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Top 25 Ancient Chinese Symbols and their Meanings

Chinese dragons during the Festival of LightsPin
Chinese dragons during the Festival of Lights.

Chinese culture is one of the most ancient and complex ones in the world. Even today, many Chinese values are derived from Taoism, Confucianism, and other ancient Chinese philosophies.

As a result, Chinese history is riddled with innumerable symbols that carry multiple meanings and have profound influence in the culture.

Below is a list of the 25 most important ancient Chinese symbols.

1. Yin and Yang

Yin and Yang symbolize the negative and positive energies in the universe.Pin

Yin and Yang symbolize the negative and positive energies in the universe.
OpenClipart-Vectors via Pixabay

Yin and yang are perhaps the most popular symbols of ancient Chinese philosophy.

The symbol represents the concept of the duality of nature and explains how seemingly contradictory forces may actually be interconnected and require each other to exist.

The symbol also shows that each side also has a core element — symbolized by a dot — in each other.

Neither of the side is superior to each other and the two sides must always be in balance to achieve harmony.

2. Dragon

The dragon symbol, also known as “long” or “lung”.Pin

The dragon symbol, also known as “long” or “lung”
Till Ahrens via Pixabay

The dragon symbol, also known as “long” or “lung” in Chinese, is the most important animal symbol in Chinese culture.

There are several different kinds of dragons in Chinese mythology and all of them represent different things.

In ancient times, the emperors claimed they were descended from dragons, which is why many crests from that time depicted dragons on them.

The five-clawed dragon represents imperial power and dignity. These celestial beings were also considered to be the patron deity of rain, thunderstorm, typhoons, sky and the seas.

They also symbolized the highest power and transformation, and are a symbol of good luck and positive energy.

3. Phoenix

The phoenix is a symbol of the Empress and beauty.Pin

The phoenix is a symbol of the Empress and beauty
Bernard Gagnon, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Chinese culture, the dragon is often paired with the symbol of the phoenix or the Fenghuang.

The phoenix is a symbol of the Empress and beauty and appears only in times of prosperity and peace.

It is depicted as a beautiful bird with vibrant plumage and is a symbol of immortality. It is considered to be the herald of great events for mortals.

In Feng Shui, the phoenix is also used as a symbol of great aspirations like the birth of a child, building a monument, or accomplishing a formidable task, or accumulating the greatest treasures of life.

4. Horse

A sculpture of the Flying Horse of Gansu / Horse Symbol in Chinese Culture.Pin

A sculpture of the Flying Horse of Gansu / Horse Symbol in Chinese Culture
G41rn8, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The horse is one of the most important animals and one of the most recurrent symbols in Chinese mythology, second only to the dragon. 

The horse symbolizes pure masculine strength or yang and is a popular symbol of speed, perseverance, youthful energy, and imagination, as well represents culture, diligence, power, and integrity.

In times of war, it is considered to be a sign of military might. It is associated with the element fire and the Sun.

5. Snake

Terracotta zodiacal Snake from the Sui dynasty (581-618).Pin

Terracotta zodiacal Snake from the Sui dynasty (581-618)
Guillaume Jacquet, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The snake or the serpent was known as Little Dragon by the ancient Chinese and its molted skin was known as Dragon skin.

The snake represents several different meanings in Chinese culture, depending on the context.

In its negative connotation, the snake is a symbol of sinisterness, indifference, and evil.

It is also known to be particularly manipulative and crafty. In China, beautiful women who are cold or ruthless are also called “beautiful snakes.”

In the positive connotation, though, snakes are symbols of luck, authority, and the pursuit of love and happiness.

6. Fu Lions

A statue of a Fu Lion outside a temple in China.Pin

A statue of a Fu Lion outside a temple in China
Image courtesy: pexels.com

Fu lions, also known as dog lions, are visible in art from ancient China. These Fu lions represent incredible strength, bravery, and energy.

They are also associated with protective powers and are the messengers of holy beings, which is why their images as guardians are depicted on temples, wealthy homes, and villages.

Since Fu lions were mostly carved from decorative stones and cast in bronze and irons, they were also a symbol of the elite or wealthy families.

7. Monkey

A monkey offering honey to help feed the Buddha.Pin

A monkey offering honey to help feed the Buddha
myself, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The monkey is an admired and beloved symbol in Chinese culture. It is regarded as an intelligent, mischievous, brave, and lively animal.

The symbol of the monkey is an indispensable element in Chinese culture and influences its literature, folk customs, history, art, and daily life.

The monkey is also the ninth sign in the Chinese zodiac and is called “shen hou” which refers to metal in the theory of Wuxing. The monkey was also regarded as a lucky sign in ancient China.

8. Peaches of Immortality

Chinese ceramic teapot in the form of two peaches, a symbol of immortality.Pin

Peaches of Immortality / Chinese ceramic teapot in the form of two peaches, a symbol of immortality
Walters Art Museum, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The ancient Chinese believed the peach gave immortality. The fruit was believed to be consumed by immortals and granted longevity to anyone who ate it.

Hence, it became the symbol for long and healthy life and has been depicted in Chinese art and literature often in conjunction with other symbols of longevity and immortality like the crane and the deer.

Taoism also considers peaches the elixir of life and the fruit is considered to be a sign of spring, marriage, and other celebrations.

9. Pearl

Mystical Pearl Symbol / A porcelain plate depicting a red dragon chasing a mystical pearl.Pin

Mystical Pearl Symbol / A porcelain plate depicting a red dragon chasing a mystical pearl
Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The pearl has multiple meanings in Chinese culture. The smooth, round, whole, and magical appearance of the pearl, which is born in such humble creatures like oysters, indicates divinity.

Ancient artwork depicts dragons often chasing a mystical flaming pearl, which has been associated with wisdom, prosperity, spiritual energy, power, immortality, thunder and the moon.

The pearl also represents the journey of the soul or spirit in its quest to transcend to perfection.

Pearls were also placed inside the mouth of the deceased in burials because the ancient people believed the pearl represented the principles of life. Hence, it could help the dead in their journey to the afterlife.

10. Rooster

A tiny glazed Ming Dynasty cup depicting a rooster.Pin

A tiny glazed Ming Dynasty cup depicting a rooster
Metropolitan Museum of Art, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

The rooster was considered to be the manifestation of the Sun God since this bird crowed every day when the sun rose.

Because of this, the rooster became associated with divine powers and people would use the rooster and its blood to worship their gods and as a ward against evil.

It also became associated with honesty and punctuality because it woke up at the crack of dawn, which enabled people to understand what time of the day it was.

It was also believed that roosters belonged to the same family as the legendary phoenix and hence, they became a sign of good luck.

Roosters also symbolized courage and bravery and they were also believed to be ghost hunters.

In Chinese folk tales, ghosts were scared of the rooster’s crow as they would lose their evil powers at dawn and the crowing of the bird meant that the day was coming.

11. Crane

Red-crowned cranes featured in the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.Pin

Red-crowned cranes featured in the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo
Hiroshige, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Cranes are often painted with other immortal symbols like peaches. The image of a crane with outstretched wings standing on one leg symbolizes immortality and longevity as they were believed to carry the souls of the dead to heaven.

When in flight, cranes were a portent of high status.

Cranes with peony flowers symbolized prosperity as well as long life, while with lotus, they symbolized purity and longevity.

A crane perched on a rock looking towards the sun is a symbol of omniscient authority.

In general, birds represent positive meaning in Chinese myth. In Feng Shui, caging bird is forbidden as they bring bad luck, confinement, and stunting of growth and progress.

12. Endless Knot

Endless Knot / Lines depicting one of the Auspicious Symbols.Pin

Endless Knot / Lines depicting one of the Auspicious Symbols
dinarpoz via Pixabay

In Tibetan Buddhism, the Endless Knot is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols and is represented by ornamental intertwined and right-angled lines, seemingly without a beginning and an end.

As such, they represent the infinite wisdom and compassion of Buddha. 

It is also a symbol of continuity that is the principle of existence and a long, fulfilled life without setbacks.

In other interpretations, the knot represents the interplay of opposing forces, signifying duality in manifestation and their unity, which gives rise to balance and harmony in the universe.

13. Bamboo

A painting of Bamboo, by Xu Wei, Ming Dynasty.Pin

A painting of Bamboo, by Xu Wei, Ming Dynasty
Xu Wei, Public domain, lähde: Wikimedia Commons

Bamboo is another important symbol of longevity and is often depicted alongside pine trees and wild cherry trees. It is known as the “three friends of winter.”

It is a representation of upright moral character, modesty, loyalty, and resistance. In some contexts, it also depicts elegance and loneliness and Chinese calligraphy and paintings often show bamboo in this spirit.

As such, bamboo is considered to be the “gentleman” among plants. As a sign of virtue, bamboo is also related to people with positive spirits and is believed to serve as an inspiration to persevere during challenging situations.

According to a Tang Dynasty poet, the deep roots of the bamboo signify resoluteness, while its straight stem represents honor and its clean exterior chastity.

14. Three-Legged Crow 

Han Dynasty mural depicting three-legged crow.Pin

Han Dynasty mural depicting three-legged crow
Image courtesy: wikimedia.org

The three-legged crow is a mythological creature, which is believed to be the embodiment of the sun.

There is a Chinese myth that recounts the tale of Xihe, the Sun Goddess, who had ten sun children.

Every morning, these children would fly up in the sky, one by one and herald the day, but one day, they broke this pattern and went up into the sky at once, scorching the earth.

The father of the sun, Dijun, told his sons to behave but they did not heed his warning. As a result, Dijun sent the archer Yi to strike them down.

Yi shot down nine suns, which transformed into three-legged crows, but let the last one live for the prosperity of the Earth.

As a result, the three-legged crows became associated with the sun. 

15. Moon 

The Chinese mythological white rabbit making the elixir of immortality on the Moon.Pin

Moon and Jade Rabbit / The Chinese mythological white rabbit making the elixir of immortality on the Moon
An artist from the Qing emperors’ court, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Chinese culture, the moon is associated with brightness and gentleness. The Chinese celebrate the Moon Festival on the 15th day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar.

Since the round shape of the moon symbolizes family reunion, this is a holiday during which family members get together and enjoy abundance, luck and harmony under the light of the full moon.

The moon is also considered to be the carrier of human emotions and ancient Chinese philosophers believed that the moon was populated by the fairy or moon goddess Chang E and her pet, Jade Rabbit, who constantly pounds the elixir of life.

16. Tortoise

A 15th century Xuanwu ("Black Tortoise") statue from the Hubei Provincial Museum.Pin

Black Tortoise Symbol / A 15th century Xuanwu (“Black Tortoise”) statue from the Hubei Provincial Museum
Vmenkov, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The giant tortoise or the turtle are both important creatures in Chinese mythology. The tortoise was the chief representative of all shelled creatures and is one of the four sacred animals. It represents solidity and a long life.

An image of a tortoise and a round disk symbolizes long life. The markings on the tortoise shell have been the object of many studies by ancient scholars who believed they were the eight trigrams of the Taoist cosmology or the magic square.

The tortoise was also believed to be the attendant of Pan Gu, the creator of the world. Since tortoises have a very long life, they were thought to gather all the knowledge of the universe and their shells were used for divination.

Ancient Chinese used to write on their shells by placing a heated rod on them, causing them to crack.

17. Tiger

A Chinese woodcut featuring a famous medical figure and a tiger.Pin

Tiger Symbol in China / A Chinese woodcut featuring a famous medical figure and a tiger
Gan Bozong (Tang period, 618-907), CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The tiger is one of the animals in the Chinese zodiac and represents bravery. It is also represented as the yin force, particularly when shown with the dragon, which represents the yang.

Because of the Chinese character for tiger, this beast is considered to provide powerful protection. The ancient people believed the God of Wealth would ride on the back of a black tiger.

During wars, the tiger was used as a military emblem and the army would wear tiger suits to strike fear in the hearts of its enemy. Tigers are also known to have the power to ward off evil.

Because it is very powerful, to this day, tigers are hunted in China because of the perceived magical medicinal properties in their bones, which can cure ailments like arthritis.

When a tiger dies, it is believed to transform into orange amber.

18. Badger and Magpie

Magpie in China / An 11th century drawing of a hare and two magpies.Pin

Magpie in China / An 11th century drawing of a hare and two magpies
Cui Bai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The badger and the magpie have positive connotations in Chinese culture and when these two mammals are sighted together, it is a symbol of happiness.

The Chinese term for badger “huan” sounds just the same as the word “huan” for pleased, happy, and joyous.

They are also almost always paired with magpies, which are also believed to confer happiness.

The image of a magpie perched symbolized happiness in the future, while the image of a flying magpie and a badger symbolized happiness on Earth and in the sky.

19. Bat

A covered ceramic dish with the Chinese character for longevity (shou) in a sea of flying red bats.Pin

Five Bats of Happiness, Wu Fu / A covered ceramic dish with the Chinese character for longevity (shou) in a sea of flying red bats
Patricia Bjaaland Welch, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Unlike in the West, bats are a symbol of good fortune in China. The five bats of happiness, known as “Wu fu” represent the five blessings of life: long life, wealth, health, love, and natural death.

These five bats are often depicted surrounding the “shou” emblem, which represents longevity.

Therefore, the ancient Chinese painted pictures of bats and added them as motifs on ornaments to bring them good luck. Even today, the Chinese people draw “Riyu,” a good luck charm in the shape of a bat’s wings.

Bats also have a lot of other meanings in Chinese culture, depending on the context. 

A red bat signifies happiness; a bat with peaches signifies a long and happy life; five bats and a bot signify a life filled with all of life’s blessings.

20. Butterfly

A 10th century drawing of a butterfly and wisteria flowers from an old Chinese book.Pin

Butterfly Symbol / A 10th century drawing of a butterfly and wisteria flowers from an old Chinese book
Xü Xi, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In Chinese culture, butterflies symbolize delicateness and are believed to be the messenger of good news.

Ironically, they are known as a symbol of immortality, though in reality, butterflies have short lives. Butterflies also signify conjugal bliss.

When seen with plum blossoms, butterflies are a sign of beauty and a long life. When seen with a cat, butterflies indicate long life.

When seen with a chrysanthemum, butterflies represent beauty in old age. Butterflies are also a sign of summer and joy.

The Chinese also believe butterflies epitomize grace and are associated with romanticism.

Two butterflies flying together are a sign of an undying bond between lovers. They also represent young love and a happy social life.

21. Carp 

Carp Symbol in China / Drawing of a carp jumping the Dragon Gate.Pin

Carp Symbol in China / Drawing of a carp jumping the Dragon Gate
Paul Carus, 1852-1919, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In ancient China, the carp was a sign of good business. In many depictions, carps were painted with a dragon, which according to tradition means that a carp could swim upstream and leap the waterfalls of the Yellow River at Dragon Gate, and transform into a dragon.

Hence, carps became associated with high official positions. In those times, the Dragon Gate was considered to be the door of the Court.

Today, though the expression “carp jumping over the dragon’s door” is used to praise someone with great talent and wish them good luck for the future.

22. Cicada

Cicadas in China / An antique snuff bottle in the form of a cicada.Pin

Cicadas in China / An antique snuff bottle in the form of a cicada
Joe Mabel, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Chinese lore, cicadas are an emblem of high status. They are considered proud and lofty because they sit high on treetops and are a sign of purity because they live on dewdrops.

Antiquities and artwork showing headgear of royalty and nobles showing a golden cicada with huge eyes, which denote refinement and an awareness of one’s surroundings.

Hence, ancient Chinese would preach that high ranking officials should live like a cicada.

Since ancient times, cicadas have been a symbol of resurrection, life after death, spiritual realization, and immortality.

This is due to its intriguing lifecycle; newly-hatched cicadas fall down from the branches and burrow into the Earth where they nourish themselves for as long as seventeen years.

They then come out in the sun, climb trees, and shed their outer skins, appearing as fully-grown insects.

This process provided the Chinese with an analogy for the spirits of the dead, transcending into the eternal realm.

In the Han dynasty, jade amulets were placed inside the mouths of the deceased in THE hopes of resurrection and immortality.

23. Toad

Toad in Chinese Culture / A three-legged toad handle on a vermilion ink pad.Pin

Toad in Chinese Culture / A three-legged toad handle on a vermilion ink pad
Mk2010, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Chinese myth, the toad is a companion of Liu Hai, the God of Wealth, and because of this relation, the toad denotes a wish for riches and abundance.

In some regions, the toad is also called as “chan” which sounds similar to “qian”, which is the word for “coin.” Hence, it is further associated with wealth.

Zhang Guo Lao, one of the Eight Immortals in the Daoist tradition, is sometimes seen riding a toad.

A phosphorescent toad is a symbol of purity, fertility, regeneration, longevity, and yin. All of these connotations can be associated with the Moon Goddess, Chang E, who was transformed from a beautiful girl into a toad.

Since toads are highly reproductive animals, the Moon Goddess became a patron deity for women’s reproductive prowess and the incarnation of people’s wish to have children.

24. Deer

Qing Dynasty dish portraying a deer.Pin

Deer Symbol in China / Qing Dynasty dish portraying a deer
Daderot, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In Chinese myth, the deer is the only animal that can find the herbs of immortality and is often accompanied by the God of Longevity.

By this association, the deer is a symbol of long life, riches and prosperity. Because of this analogy, stags are also hunted and their horns ground into a fine powder for traditional medicine.

The Chinese character for deer is used in the character for “li”, which means “beautiful and elegant.” The old form of the character shows a deer decorated with two pendants. 

There is also a popular Chinese legend involving a deer about devotion to one’s parent. Zhou Yanzi’s father got ill and the only cure was the milk of a deer.

To get the milk, Zhou Yanzi covered himself with a deerskin, hid in a herd of deer, and successfully milked a doe.

This is one of the 24 examples of filial piety and is often represented in Chinese artwork.

25. Fire

Fire Symbol in China / Dunhuang artwork of Buddha depicting fire.Pin

Fire Symbol in China / Dunhuang artwork of Buddha depicting fire 
Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Fire is the second phase of Wu Xing, the Five Elements. In Chinese philosophy, fire symbolizes the matter’s prosperity stage and represents the Emperor’s brilliant intellect. It also represents the summer solstice.

Fire is associated with yang as it goes upward and has expansive energy. In Taoism, fire is attributed with strength, persistence, and vitality.

However, excess fire may also mean a restless spirit, impatience, aggression, and rash and impulsive behavior.

In the same way, fire is revered for providing warmth and light but is feared because it can burn. In traditional Chinese medicine, fire is linked with the negative connotations of hate and the positive emotions of joy.

Concluding Note

As you can see, Chinese symbols have multiple meanings and they vary between regions. Some of the symbols were particularly loved by all Chinese and were depicted in their artwork, literature, and philosophy.

We hope this guide can give you an insight into the rich Chinese culture and how its history and symbology influence its values till today.

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The editors of Give Me History work with specific content that they’ve had considerable expertise within academic projects or study. The contents of this article have additionally been reviewed by external experts before publishing.

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The Editors of Give Me History, "Top 25 Ancient Chinese Symbols and their Meanings," Give Me History, November 24, 2020, https://givemehistory.com/ancient-chinese-symbols.

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