During your China travel you’ll probably see lots of mythological representations, either in the traditional places or in more informal places like restaurants or even in your room in your Chinese hotel.

They can be statues, pictures or even wood relieves but there is always some kind of animal representation anytime you look at a traditional place, from which you can deduce that they are a very important part of the Chinese mythology.

I was very intrigued when I saw that so I decided to do a little research on what are the most important animals in Chinese mythology and what do they stand for.

I found out that Chinese mythology is very complicated and the thing that interested me more was that there are four animals representing the four parts of the world (North, South, East and West) and they are also the representations of the four seasons (Summer, Winter, Spring and Autumn)

The North is represented by a Black Turtle called Xuánwŭ, this turtle also represents Water and the Winter. Sometimes it’s also represented by a snake or both, a turtle and a snake, as an ancient Chinese legend portrays them as an only god by circling the turtle with the snake, representing both the male and the female. This is the reason why there are turtle shaped tombs in some northern regions of China, they want the protection of this powerful god.

The South is represented by a Vermillion bird called Zūquè. It stands also for fire and summer and it’s the counterpart of the Black Turtle of the North. Despite many similarities it’s not a phoenix, for it is called Fenghuang and it represent the empress.

 

The West is represented by a White Tiger called Báihŭ, it is also the symbol for metal and the autumn. In Chinese mythology the tail of the tiger turns white when it reaches 500 years so the white tiger is a venerated figure and its presence often meant that the emperor ruled with virtue.

The Azure Dragon represents the East and its name is Qīnglóng, it’s also a symbol for spring and wood and normally it is represented in great general’s tombs like the one of Wan Hui, it’s also the most important animal in the four constellations because it is also the bravest animal of the four. It must not be confused with the yellow dragon Huáng​lóng ​that stands for the emperors.

There are a lot of variations of each animal because it’s a 6000 years old cult that is extended throughout all Asia (they have different names in Korea, Japan and Vietnam) but the essential parts are the same.

The representations of these four animals are usually portrayed in the same place where each animal assumes the position that it stands for.

So now if you are traveling to China and you are curious about why there are so many animal representations you’ll know at least part of it.

Jack Li
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