The Symbolism of Animals in Chinese Mythology

 

The Symbolism of Animals in Chinese Mythology

Chinese mythology has a long, rich history. Animals are incredibly important in Chinese mythology for various reasons. It has legends for nearly every animal that appears in its vast collection of literature and artwork. From dragons to lions to various species of birds, each animal has its own set of legends and mythology. They all symbolize different things, from dispelling evil to protection to promoting world peace to cleverness. Sometimes the symbolism changes depending on which area of China you are in, as do the myths that go along with them. Many of the histories of these animals as symbols tie into Daoism or Confucianism or Buddhism, and sometimes all three.

This list is made up of 35 of the most interesting and important animals, sharing a little bit of their history and what they symbolize in Chinese mythology going back to the time of the Yellow Emperor.

Pixiu 貔貅

Pixiu

For Warding Off Evil, Enhancing Wealth and Protecting Properties.

The Pixiu is one of the five main celestial beings in Chinese mythology. Pixiu is the ninth son of the Dragon. Pixiu’s design is often similar to that of a qilin,  but is stouter, with a single horn on its head, a lion-like face, horse hooves, and wings on both sides of its body.

There are two different stories about how the pixiu came to be cursed – in one, he violated the laws of Heaven by pooping on Heaven’s floor; in the other, broke an important seal of the Dragon King. No matter how it started, pixiu is punished by getting turned into an animal and having his rectum sealed. It is told it can only eat things that bring wealth – silver, gold and jewelry.  In the myths, pixiu likes to bring its master money in his mouth, which is why they are believed to bring wealth.

In the past, the pixiu has been used to boost the loyalty and morale of soldiers. He has the bravery of a lion and the loyalty of a dog, and can also travel through heaven and earth according to the mythology.  If you see this in a shop, they are often sold in sets of two – one male and one female. The male is called Tian Lu, and the female is called Bixie. Tian Lu is known for going to hunt down wealth and protect your belongings, while Bixie wards off evil.

Fenghuang 凤凰 (Phoenix)

Phoenix

For grace, harmony, prosperity, world peace

The phoenix has the tail of a fish, the hindquarters of a stag, the breast of a goose, the down of a duck, the marks of a dragon, the back of a tortoise, the neck of a snake, the face of a swallow, the forehead of a fowl and the beak of a rooster, according to the Shuowen Jiezi from 1st century CE China. It’s tail is a combination of the five sacred colors in China – red, white, blue, yellow and black. It is often seen wearing symbols of Confucian beliefs – characters spread across its body that mean virtue, ritual, duty, compassion and trust.

When paired with the Dragon, the Phoenix symbolizes marital harmony, with the Phoenix representing a female and a dragon representing a male in the marriage. It is believed to be a symbol of world peace, if it were to be seen in person.

Zhuque 朱雀 (Vermilion Bird)

Vermilion Bird

For good luck

Like the Phoenix, it can be reborn in fire. The vermilion bird is one of the four mythological creatures that guards the world. It’s feathers, as you might have guessed from its name, are the bright red of vermilion, which is made of cinnabar. It represents the element of fire, summer and the southern direction. This bird is often confused with the Phoenix because of its similarity in appearance

Kylin 麒麟 (Unicorn)

For good luck, prosperity

The Kylin or Qilin is the unicorn of Chinese mythology. Its appearance is supposed to signify the birth or death of a sage or illustrious ruler. The first  kylin is said to have appeared in the Yellow Emperor Huangdi’s garden in 2697 BCE. Later, a pair were said to appear for Emperor Yao in the 1st Century CE. Confucius’ birth and death were said to be foreshadowed by the presence of a kylin.

They may be terrifying to look at, but they’re gentle creatures. They refuse to walk on grass or eat any living vegetation. However, they’re also able to incinerate people when the innocent need defending.

Jin Chan 金蟾 (Money Toad)

Jin Chan (Money Toad)

For Guarding Wealth, Protection Against Bad Luck

Jin Chan often appears during the full moon, choosing to appear near houses or businesses that will soon get good wealth related news. The money toad is depicted as a bullfrog with red eyes, three legs, and flared nostrils, with a coin in his mouth. Statues of Jin Chan often have seven diamonds on the back, and sit atop a pile of Chinese coins. He is also known as Chan Chu.

According to one legend, Jin Chan was the wife of one of the eight Immoritals who was transformed into a toad as punishment for stealing the peaches of immortality.  In another legend, Daoist god Liu Hai transformed a fox into a beautiful girl he wanted to ascend to godhood with. In order to do so, they needed to trick a frog into a well. The frog that they successfully tricked was supposed to be Jin Chan, adn they used his power to become a god.

Ao 鳌

ao

For stability, luck

Long ago, some Chinese people believed that Earth as we know it was balanced on the back of a giant turtle known as Ao. When the creator of Mankind Nuwa had to repair the sky after a disaster, she took Ao’s legs and use them as supports for the sky. Some myths say that the Marine turtle still lives in the Bohai Sea carrying Penglai, Fangzhang andf Yingzhou islands on his back.

Lóng 龙 (Dragon)

The Symbolism of Animals in Chinese Mythology-long

For luck, power, strength

Dragons are the most important mythological creature in Chinese mythology. They often serve as a symbol of the Emperor, and of animals in general. It is often tied together with the Phoenix to represent the power of the Imperial couple. These serpent-like animals are powerful but good-natured, and are thought to be the master of the storm clouds, which it is often portrayed in. Unlike Western dragons, Chinese dragons are often a symbol of justice and strength, as opposed to the greed of their Western counterparts often display.

Qinglong 青龙 (Azure Dragon)

The Symbolism of Animals in Chinese Mythology-qinglong

For protection, dispelling evil

The azure dragon represents the East and the element of wood. He is thought to be capable of dispelling evil and protecting anyone he wishes to. He is often found painted on courthouse doors and tombs alongside Baihu, the White Tiger. The Azure Dragon is thought to be the noblest of animals, and is the head of the four symbols of Chinese mythology. He is known to be just, benevolent and to bring wealth and good fortune.

Huanglong 黄龙 (Yellow Dragon)

huanglong The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For prosperity, good fortune

The yellow Dragon is associated with two things in Chinese mythology. He is thought to be the animal at the center of the universe, as one of main mythical creatures in their mythology. He is also thought to be the animal incarnation of the legendary Yellow Emperor, whose reign was said to be governed by the earth element.

Yinglong 应龙 (Torch Dragon)

qinglong The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

The torch Dragon is a giant red dragon and god in Chinese mythology. He had a human space but a snake’s body. He created night and day, according to legend, by opening and closing his eyes. He created the seasonal winds with his according to the legends. He is thought to be a mythical interpretation of the Aurora are you Alice, or the embodiment of sunlight

Tiger 虎

The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For bravery, power

While tigers are not mythological, they are very important in Chinese mythology. In folktales, tigers often kill those who are evil, and protect those who are innocent, as well as warding off disasters. The God of wealth is often depicted writing a black tiger. Tigers are thought of as one of the four super intelligent creatures in Chinese mythology and art.

Baihu 白虎 (White Tiger)

For strength, dispelling evil

Like the Azure Dragon, the white tiger is terrifying but honorable. His presence is thought to frighten away ghosts and demons from any dwelling that had, as well as protect against evil in courthouses. His season is autumn, and he represents the element of metal in Chinese mythology

Zuanwu 玄武 (Black Tortoise)

Black Tortoise The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For longevity, wisdom

The black tortoise represents the North and the winter season. He is depicted as a snake wrapped around a tortoise. Both of these creatures represent longevity, making it a great symbol to place in your home and in your artwork. The Zuanwu is also thought to be able to manipulate water.

Baize 白泽 (Beast of the White Marsh)

baize The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For wisdom

Baize is depicted as either a white lion or white tiger with horns, and often multiple sets of eyes. His name is a literal translation of White Marsh. In the Chinese mythology, Baize taught the Yellow Emperor about all of the different supernatural creatures in the world. He is known for his wisdom and can speak human languages.

Xiezhi 獬豸

For justice

Xiezhi is the name of a unicorn goat owned by the legendary 2233 BCE Emperor Shun’s minister Gao Yao. He could always tell who was innocent and who was guilty, and when brought into the courtroom, rammed the guilty party in a fight and bit the guilty party whenever he heard an argument. He is described as a cattle like a single large horn, which you will see on the badges of military police in China, as well as on the gavels in courthouses.

Hóu 猴 (Monkey)

Monkey King Sun Wukong The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For luck, cleverness, safety

Gibbons and Macaque monkeys are common in Chinese literature and art, and they are thought to symbolize cleverness. Monkeys are also thought to be a sign of luck. It is the ninth sign of the Chinese zodiac. It is not uncommon to find stone monkey figurines on top of hitching posts in the Shan’xi Province of China, which were hoped to help protect the horses and donkeys hitched there on journeys.

In “The Journey to the West,” Monkey King Sun Wukong steals the peaches of immortality, travels to the Dragon Palace and tricks the Dragon King into giving him a suit of golden armor and a staff whose former job was to support the undersea palace of the Dragon King of the East Sea. The Monkey King is able to see through any disguise and can transform into anything that exists. At the end of the tale, he is granted the title of Victorious Fighting Buddha and ascends to buddhahood. He is seen as somewhat of a trickster hero in this classic tale.

Cranes 鹤

Cranes The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For luck, long life, fidelity

Cranes in general are linked with immortality in Chinese mythology. Xian, or Daoist immortals, were said to have the magical ability to transform into cranes to make long journeys. The red crowned crane, native to East Asia, is the most common crane that is used in art and literature. It is one of the rarest cranes in the world now. Cranes are often associated with women because of their beauty and grace

Bifang 毕方

bifang The Symbolism of Animals in Chinese Mythology

For long life

This blue bodied, one footed crane was once the protector of the Yellow Emperor. Its feathers are decorated with red spots, and it has a gleaming white beak. Its name is an onomatopoeia for the sound of wood crackling in a fire, which is appropriate for a bird that symbolizes fire and wood.  Often, its appearances herald the beginnings of large fires, so they are not a lucky symbol to have in your home.

Jian Bird 鲣鸟

jian bird The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For A Happy Marriage, fidelity

Jian Birds are born with only one eye and one wing. In order to survive, they join together in pairs and are then inseparable. This is supposed to represent a husband and wife in a marriage. They are never seen on their own outside of a pair. These are often good luck for a newlywed couple in literature and artwork.

Chongming 崇明鸟(Double Pupil Bird)

chongming Bird lion The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For dispelling evil

The double pupil bird has the body of a chicken but has in each eye. The first double pupil bird was originally given to Emperor Yao by a neighboring tribe to help dispel evil and other fears animals. The Emperor doubted the birds abilities, and was proven wrong when the bird took off its feathers, began singing like a phoenix and flew around on its featherless wings.

Being proven wrong, the Emperor set the chongming free in the woods, where it defeated all of the years animals and evil spirits or by. These creatures gradually disappeared, but it was discovered that statues of the double pupil bird were nearly as effective in dispelling evil spirits. This is why you see statues of chickens or paintings of chickens in the window during the Chinese new year.

Lions 狮子

lion The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For protection, nurturing

The Chinese Guardian Lions are one of the most common motifs that we see in the Western world from China. They are usually depicted in pairs of statues as a manifestation of ying and yang. The male statue usually has his paw rested on an embroidered ball, while the female has hers on a playful cub on its back to represent nurture. They are usually carved from marble or granite, or cast in iron or bronze. They are usually a symbol of wealth because of the expense that goes into creating them. While few  muscles are visible on the Chinese lion, the claws, teeth, and eyes represent the power of these lines.

In Buddhism,  lions are protectors of dharma. The current statue forms that we see today were standardized during the Ming and Qing dynasties in China.

Suanni Lions 狻猊

Suanni Lions The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For tranquility

Suanni lions are a hybrid of a dragon and lion. They are very fierce in appearance, but love tranquility and peace. They also love the smell of burning incense. The Suanni lion is another of the Dragon King’s sons and is found in the forbidden city in China. They are a symbol of power and Imperial justice, as well as tranquility.

Huli Jing 狐狸(Fox Spirit)

Fox Spirit The Symbolism of Animals and creatures in Chinese Mythology

For cleverness, beauty

The Fox spirit is usually depicted with nine tails, and is a common motif in Chinese art and mythology. They are known to be prolific shape shifters and often take on the form of beautiful young women to seduce men like a succubus.

They are considered to be either a good or bad omen, usually dependent on their gender. In stories, male foxes are seen to be benign, while female foxes are evil and hungry comparatively. However, to have boxlike features is considered to be attractive and sexual, but it also often gives the connotation of being manipulative.

Foxes are also considered to be experts in Daoist practices, since they have the power to absorb light energy. Some believe that they are ghosts, which in Chinese mythology means dead people who are not being honored by their descendants, and they are all trying to work together to achieve immortality using their powers, thus ending their suffering in the afterlife.

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