Four Symbols

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In clockwise order: Black Tortoise of the North, Azure Dragon of the East, Vermilion Bird of the South and White Tiger of the West.

The Four Symbols (Chinese: 四象; pinyin: Sì Xiàng, literally meaning "four images"), are four mythological creatures appearing among the Chinese constellations along the ecliptic, and viewed as the guardians of the four cardinal directions. These four creatures are also referred to by a variety of other names, including "Four Guardians", "Four Gods", and "Four Auspicious Beasts". They are the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West, and the Black Tortoise (also called "Black Warrior") of the North. Each of the creatures is most closely associated with a cardinal direction and a color, but also additionally represents other aspects, including a season of the year, a virtue, and one of the Chinese "five elements" (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). Each has been given its own individual traits and origin story. Symbolically, and as part of spiritual and religious belief, these creatures have been culturally important across countries in the East Asian cultural sphere.


Depictions of mythological creatures clearly ancestral to the modern set of four creatures have been found throughout China. Currently, the oldest known depiction was found in 1987 in a tomb in Xishuipo (西水坡) in Puyang, Henan, which has been dated to approximately 5300 BC. In the tomb, labeled M45, immediately adjacent to the remains of the main occupant to the east and west were found mosaics made of clam shells and bones forming images closely resembling the Azure Dragon and White Tiger, respectively.[1]

The modern standard configuration was settled much later, with variations appearing throughout Chinese history. For example, the Rongcheng Shi manuscript recovered in 1994, which dates to the Warring States Period (ca. 453–221 BCE), gives five directions rather than four and places the animals differently. According to that document, Yu the Great gave directional banners to his people, marked with the following insignia: the north with a bird, the south with a snake, the east with the sun, the west with the moon, and the center with a bear.[2]

In Taoism, the Four Symbols have been assigned human identities and names. The Azure Dragon is named Meng Zhang (孟章), the Vermilion Bird is called Ling Guang (陵光), the White Tiger Jian Bing (監兵), and the Black Tortoise Zhi Ming (執明).

The colours associated with the four creatures can be said to match the colours of soil in the corresponding areas of China: the bluish-grey water-logged soils of the east, the reddish iron-rich soils of the south, the whitish saline soils of the western deserts, the black organic-rich soils of the north, and the yellow soils from the central loess plateau.[3]

Four Symbols in I Ching[edit]

The Four Symbols are closely connected with the yin-yang philosophy. Fuxi explained the Four Symbols as one of the stages of the creation of the world, in the following way:

Four images as Taijitu and digrams-yao


Wújí shēng yǒu jí,
yǒu jí shì tàijí,
Tàijí shēng liǎngyí,
jí yīnyáng;
Liǎngyí shēng sìxiàng:
jí shǎo yīn, tàiyīn,
shǎo yáng, tàiyang;
Sìxiàng yǎn bāguà,
bābāliù shísì guà.

The Limitless (無極; wuji) produces the delimited (有極; youji),
and this demarcation is equivalent to the Absolute (太極; taiji).
The Taiji (the two opposing forces in embryonic form) produces two forms,
named yin-yang (陰陽) (which are called Liangyi (the manifested opposing forces)).
These two forms produce four phenomena:
named lesser yin (少陰, shaoyin), greater yin (太陰; taiyin, which also refers to the Moon),
lesser yang (, shaoyang), and greater yang (太陽; taiyang, which also refers to the Sun).
The four phenomena (四象; Sìxiàng) act on the eight trigrams (八卦; Bagua),
eight 'eights' results in sixty-four hexagrams.

Correspondence with the Five Principles[edit]

A Han-dynasty pottery tile emblematically representing the five cardinal directions

These mythological creatures have also been syncretized into the five principles system. The Azure Dragon of the East represents Wood, the Vermilion Bird of the South represents Fire, the White Tiger of the West represents Metal, and the Black Tortoise (or Black Warrior) of the North represents Water. In this system, the fifth principle Earth is represented by the Yellow Dragon of the Center.[4]

Four Auspicious Beasts Five direction Five seasons Five colors Wuxing Four Symbols Yao Four Gods
Azure Dragon East Spring Green Wood Young yang Shaoyang 4.png Kōbō
Vermilion Bird South Summer Red Fire Old yang Taiyang.png Zhurong
White Tiger West Autumn White Metal Young yin Shaoyin.png Jokushū
Black Tortoise North Winter Black Water Old yin Taiyin.png Genmei
Yellow Dragon or Qilin Central Midsummer Yellow Earth Houtu

Correspondence with the four seasons[edit]

The four beasts each represent a season. The Azure Dragon of the East represents spring, the Vermilion Bird of the South represents summer, the White Tiger of the West represents autumn, and the Black Tortoise of the North represents winter.[5]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "西水坡遺址里的圖案擺放,預示著古代某種神秘的星象". KK News (in Chinese). 2018-04-30. Retrieved 2019-09-18.
  2. ^ Pines, Yuri. "Political Mythology and Dynastic Legitimacy in the Rong Cheng Shi Manuscript Archived 2012-04-25 at the Wayback Machine". Bulletin of SOAS, Vol. 73, No. 3 (2010), p. 515.
  3. ^ N, Brady and R, Weil. [Elements of the Nature and Properties of Soil]. (2014). p. 89. Accessed 27 January 2015.
  4. ^ A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations: Third Edition, Schirokauer, Brown, Lurie, Gay. (2006) ISBN 0-534-64307-8.
  5. ^ "The Hidden or Implied Meaning of Chinese Charm Symbols - 諧音寓意 - Differences between Chinese Coins and Chinese Charms". Gary Ashkenazy / גארי אשכנזי (Primaltrek – a journey through Chinese culture). 16 November 2016. Retrieved 22 May 2018.

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