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Chinese Mythology 101: Four Symbols

By Charlotte Ip 23 June 2022

Header image courtesy of gloliglolioat (via Shutterstock)

“Azure dragon left, white tiger right, vermillion bird front, black tortoise back” (左青龍右白虎,前朱雀後玄武)—this well-known Chinese saying is the root of many cosmological and mythological beliefs, shedding light on the ancient divination outlook that the sky was split into four quadrants, with each overseen by a mythical beast.

Known as the “Four Symbols,” “Four Guardians,” or “Four Gods” (四象), how did these creatures become the quintessential Chinese emblems? Is there more to the story than celestial guardianship? From their origins and philosophical values to contemporary feng shui meanings, here’s all you need to know about the Four Symbols.

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Getting to know the Four Symbols

Azure dragon

Vermillion bird

White tiger

Black tortoise

Common depiction

Blue and green dragon

Five-coloured pheasant with flaming plumage

Tiger with white skin and black stripes

Tortoise entangled by a snake

Title

Soul of all beings

King of  airborne species

King of terrestrial beings

King of  aquatic life

Fundamental meaning

“Lesser yang” (少陽)

“Greater yang” (太陽)

“Lesser yin” (少陰)

“Greater yin” (太陰)

Cardinal direction

East (Left)

South (Front)

West (Right)

North (Back)

Element (five phases)

Wood

Fire

Metal

Water

Season

Spring

Summer

Autumn

Winter

Symbolism

Life and imperial power 

Happiness and bliss

Power, fortune, marriage

Stability, restraint, longevity

Once upon a time

I Ching (易經), a Chinese divination text also known as the Book of Changes, traces the roots of the Four Symbols back to the beginnings of the world. It alleges that they were bred from the famous ring of yin-yang (陰陽), which instils order upon the chaotic spirit of Taiji (太極). While it might sound like a cliché tale of good versus evil, it is precisely in these writings where the Chinese philosophy underlying the cycle of life is cemented.

In the eyes of ancient China, the black-and-white yin-yang concept represents an eternal interaction of contrarian forces extending beyond the ambiguous good and bad. Every sensual experience, including day and night and male and female, is perceived to be a living example of the harmonious coexistence of opposite entities.

It was soon discovered that the world is too complicated to be categorised into two extremes, and that all phenomena (象) are an integration of yin and yang. For that reason, the system is further divided into “lesser yin” (少陰), “greater yin” (太陰; moon), “lesser yang” (少陽), and “greater yang” (太陽; sun)—concepts embodied by the Four Symbols.

Appearances

On totems

An integral part of Chinese ideology, the multi-faceted Four Symbols were rumoured to make their debut on totems revered by four tribes that dominated the primordial territory: Dongyi (東夷; “Eastern Barbarians”), Nanman (南蠻; “Southern Barbarians”), Xirong (西戎; “Western Barbarians”) and Beidi (北狄; “Northern Barbarians”).

Early Dongyi clan settlers carved (azure) dragons on their totems. Soon, some members moved south and merged with another group to form Nanman. (Vermillion) birds were engraved on their religious poles. In the west, the Xirong clan roamed under the helm of legendary emperors Yan Di and Huang Di, who enveloped their pillar with the (white) tiger. 

Factions estranged from the pre-dynastic leaders relocated to what is the Bohai Sea (渤海) today, claiming aquatic beings like the tortoise and whale as patrons. Uniting with a snake-worshipping clan through marriage, they reportedly brought the black tortoise to life.

Up the sky

During the spring and autumn period (770 to 476 BCE), the Four Symbols became associated with a constellation system dubbed the “Twenty-Eight Mansions” (二十八宿). Dispersed equally across the east, west, south, and north of the solar orbit, these constellations are arranged into the dragon, tiger, bird, and qilin, initially—this is why some narratives state that the equally iconic qilin takes charge of the northern realm. Later, it was said that the qilin constellation transformed into the tortoise we know today.

Each creature was further assigned a colour; azure for the dragon as the soul of all beings; untainted white for the tiger as a paragon of virtue; vermillion for the bird said to be wrapped in flames; and black for the tortoise shouldering a mysterious shell. Combined with the four cardinal directions, they became known as the Azure Dragon of the East, White Tiger of the West, Vermillion Bird of the South, and Black Tortoise of the North.

Around an ancient tomb

In the present, recent excavations uncovered an azure dragon and white tiger pieced together by clam shells, diligently flanking a burial chamber at Xishuipo (西水坡) in Henan for over five millenniums, reinforcing the idea of these mythical legends.

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What they might manifest into

Given their divine status, these creatures are said to be capable of metamorphosing into various aspects of life. Here’s what legends said they were most likely to manifest into.

Four seasons

As rulers of the above, the Four Symbols are naturally deemed the masterminds behind the seasons. Spring stands for the azure dragon, a period where life returns in full bloom. Springtime is also when warm breezes flow from the east, the cardinal direction connected to the animal. Summery weather is likened to the vermillion bird, a radiant breed symbolic of flames. Autumn air conveys bleakness and desolation, echoing the white tiger. Finally, the black tortoise encapsulates composure and restraint, akin to the frosty winter.

Five Phases

Not long after the Four Symbols were discovered amongst the stars, they have been amalgamated into another prominent school of thought known as Five Phases (五行), which also strives to expound on observations in life. Similar to the four seasons, each species is assigned one element out of the five—wood, fire, earth, metal, and water. Carrying forward the concept of birth, the azure dragon represents wood, while the burning vermillion bird took on fire. Metal corresponds to the white tiger for its perceived ability to attract fortune, and the black tortoise is calm and nurturing like water.

Taoist gods

In Taoism, the Four Symbols are endowed with humanistic traits and assume key roles in the pantheon. Favoured for their majestic grandeur, the azure dragon and the white tiger are the promising protectors of Taoist temples under the name of Meng Zhang (孟章) and Jian Bing (監兵). While they used to work alongside the vermillion bird and black tortoise—revered as Ling Guang (陵光) and Zhi Ming (執明)—both eventually advanced into the main circle of deities. Jiutian Xuannü (九天玄女; “Mysterious Lady of the Nine Heavens”), the goddess of war, represents the vermillion bird, but the black tortoise found itself a top-ranking post, Xuantian Shangdi (玄天上帝; “Mysterious Heavenly Highest Deity”), who boasts the greatest martial arts competence and control over elemental forces.

Yellow Dragon mural at the Mausoleum of the Yellow Emperor. Photo: wanghongliu (via Wikimedia Commons)

A fifth symbol

With the azure dragon in the East, the white tiger in the West, the vermillion bird in the South, and the black tortoise in the North, who looks after the centre?

Legends claim there is indeed a central deity that oversees the Four Symbols. Going by the name of Yellow Dragon (黃龍), the almighty beast is widely believed to be a reincarnation of the first emperor Huang Di (黃帝) after his ascent to the Chinese heaven. 

Yellow is his signature colour to commemorate his earthly birth in his past life, hence why he embodies the element of earth in the Five Phases. As the folkloric ancestor of dynasties, the regal stature of Huang Di is inherited by the Yellow Dragon, who also contributed to the famous theory that the Chinese are the “descendants of the dragon.” Over time, yellow became an exclusive shade for nobility and is virtually equivalent to imperial power.

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Four Symbols today

Nowadays, you will most likely have heard of the Four Symbols from feng shui masters, whose expertise is called upon to advise people on the most auspicious locations to set up homes and businesses. In fact, the trick is none other than “azure dragon left; white tiger right; vermillion bird front; black tortoise back”—same as the ancient saying.

Black tortoise at the rear: Exuding a calm energy, the tortoise’s curved shell is interpreted as a mountainous backdrop to protect from winter chills and accumulate warmth in the cold.

Vermillion bird at the front: As the epitome of airborne creatures, the vermillion bird favours an open sky where it can spread its wings. Hence, a location with a panoramic view is conducive to feng shui. During summer, the open space also invites cooler air.

Balancing the azure dragon and white tiger: After ensuring that your location is adaptable to any weather, feng shui experts may instruct you to keep constructions on the left (azure dragon) higher than the right (white tiger) and make water your friend. 

If this sounds confusing to those who are not familiar with the Chinese landscape, it’s because, in China,  relief gradually steepens from east to west, so water runs the other way round. If the tiger rises above the dragon, the water is cut off entirely, but flatlands also heighten the chances of flooding. Similarly, a towering structure (azure dragon) rightward is said to draw in strength, so specialists often insist on a balance between the two.

As the manifestation of the Chinese edifice of life, the Four Symbols are arguably more paramount in shaping the nation’s cultural capital than any deities and spirits alike. As this Eastern ideology gains currency on an international stage, may we not forget the vibrant web of folktales that first transformed abstract scripture into the talk of the historic nation.

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Charlotte Ip

Writer

Actively seeking profound stories or unique perspectives, Charlotte spends her days analysing and overanalysing authentic written works with a particular knack for dystopian fiction. Other times, you may find her engaging in a philosophical discussion about “quiet leadership” or a light-hearted chat about Taylor Swift. To make sure she’s all ears, buy her ice cream.

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