Sunday, November 13, 2011


The Chinese, like Westerners, have their traditional symbols in their language, visual arts, and everyday life. However, the way these symbols have been created and their use are often different from those in the West. Certain symbols derive from the characteristics of the objects that they represent. For example, a pine tree is considered as a symbol of moral strength because of its durability under harsh weather conditions. Many Chinese symbols are a product of homonyms. For example, the word that signifies "bat" () is a homonym of the word () that signifies "good luck". Hence, a bat symbolizes good luck.

Symbols from the World of Animals

The Chinese people use 12 animals to symbolize their 12 astrological signs that relate to a cycle of 12 years: rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The origin of this Chinese Zodiac lies in a mix of folklore and legends.
One legend has it that, at the dawn of civilization, the Heaven Emperor summoned all the animals to his palace in order to select from them their 12 representatives on the face of the earth. The rat and the cat, two good friends, planned to go together to the emperor the following day. Since the cat greatly liked to sleep, the rat had promised to wake him up, but he did not keep his promise and instead woke up early and went to the emperor by himself. Reaching the emperor's court, the rat found a line of animals with an ox at the head of it. Without hesitating, he jumped to the head of the line and stood on the ox's head. When the emperor appeared, the rat slipped from the head of the ox and stole the first place. His success, derived from his deviousness, evoked public outrage. Consequently, from then on the rat was forced to live in dark corners and underground and, of course, to be chased by the cat.
Though there are idioms based on the character of some of the animals of the Chinese zodiac, such as "short-sighted like a mouse" and "lazy like a pig", these animals acquire a special, positive, status in the year of their rule.[1]
Another version telling the origin of the zodiac signs recounts that Buddha had summoned all the animals before he left his country, but only 12 of them came to bid him farewell, which is why he honored each one by giving it a year. The order of the animals was determined by the order in which they had appeared before Buddha. The rat appeared first and after it appeared the ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig.  
Each of the animals comprising the Chinese zodiac has its own astrological meaning, but in the following presentation I refer to the symbolism of only the most prominent among them that also have a significance beyond that of the astrological.
Bat () - as a homonym of the word () that signifies "good fortune", "happiness" and "luck", the bat symbolizes all these desirable states. Five bats often appear together in a painting to represent the five blessings ()()  : longevity 寿(shòu), wealth (), health (kāng)(níng) , love of virtue (yōu)(hǎo)() and natural death (kǎo)(zhōng)(mìng).
Carp ()() [2] - symbolizes profit, because its pronunciation () resembles that of the word () that signifies "profit".
Deer   鹿()- is a homonym of the word () , which means "way", "path", so that the deer symbolizes an always-ascending way.
As a homonym of the word () (literally: blessing, happiness, prosperity), it also symbolizes wealth. Moreover, the deer symbolizes longevity too, since the Chinese believed that its color turns grey after a thousand years, and that after two thousand years its horns turn black and it lives on eternally.
Dragon (lóng)- a prominent symbol in Chinese culture. The dragon is a legendary snake prone to both good and bad deeds. The origin of this symbol is still unclear. In ancient times (as early as in the Shang dynasty - 1600-1046 BCE), the dragon symbolized water, which can be both beneficial (rain) and harmful (flood).  
Since the Han dynasty (20-206 BCE), the dragon has symbolized virile potency and immortality related to the emperor – the son of Heaven. Likewise, it symbolizes luck, prosperity and wisdom. As a magical animal, the dragon can shrink to the size of a silkworm, or expand to giant proportions, filling the entire space between heaven and earth. It can be visible or invisible, as it desires. In art, the dragon is represented as a snake with scales and many feet. Sometimes it has a deer's horns and ox's ears.
Donkey  () - symbolizes stubborn stupidity because of its obstinacy and slowness.
Eagle (yīng) - symbolizes strength. A picture of an eagle shown perched on a pine tree branch, when given to an old man as a present, means that the giver wishes him the strength of an eagle and the longevity of a pine tree. An eagle perching on a rock in the sea symbolizes a hero who fights alone. 
Fish () - as a homonym of the character ()   that signifies "abundance", fish symbolize wealth. A fish presented beside a blooming lotus symbolizes a wish for abundance year after year. In the Chinese New Year it is customary to eat fish as symbol of abundance and prosperity.
Fox ()(li)- in China, like in the West, the fox is associated with cunning. According to Chinese tradition, at the age of fifty the fox can turn into a woman. At the age of one hundred it can turn into a girl, and after a thousand years it can transform into the heavenly fox. However, only a few foxes ever achieve such heights.
Goldfish (jīn)() - as a homonym of the word (jīn) ()  that means "gold and abundance", the goldfish symbolizes abundance; hence, the Chinese custom of breeding goldfish at home, in lakes and in temple gardens.
     Goose (é) - symbolizes ultimate happiness.
Horse () - symbolizes speed, vitality and persistence. In the ancient Chinese language there were many words to signify horses of various sizes and colors. The strongest horses came from Mongolia and the smallest from Tibet. Some of the best horses were Arabian.
 In the Book of Changes ()(jīng) the horse, which is considered feminine, and the dragon, which is considered masculine, are the two creatures chosen to represent the two genders. In later mythology, in contrast, the horse symbolizes yang (the masculine principle) and the flower symbolizes yin (the feminine principle).
In Buddhist scriptures, the white horse represents purity and loyalty.
Lion (shī)(zi)- lions play an important role in popular Chinese culture. They are frequently presented as legendary creatures rather than as animals of                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       the real world. As has also been customary in the West throughout history, pairs of sculpted lions are very popular as guardians of buildings and temples. 
Mouse, Rat (shǔ)- is associated with money. The phrase "a mouse who is seeking food at night" is used to describe a person who counts his money. The expression (qián)(shǔ) (literally: money mouse) means "miser".
According to a popular belief, rats can become demons, usually male, as opposed to foxes, which become female demons. A rat is called "old mouse" (lǎo)(shǔ) or "big mouse" ()(shǔ) .
Peacock (kǒng)(què) - symbolizes nobility and beauty.
Phoenix (fèng)(huáng)- symbolizes renewal, fertility and the feminine principle yin. A phoenix usually appears beside a dragon and then symbolizes the empress (the dragon symbolizes the emperor). 
Rooster () - symbolizes the sun and is associated with curative powers and resurrection. It is considered as a protection against evil. When the roosters crow, darkness and creatures of the dark flee in fear. The rooster ushers in hope and new beginnings. A picture of a red rooster protects against fire. A white rooster protects the dead against demons, which is why it was customary to attach a white rooster, real or made of paper, to a coffin.
Snake (shé)- symbolizes beauty, wisdom, meditation, philosophy and a passion for both material and spiritual things. Likewise, it is associated with fertility and luck. The snake was already worshiped in ancient times, especially on the banks of China's big rivers, when river Gods were represented as long snakes. The snake is conceived of as a relative of the dragon and correspondingly is called "the little dragon". In the Ming (1368-1644 CE) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, dragons were embroidered on the ceremonial robes of emperors, and snakes were embroidered on princes' robes. In Chinese folk tales, the snake has two kinds of image: one represents evil frightening spirits, and the other a charming figure. The snake is one of the five poisonous creatures ()()[3] . It is also conceived of as malicious and cunning, hence the expression "snake heart" (shé)(xīn), which is used to describe a cunning person.
Tiger () - symbolizes courage and physical strength, associated with the virile yang. In China, it expels demons and evil spirits and ensures the family's defense and safety if its images are located in the right place. This is why tiger images were used to adorn tombs.
The tiger is considered as the King of Beasts because of the resemblance between the character (wáng)that signifies "king", and the forehead of the tiger. In ancient times tigers were worshipped because they devoured wild pigs. White tigers symbolized the direction of west, which is associated with the feminine yin. Some gods are depicted riding a tiger. The great fear of tigers led people to substitute the word "tiger" with "big insect" ()(chóng). In southern China, there was a belief among ethnic minorities that people can turn into tigers.
Toad ()() - a three-legged toad symbolizes the moon (just as a three-legged crow symbolizes the sun). Due to its long life, the toad also symbolizes longevity.
According to an ancient tradition, the toad is a transformation of Chang E (cháng)(é), the woman who, according to Chinese mythology, stole the immortality potion from her husband and escaped to the moon, where she was turned into a toad.
Turtle (guī)- in ancient texts the turtle's shell symbolizes the heavenly dome and its lower part symbolizes the earth. Its four legs support the four cardinal points. The turtle appears as a character in many legends. It also symbolizes wealth, good fortune and eternal stability. 
Like the unicorn, bat and cicada, among others, it also symbolizes longevity. As an animal that can survive for several months without food, the turtle is perceived as nourished by life energy () rather than food, and as being supernatural in nature.

Symbols from the World of Plants

Apple (píng)- as a homonym of the word (píng) , which signifies "peace", an apple symbolizes "peace". However, as a word whose pronunciation also resembles that of the word (bìng), which means "sickness", it also has a connotation of sickness, which is why an apple should not be given to a handicapped person. 
Bamboo (zhú)- Being evergreen, the bamboo symbolizes longevity. The word (zhú) is a homonym of the word (zhù)that signifies "wishes", which is why a picture showing children playing with bamboo firecrackers, when given as a present, is interpreted as wishing the recipient a peaceful and quiet life.
 The bamboo also symbolizes modesty. There is a popular saying that a painter has to become a bamboo before being able to paint one. In Chinese calligraphy, the bamboo is both a model and a guiding line.[4]
Eggplant (qié)(zi)- the elongated eggplant, which resembles a man wearing a hat, is a symbol of a government official. An eggplant in a picture that is given as a present indicates the giver's wish that the recipient obtain a position as a government official.
Flowers (huā) - usually symbolize fertility, although each flower has its own associations.  
Lily (bǎi)()- the lily helps one to forget troubles. It symbolizes fertility and is often given to married women.

Lotus (lián)(huā) - is a symbol of purity and one of the eight objects[5] considered especially precious by Buddhists.  (lián) is a homonym of the word (lián) that signifies "connection" (also by marriage) and "continuous". Hence, it symbolizes love and compassion.
Peach (táo) - a symbol of health and longevity. The peach tree is considered to ward off demons and its flowers as casting spells on people. The Chinese believed that peaches of eternity came from the garden of the Queen Mother of the West 西()(wáng)(). Her peach trees germinated once in 3,000 years, and 3,000 more years passed until they bore fruit. Eating these fruits ensured eternal life. A Manchurian stork, which is considered immortal, was often depicted bearing in its beak the magic peach (xiān) (táo)  that bestows immortality.  
Pear () -  symbolizes longevity due to the long life of the pear tree.
Peony ()(dān)- is considered the queen of flowers, and symbolizes wealth. The most precious is the red peony, which symbolizes girls who are both beautiful and exceptionally witty.
Pine (sōng)- the tree most popular among Chinese painters. It symbolizes longevity and durability and represents physical and mental health in old age. This is due to its evergreen nature and its bark, which is considered to resemble an old man's skin.
Plum Flower (méi) -   the five petals of the plum flower symbolize the gods of fortune. They bestow the five blessings()(): longevity寿(shòu), wealth(), health (kāng)(níng), love of virtue (yōu)(hǎo)()  and  natural death (zhōng)(mìng) (kǎo).
Pomegranate (shí)(liu)- the pomegranate was brought to China from the Middle East in the 2nd century BCE. As a fruit packed full of seeds[6], it symbolizes fertility.

Symbols from the World of Objects

Clock (zhōng)- in China, and especially in Beijing, a watch that is given as a present symbolizes death. The connotation of death originates in the expression (sòng)(zhōng)(meaning "to give a watch as a present") that is a  homonym of the expression (sòng) (zhōng) , which means "to make funeral arrangements". This is why the Chinese do not like to give or receive a watch as a present. Although they behave as if this is how they have always related to the gift of a clock, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) however, emperors were very happy to receive Western clocks from foreign guests.  
Jade () - a gemstone that is considered the most beautiful and precious treasure. It ranges in shade from white to deep green. From time immemorial jade has been the preferred gem in China, having special significance in religious ceremonies, art and philosophy. It represents goodness, knowledge, honesty, purity of soul, eternality and durability. Certain Daoist philosophers claimed that drinking jade powder mixed with particular herbs would ensure immortality. Likewise, they believed that wearing jewelry and amulets made of jade would protect against physical injury and ensure health and good luck. Jade is also a symbol of the emperor, and embodies moral and aesthetic beauty. Objects and ornaments made of jade were symbols of authority and were intended for use by people from the upper classes. Due to its hardness and durability, jade was believed to protect against damage, crumbling and decay. That is why in ancient China it was customary to put jade in the mouth of the deceased in order to preserve the corpse.
Due to jade's beauty, it is customary to compare a beautiful woman's skin to jade. Its symbolism resembles that of gold in the West. 
Long Noodles (cháng)(de)(miàn)(tiáo)or "longevity noodles" 寿(shòu)(miàn). Long noodles are eaten at birthday feasts as a symbol of longevity. They are made of wheat or rice and kept uncut and unbroken during the cooking and serving process.
Shoes (xié) - as a homonym of the word (xié), which signifies "harmonious", shoes symbolize agreement and harmony.
Vase (píng) - as a homonym of the word (píng)that means "peace", a vase symbolizes peace. 

Earthly and Heavenly Elements

The four cardinal points (běi)(nán)(dōng)西()) literally: north, south, east, west) hold a special significance for the Chinese. The word (qián), meaning "in front of" in Chinese, is associated with "south", the element of fire and the masculine yang principle. Thus, north, "rear", is associated with the element of water and with the feminine yin principle. Right and left are associated with west and east respectively. Correspondingly, in ancient Chinese maps, the north is located at the bottom of the page and the south in its upper part. In the Chinese cosmological symbolism south is the area of life while north is that of death. The Imperial palace always faced south. Emperors and government officials also faced south when receiving others so that they would be able to follow the sun from sunrise to sunset. Their subjects were supposed to face them from the south, looking northwards.
As early as in 640 BCE, the State of Lu ()  converted its southern gate into its main gate, since all orders from the emperors came from the southern gate. All the courts in Imperial China faced south, except for those few forced to face other directions because of topographical constrictions. Likewise, in public structures and residential buildings there was a preference for facing the south. Ancient texts describe cities with an Imperial Palace in their center, the market facing north and the ancestors' temple facing south.
Heaven (tiān)- this character is comprised of the character () (literally: big) and the character () ) literally: one); in other words, heaven is a great greatness. The sky is conceived of as a masculine entity whose mate is earth. In many legends, heaven is presented as a god that dominates the people's lives and destinies. Just as Westerners say "thank god", it is customary among the Chinese people to say "thank heaven, thank earth" (xiè)(tiān)(xiè)(). As already mentioned, according to the ancient Chinese conception there is a connection between the heavenly and the earthly worlds.  Heaven possesses a bureaucracy paralleling that which operates on earth, and the ceremonies and hierarchy in heaven resemble those taking place below on earth. 
The sun (tài)(yáng)is associated with the east where it rises, and symbolizes the emperor. A legend has it that in the Han dynasty, Emperor Wudi ()() (156-87 BCE) was born after his mother had a dream in which she saw the sun entering her body.
 In ancient China people believed that a lunar eclipse was caused by women not obeying their husbands.
Clouds (yún)- symbolize good luck and happiness, especially when they are multicolored.  
Water (shuǐ) - a central Daoistic symbol representing ultimate goodness. Water is beneficial to every creature on the face of the earth. Chinese philosophy views water as a material with no shape that adapts itself to the shape of that which contains it. Almost every Chinese painting depicts mountains, and water that is represented by a river. Hence the Chinese term (shān)(shuǐ)(literally: Mountain [and] water) that signifies "landscape painting". The water symbolizes happiness and the mountains symbolize longevity. Thus, landscape painting symbolizes a long and happy life.

Symbolism of Numbers

In Chinese culture, as in other ancient cultures, numbers have a mystical significance. Even numbers represent the feminine element - yin, while odd numbers represent the masculine element - yang.
Three (sān)- is very important in Chinese tradition. Out of the basic trinity comprised of heaven, earth and man, derive many other trinities. According to the Book of Rites ()() , man, being situated between heaven and earth, is associated with the number three. Sakyamuni Buddha, founder of Buddhism, Bhaisajya Buddha, the master of medicine, and Amitabha Buddha, the future Buddha, are conceived of as the three treasures (sān)(bǎo); Buddha, the Buddhist scriptures and the Buddhist monk community are also considered as the three treasures. Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism are conceived of as the three religions (sān)(jiào), and there is a saying that the three religions are one.
Four ()- has a connotation of death because the pronunciation of the word four () resembles that of () , which signifies "death" or "to die".
Five () - one of the most important numbers in the Chinese mysticism of numbers. Being an odd number, it is considered masculine. Five is associated with the five points of the compass (including the center), the five colors, the five tastes and the five elements. Buddhism preaches five prohibitions: do not kill, steal, be lustful, drink wine or eat meat. There are five classic books()(jīng).[7] The five moral qualities ()(cháng)are humaneness (rén)righteousness()propriety() wisdom (zhì) and faith (xìn).  There are also five blessings.[8]
Six (liù)- as a word whose pronunciation resembles that of the word (liú), six symbolizes the smooth flow of things. Six has a special meaning in Chinese mysticism. There are six body parts: two arms, two legs, one head, and the torso to which all these parts are connected. Likewise, there are six directions (the four cardinal points, and up and down) and six emotions (anger, joy, pain, pleasure, love and hate).  
The ancient nature and science encyclopedia – Spring and Autumn of Lu Buwei ()(shì)(chūn)(qiū)[9] mentions six great rivers and six great kings.
The first emperor of the Qin dynasty , Qin Shi Huang Di (qín)(shǐ)(huáng)() (259-210 BCE), built his first kingdom (zhōng)(guó)(meaning "China"), basing it on the number six which he especially liked. He divided his kingdom into 36 (6X6) provinces. These provinces were conceived of as the center of a world that was imagined as a flat square with its corners populated by barbarians and foreigners. According to another version, written by the Daoist philosopher Huai Nan Zi  (huái)(nán)() (179-122  BCE), there were ten nations in the west, six in the east, seven in the north, and 13 in the south -  a total of 36 nations. In the entourage of Emperor Qin Shi Huang Di there were 36 chariots. Legend has it that during the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), 36 scholars were magically put to death by a Daoist high priest and became the gods of plague. According to the tradition in southern China, in 1644 CE 360 scholars in Fujian ()(jiàn) province committed suicide to avoid surrendering to the Mongolian Yuan dynasty, and became plague gods.
Seven () - as an odd number, seven is associated with the masculine element yang, but according to the numerological approach it is also associated with women as a yin element. At the age of seven months a baby girl gets her first tooth, which she loses at the age of seven; at the age of 14 (7X2) her menstruation begins and at the age of 49 (7X7) begins the menopause. Analogically, men have a cycle of 8 years.
There were seven planets ()(xīng)known to the ancient Chinese - the Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Seven is considered an unlucky number because its pronunciation resembles that of the word () , meaning "separating" or "pass by". The expression ()(shì)(literally: leave the world) means "to die".
Eight ()- is conceived of as the luckiest number because the pronunciation of the word that signifies "eight" resembles that of the word () , which is pronounced "ba" in Cantonese, and means "prosper". The perception of the number eight as a lucky number passed from the Cantonese to all the Chinese. The Olympic Games opening ceremony in Beijing, scheduled for August 8, 2008 (8.8.08) at 8:08 PM, illustrates this belief.
According to Dao, eight represents entirety – the embodiment of all possibilities. An especially popular group of Daoist gods is that of the eight immortals ()(xiān).[10]
"Eight treasures" ()(bǎo) is an expression signifying a choice of superb components for a dish or herbal medicine.
Nine (jiǔ)- is associated with the masculine element yang, representing strength and masculinity. While "one" symbolizes a starting point, "nine" symbolizes infinity and extremity. The ninth heaven (jiǔ) is the highest heaven, and the ninth spring (jiǔ)(quán)   is the lowest spring, where the underworld is found. Both in the emperor's palace and in a monastery, windows, doors and stairs are all planned in multiples of nine. 
In the Spring and Autumn of Lu Buwei it is written that in heaven there are nine fields and on earth nine regions; on earth there are nine mountains and in the sea nine islands.
The word "nine" (jiǔ) also signifies eternal love and marriage, because of the resemblance between its pronunciation and that of the word (jiù) that signifies "old". 
Twelve (shí)(èr) - in the Chinese zodiac there are 12 signs based on the course of the planet Jupiter of which the ancient Chinese astrologers were aware. In ancient China the day was divided into 12 time units just as our day has 24. The legendary Emperor Shun (shùn) had 12 senior government officials.
Ten Thousand (wàn)- is a number that marks the uppermost limit, signifying "abundance". In Imperial China it was customary to address the emperor by saying "ten thousand years" (wàn)(suì)(wàn)(wàn)(suì). This was a blessing wishing him a long life (10,000 years). The character (wàn)(literally: 10,000) symbolizes immortality.
The lucky numbers – six, eight and nine, are the Chinese people's favorites whenever they are able to choose a number for a telephone, car, ticket, hotel room, etc. Likewise, they try to avoid numbers that are considered unlucky, such as four and seven.  

Symbolism of Colors

In China the symbolism of colors on the whole differs from that of the Western world.
Red (hóng)()  has symbolized good luck since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644 CE). Likewise, it symbolizes joy, happiness and prosperity. In traditional weddings, the bride wears red as a symbol of luck and fertility. The Chinese believe that red clothes bring luck. As far back as in prehistoric times, red was considered as a giver of life. On the Chinese theatre stage, a red-faced man symbolizes loyalty and honesty and often represents the War God – Guan Di (guān)().
Yellow(huáng)   ()     and gold (jīn)  are royal colors. Yellow symbolizes the masculine principle yang, and the power of the sun. During the Qing dynasty (1644-1911 CE), yellow and gold were the colors of the emperor and his family. Only those who were close to the emperor were permitted the honor of wearing yellow clothing.
Green 绿()   ()   symbolizes the spring season and inner peace.
Blue (lán)()  symbolizes peace and security. However, there are some for whom it also symbolizes sorrow.
White (bái)()  is associated with death, which is why mourners wear white.
Black   (hēi)()     symbolizes bad luck.

[1] A rat rules in the Year of the Rat, an ox rules in the Year of the Ox, etc.

[2] () means "fish".
[3] The five poisonous creatures are a snake, lizard, centipede, scorpion, and toad. Sometimes the spider replaces one of these creatures.
[4] The shape of its leaves resemble the brush strokes that make up a character.
[5] These eight objects are:  a conch shell, lotus, wheel, parasol, an infinite knot , a pair of golden fish, a banner proclaiming victory, and a treasure vase (a fat-bellied vessel with a short slim neck, and a large jewel on its top, at the opening, indicating that it is a treasure vase).

[6]The character () "seeds" in Chinese also signifies "children".
[7]See the chapter on literary sources.
[8] See the symbolism of the bat in the chapter on Symbols from the world of        
[9] A collection of writings edited by Lu Buwei, the Prime Minister of the State of Qin, in the 3rd century BCE. Its contents cover history, astronomy, geography, yin and yang, the five main elements, climate, music, education, military affairs, regimen, agrology and agriculture. 
[10] On the eight immortals, see also the chapter on the Chinese gods.

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