Four Symbols

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Four Symbols
Four Symbols.svg
Clockwise from top left: Black Tortoise of the North, Azure Dragon of the East, Vermilion Bird of the South and White Tiger of the West.
Chinese name
Literal meaningFour Images
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetTứ tượng
Chữ Hán四象
Korean name
Japanese name
Four Gods
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetTứ Thánh Thú
Chữ Hán四聖獣
Korean name
Japanese name

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, an emotion, virtue, and one of the Chinese "five elements" (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). Each has been given its own individual traits, origin story and a reason for being. Symbolically, and as part of spiritual and religious belief and meaning, 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]

In I Ching[edit]

The chapter 繫辭上; Xì Cí shàng; 'The Great Treatise I' in the I Ching (易經; 'Classics of Changes') describes the origins of the Four Symbols thus:[4]


Yì yǒu tài jí ,
shì shēng liǎngyí ,
liǎng yí shēng sìxiàng
sìxiàng shēng bāguà ,

    [I]n (the system of) Change (; Yi) there is the Grand Terminus (太極; Taiji),
   which produced the two elementary Forms. (兩儀; Liangyi)
   Those two Forms produced the Four emblematic Symbols, (四象; Sixiang)
   which again produced the eight Trigrams (八卦; Bagua).

Correspondence with the Five Phases[edit]

A Han-dynasty pottery tile emblematically representing the five cardinal directions
Bronze mirror with cosmological decoration from the Belitung shipwreck, including Bagua and the Four Auspicious Beasts

These mythological creatures have also been syncretized into the Five Phases system (Wuxing). 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.[5]

Four Auspicious Beasts Five directions Five seasons Times of day[6] Five colors Wuxing Four Symbols Yao Five Gods
Azure Dragon East Spring Dawn Qing Wood Young yang Goumang
Vermilion Bird South Summer Midday Red Fire Old yang Zhurong
White Tiger West Autumn Dusk White Metal Young yin Rushou
Black Tortoise North Winter Midnight Black Water Old yin Xuanming
Yellow Dragon or Qilin Central Midsummer   Yellow Earth Houtu

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 (Taiwan)). 2018-04-30. Archived from the original on 2021-11-26. 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. ^ Brady, N.; Weil, R. (2014). Elements of the Nature and Properties of Soil. p. 89.
  4. ^ Book of Changes "繫辭上 - Xi Ci I (The Great Treatise) 11.3" Translation based on by James Legge's
  5. ^ Schirokauer, Conrad; Brown, Miranda (2005). A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations (3rd ed.). ISBN 0-534-64307-8.
  6. ^ Ashkenazy, Gary (16 November 2016). "The Hidden or Implied Meaning of Chinese Charm Symbols – 諧音寓意 – Differences between Chinese Coins and Chinese Charms". Retrieved 22 May 2018.

External links[edit]