering his body, was born.
 Jiangyuan was the wife of the mythical Emperor Di Ku. She gave birth to Qi after becoming mysteriously pregnant due to stepping into the footprint of a giant. She abandoned the child numerous times, but after observing a number of animals come to his aid, she decided to keep him. For the full story see:
Anne Birrell, Chinese Mythology: An Introduction, (Baltimore and London: John Hopkins University Press, 1993), 118.
Jiandi gave birth to Qi after swallowing the egg of a black bird.