Animal symbolism in Chinese art shòu

Forbidden City, Beijing, roof, architecture
Glazed animal sculptures on the palace roof of the Forbidden City, Beijing

All animals were classified into five groups. Scaled animals are led by the dragon, naked creatures by man, furry animals by the unicorn, feathered birds by the phoenix and shelled creatures by the turtle. As there are five classes and there are also five directions they are associated with each other: dragon: east; phoenix: south; unicorn: west; turtle: north and humans: center.

Another set of fives are the five noxious creatures: snake, centipede, scorpion (or spider), gecko (or lizard) and toad.

Here are some animals that are noted for their symbolism in Chinese art:

Animal Ant Ao Badger Bat Bee Butterfly Carp Cat Centipede Cicada Crab Deer Dog Donkey Dragon Dragonfly Elephant Fish Fox Gecko Glow worm Hare Horse Lion Monkey Ox Panther Pig Rat Sheep Snake Spider Tiger Toad Tortoise Unicorn Wolf

Ant 蚂蚁 mǎ yǐ

ant,  flower

Ants are hard-working and well-ordered. The second part of the name (yi) means righteous, denoting its apparent display of Confucian virtue which is homo-phonic with (old form ) ‘respectful manner’.

The black ant was considered useful as it attacks the dreaded white ant (termite) bái yǐ which eats away at anything wooden. Although hard-working it is considered self-interested and so is sometimes used proverbially for selfishness. The ant is rarely portrayed symbolically in works of art.

蚂蚁啃骨
Mǎ yǐ kěn gǔ tou [ma yi ken gu tou]
ant gnaw bone
Like ants gnawing at a bone
Dogged perseverance to achieve a long term end
堤,溃
Qiān lǐ zhī dī, kuì yú yǐ xué [qian li zhi di, kui yu yi xue]
thousand mile's dyke, river goto ant hole
An ant may destroy an entire dam
Take full attention to detail to avoid catastrophe
Spoil the ship for a ha'pworth of tar
蚂蚁
Rè guō shàng de mǎ yǐ [re guo shang de ma yi]
heat pot up of ants
As active as ants in a hot pan
In a state of feverish activity and excitement

Ao áo

The giant turtle (or sometimes fish) ‘Ao’ features in some creation myths. In China there was a view that the whole Earth was on the back of a giant turtle. There is a long association with turtles acting as stabilizing creatures rooted firmly to the ground. They are thought to eat fire and so may feature as a figure on the end of a roof ridge to help keep fire away.

The Ao Shan (mountain) was considered to lie in the ‘Isles of the Blessed’ to the East of China. As an example of its symbolic power the leading scholar in the examinations was called an ‘Ao’ and so pictures wishing good luck in exams may feature a turtle.


Badger huān

badger
A badger and a magpie both mean a wish for happiness.

Badgers in a picture symbolize happiness because huān sounds just the same as huān ‘joyous, happy, pleased’, badgers are often portrayed together with magpies as they also give the wish for happiness.


Bat

bat
Bats in an outer ring, five bats in the inner ring surrounding the character for longevity. Wishing good fortune and a long life.

The Chinese have long known that bats are flying rodents. Bats are welcome arrivals because they eat huge numbers of flying insect pests. They are also known as tiānshǔ ‘sky rat’ and as 附翼 fùyì ‘embracing wings’. As they hibernate in caves there are legends of ancient white bats that live for a thousand years and their body parts have been used in traditional medicines for longevity.

However their main importance has come from a linguistic coincidence; the character for bat sounds and looks the same as good fortune’ and so bats are commonly seen as decorations on ornaments to wish good luck and as motifs in paintings. Two bats symbolize double happiness. The five blessings of life (health, wealth, virtue, long life, peaceful death) are often represented by five bats sometimes surrounding the 寿 shòu emblem for longevity. Rúyì is a good luck charm that can be drawn in a shape like a bat's wings.


Bee 蜜蜂 mì fēng

bee

Bees are not often used in paintings but if they appear they can represent, when combined with a monkey ( hóu), aspiration to high office as fēng means ‘bestow high office’ and hóu ‘a marquis’. If bees are shown with peony flowers this shows a young man seeking love.

The character for bee is composed of the insect radical with the character for awl to represent its sharp sting. The wild Chinese bee is smaller and less ferocious than other bee species. The art of bee-keeping was considered a hobby and honey an luxury rather than staple food. Chinese traditional bee hives were hour-glass shaped with a narrow central opening just large enough to let one bee through.

蜂酿
zhī fēng niáng bù chéng mì kē mǐ áo bù chéng zhōu [yi zhi feng niang bu cheng mi yi ke mi ao bu cheng zhou]
only one bee not produce honey, one grain rice cook not complete meal
One bee cannot produce honey; one grain of rice cannot produce a meal
It needs joint effort to achieve anything worthwhile
Many hands make light work

bird

Bird niǎo

For all about phoenixes, pheasants, parrots, doves and many other birds please see our section full of birds.


Butterfly 蝴蝶 hú dié

butterfly, orchid
Exotic butterflies, orchids and herb of immortality.

Butterflies, as things of beauty and summer warmth, are often found in Chinese paintings. Sometimes a butterfly seeking flowers symbolizes a young man's quest for love. In particular a butterfly and plum blossom mean a quest for blissful love.

Because dié ‘elderly, over eighty’ sounds the same, it can also symbolize a wish for long life. This symbolism is re-enforced by a cat: mào because mao also means mào ‘aged eighty or more’.

The most famous Chinese butterfly is the one in the vision of the Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi. Was he dreaming of life as a butterfly or a butterfly dreaming itself as a man? A different story about this incident has him, less poetically, chasing a butterfly and stumbling into the grounds of a house where he sees a lovely young lady with whom he falls in love.


Carp lǐ yú

carp, dragon gate
In Chinese legend, carp were said to swim high upstream in the Yellow River to the Dragon’s Gate. Those few who managed to jump the gate were transformed into dragons. In Confucian China, this is used to represent students who passed the scholar's exam. It is used, in general, as a symbol of a great life achievement achieved through hard work and perseverance. Image by Paul Carus available under a Creative Commons License

A carp symbolizes a favorable wish as it sounds similar to ‘favorable, benefit, advantage’ and means ‘strength, power’. It has long been associated with wishing success in the state examinations. If a candidate was successful at the exams at Beijing he could buy a boat trip back home from the travel agents on nearby ‘Carp Street’ lǐ yú hú tòng. Carp swim hard and leap up the currents in the Yellow River at the Dragon Gate rapids, Shaanxi and so it is associated with endeavor and determination. According to legend ‘Dragon Gate’ ( lóngmén is where a carp was transformed into a dragon and that took on the meaning of passing the examinations and becoming a powerful and rich government official: lǐ yú tiào lóng mén ‘may you gain quick success’. Wang Xiang () is an example of filial piety, he was unable to procure carp to provide medicine for his father and his evil step-mother, so he sat and wept on a frozen river for so long that his tears melted a hole in the ice opened and two carp sprang out of it.

The goldfish (a kind of carp) jīn yú is a symbol for ‘an abundance of wealth (gold)’ often shown with a lotus.


Cat māo

cat, peony
A cat with rocks and peony. Wishing contentment and a long life.

With so many cute and cuddly cats on the Internet it is perhaps surprising that cats generally have a poor traditional image in China. It should be remembered that cats were kept for pest control and not as pets. They were particularly important for preventing rats from eating silkworms and hence another name ‘silkworm cats’ cán māo. The character for cat shows an animal and a field of grain, suggesting its role as vermin catcher.

As in Western culture a cat has some more sinister associations. It can see spirits in the dark and should be cremated and not buried as it could turn into a demon. The arrival of a strange cat to a house bodes ill as it was thought that the cat could sense that misfortune will fall and the house will become dilapidated and soon home to only rats and mice.

The similar sounding mào means someone in 80s or 90s so a picture of a cat symbolizes a wish for long life.


Centipede 蜈蚣 wú gōng

centipede, insect
Line art drawing of centipede. Image by Pearson Scott Foresman available under a Creative Commons License

The centipede is one of the five noxious creatures and as such is associated with powerful magic potions. It is considered the enemy of the snake but is readily eaten by hens. The Dragon Boat festival (mid summer) was a time to brush away centipedes from the home.


Cicada chán

cicada
Idealized form of a cicada as a common design motif wishing for a long life.

The cicada is a potent symbol for immortality due to its life cycle, they emerge as if by magic out of the ground after many years living unseen as a grub eating roots. The symbol of an idealized cicada denotes a wish for immortality and a jade cicada was placed in the mouth of the deceased. Male cicadas were kept as pets in a small box as they ‘chirp’ noisily to attract females.

The closely related insect, the cricket 蟋蟀 xī shuài, was captured and used for a cricket duel between two males; bets were placed on which insect would win. A cricket can therefore symbolize summer and conflict. The keeping of a cricket (or cicada) was used as a symbol of significance in the film about the The Last Emperor Puyi.


Crab xiè

crab

The crab is often used symbolically as the name sounds the same as xiè ‘harmony, blend in’. There is an ancient legend that some ancient crabs were originally made of jade. The crab’s protective shell jiǎ also means ‘first’ - it is the first heavenly stem and so expresses the wish to come first - particularly in examinations.


Deer 鹿

deer, plum
Deer decoration on vase

The graceful and beautiful deer is not included in the Chinese zodiac but does feature in paintings. It symbolizes longevity and riches as deer were believed to live to a great age. means ‘good fortune’ and ‘government salary’, and is also another word for ‘precious jade’. The god of longevity is often shown accompanied by deer; as it was reputed to be able to locate the herbs of immortality. The character for deer was appropriately used within ‘beautiful; elegant’ it shows a deer decorated with two pendants, but this is only really evident in the old form of the character . Stag's horn when finely ground up is used in traditional medicine because of the association with long life.

The yak was considered a kind of deer, although it is actually a kind of cow (Bos mutus) and due to its strange features was one of the ‘four dis-similars’ sì bù xiàng as it has a stag’s horns, a camel’s body, ox’s feet and an ass’s tail.

There is a popular legend about devotion to parents concerning deer. Zhou Yanzi 's father grew sick and the only cure was deer’s milk, so Zhou Yanzi disguised himself as a deer by covering himself with a deerskin and joined a herd so he could milk a doe. This act makes him one of the 24 examples of filial piety often portrayed in paintings and on porcelain.


Dog gǒu

dog, han dynasty, pottery
A pottery dog from the Chinese Han Dynasty. Image by Gary Lee Todd available under a Creative Commons License

Dogs get a mixed treatment in China. They have been farmed for meat in the south and for fur in the north and yet the famous Dowager Empress Cixi was devoted to her Pekingese dogs and they have an honored by a position in the Chinese zodiac. In northern China paper dogs were thrown into water on the 5th day of the fifth month to drive away evil. In this sense a dog accompanies the god Erlang to drive out demons.

The ancient character quǎn is also used for ‘dog’. It is a common radical used for many animals with four legs. Yellow dogs huáng gǒu are sometimes colloquially called ‘wonks ’ in the south. A dog that approaches you with its tail wagging is a good sign as it foretells the coming of wealth. The Han Emperor Ling (168-189CE) is reputed to have became besotted with dogs, elevating one to a high official rank.

The Pekingese lap dog received high favor because it resembled a miniature lion, and they were bred to be as lion-like as possible. In southern China a dog's faithfulness is highly valued. Examples of extreme loyalty of a dog to its master are noted in legends. Some of the minority people in southern China were believed to be descended from dogs because of their fierce barbarity.

急跳墙
Gǒu jí tiaò qiáng [gou ji tiao qiang]
dog anxious leap wall
A cornered dog will leap over a wall
Extreme circumstances require extreme measures
The end justifies the means
Jī quǎn bù ning [ji quan bu ning]
chicken dog not stand
Even the chicken and dog are disturbed. General commotion
All in turmoil and excitement
Láng xīn gǒu fèi [lang xin gou fei]
wolf feeling dog lungs
Wolf aggression, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous
吠影,吠声
quǎn fèi yǐng, bǎi quǎn fèi shēng [yi quan fei ying, bai quan fei sheng]
one dog bark shadow, one hundred dog bark noise
One dog snarls at a shadow; a hundred howl at each other's barking
Blindly follow a trend without even knowing its origin

Donkey

donkey, painting
Braying Donkey by Gao Qipei. 1713. Ink and color on paper. Image by Walters Art Museum available under a Creative Commons License

With frequent, widespread famines in China the donkey was at times eaten as well as being used as a beast of burden. It was a common sight in northern and central China busy plowing the fields or carrying heavy goods. Unlike its close relative the horse it is not in the Chinese astrological zodiac or ancient texts; this suggests it came quite late to China, probably in the Han dynasty. It is considered the beast of poor people and ascetic hermits. Just as in Europe the donkey has an undeserved reputation for stupidity.

One of the eight Daoist Immortals Zhang Guo Lao is often depicted riding a donkey which was made of paper so he could fold it up and store it in his bag.

驴唇
Lǖ chún bù duì mǎ zuǐ [lu chun bu dui ma zui]
donkey lips no match horse mouth
Donkey's lips do not fit a horse's mouth
Something that is out of place and inappropriate
骑驴
Qí lǖ zhǎo lǖ [qi lu zhao lu]
ride donkey look for donkey
Looking for a donkey while sitting on its back
Ignoring the obvious. Absent mindedness
Not looking beyond your nose
黔驴
Qián lǖ jì qiong [qian lu ji qiong]
black donkey skill poor
Even a clever donkey can not solve the problem. The story is that a tiger first spotted a donkey and was scared of the new monster, but seeing it do very little but kick it killed and ate the donkey.
No more ideas on how to proceed
Be at wit's end

Dragon lóng

dragon

Dragons are so important and pervasive in Chinese culture we have dedicated a whole section to this flying animal. In brief summary, the dragon is the mightiest of creatures, master of rain and water and usually good natured. It has its place in the astrological years and serves as a symbol principally of the Emperor and therefore the top of the pyramid of symbols.

Ancient belief ties the dragon to the bringing of life-giving rain in the form of master of the storm clouds. In appearance it is more serpent-like than the Western version and is usually portrayed among the clouds.

Lóng fēi fèng wǔ [long fei feng wu]
dragon fly phoenix dance
A dragon's flight and a phoenix's dance - very powerful and invigorating.
Flamboyant. Lively and vigorous
Lóng zhēng hǔ dòu [long zheng hu dou]
dragon war tiger battle
Bitter fight between a dragon and tiger. An evenly matched big fight
Struggle between two equal leaders
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé [qiang long nan ya di tou she]
strong dragon difficult press soil head snake
Even a dragon finds it difficult to conquer a snake in its lair
Knowledge of local area and people gives them a distinct advantage even against a strong enemy
,
lóng shēng jiǔ zhǒng, zhǒng zhǒng bù tóng [yi long sheng jiu zhong, zhong zhong bu tong]
one dragon produce nine sons, grow not same
The dragon has nine sons, each different from the others
Brothers and sisters may not resemble each other

Dragonfly 蜻蜓 qīng tíng

dragonfly
Emperor dragonfly

The ferocious and veracious predator of other insects, the dragonfly is considered a friend to people.

It is an emblem of summer as they overwinter in the form of grubs and their temporary existence in the air can symbolize fleeting moments. As it sounds the same as qīng it is used to symbolize purity. It was believed in ancient China that the wind gave birth to insects as they seem to come in waves borne by storms. The old form of the character for wind fēng was denoting an insect in the air.


Elephant xiàng

Qing dynasty, Beijing, sacred way, elephant
Stone elephant on the Sacred Way to the Eastern Qing Dynasty Tombs, Hebei

Elephants used to roam throughout most of China but are now restricted to the mountains of Yunnan.

Tales from ancient times occasionally mention the mighty elephant; the legendary Emperor Shun is portrayed plowing with an elephant and heroes were shown riding one. Marco Polo reported that the Great Khan (Kublai Khan) traveled on a great wooden room built on the backs of four elephants. Stone elephants often stand on the Sacred Ways to tombs.

The Imperial Elephant Stables xiàngfáng stood near the Xuanwumen Gate in Beijing. Elephants were used in key Imperial ceremonial processions and came from Vietnam and Burma. On the sixth day of the sixth month the keepers took the elephants for a thorough wash in the moat surrounding the city wall.

Chinese Chess is called is called ‘Elephant Game’ in Chinese xiàng qí as one of the pieces is called an elephant that moves a bit like a bishop in Western Chess. Elephant xiàng sounds the same as also means ‘think’ or ‘ponder’ which seems very appropriate for both the game of chess and the ponderous animal.

Riding on an elephant symbolizes happiness qí xiàng as it sounds like jí xiáng ‘auspicious’; to reinforce the motif, the cloth on the elephant’s back often shows the symbols for good fortune. A vase and an elephant gives the wish tài píng yǒu xiàng ‘great peace and security will soon appear’ (as vase píng sounds the same as ‘peace’).

Ivory has been used for millenniums for carved ornaments and the import of African ivory through Hong Kong is still an active but illegal trade. When they were plentiful the trunk was considered a culinary delicacy and the hide was used to bind serious wounds. The wider distribution of elephants in China and the Indian origin of Buddhism has led to many Buddhist associations with elephants. Ganesha is a Hindu god who is portrayed with the head of an elephant.

蛇吞
Rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng [ren xin bu zu she tun xiang]
person heart no attain snake swallow elephant
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable

Fish

fish, lotus
Fish and lotus motif design

Fish symbolize a wish for abundance and affluence, this is one of the best known homophones as meaning ‘surplus’ so a child with a fish symbolize a wish for extra children. A goldfish jīn yú is a standard symbol for ‘an abundance of gold’. Chinese people have for a long time kept fish as pets in ponds and bowls.

Fish were a very important part of the ordinary diet of the Chinese, as fish rather than meat provided the protein. The lower Yangzi river, in particular Jiangsu is known as the ‘land of fish and rice’ with its many lakes and rivers.

Fish are often eaten at the Spring Festival symbolizing a wish for abundance in the year to come. If with a lotus blossom it makes the wish that the surplus should last for years because lián ‘lotus’ sounds the same as lián ‘successive’.

The carp has its own rich symbolic associations (see separate carp entry) Two fishes with a stone chime give the wish jí qìng yǒu yú for ‘good fortune in abundance’.

There are legends of drunken men turning into fish demons, who could be uncovered because they need to bathe each day. Because fish breed prolifically and are frequently seen in pairs they may symbolize marriage and many children. Fishermen yú fū are a respected profession set above merchants and officials as they gather food. The art of government has been likened to fishing techniques as it requires both patience and careful observation. There is a legend that Emperor Fuxi learned the art of fishing and invented the fish trap.

忘筌
wàng quán [de yu wang quan]
catch fish forget trap
After catching a fish forget the trap
Ungrateful behavior, ignoring what made it possible
Don't bite the hand that feeds you
急,授 则解
Shòu rén zhǐ jiù shí zhī jí, shòu rén yǐ yú zé jiě yī shēng zhī xū [shou ren yi yu zhi jiu yi shi zhi ji, shou ren yi yu ze jie yi sheng zhi xu]
award person use fish one explain once quick, award person use fishing standard separate one produce must
Give a fish and be fed for only a day. Teach how to fish and be free from hunger forever
It is important to learn a skill that will last for life

Fox 狐狸 hú li

fox

While many creatures in the West have a worse reputation than in China for example rats; pigs and dragons, for the fox it is the other way around. In the West a fox is admired for its cleverness and determination, in China it has a much more evil connotation. It is reputed to live to a great age, when it reaches fifty it can turn itself into a woman, at hundred a seductive girl and at a thousand it becomes a powerful god with nine tails.

The evil consort Daji of the last Emperor of the Zhou dynasty - Emperor Shou - was reputed to be such a metamorphosed fox who acted with great cruelty, devising tortures for innocent people.

The association with spirits may originate from the observation that foxes raided graves for the food laid out for the ancestors, and so could be seen as the departing spirit of the deceased. The fox spirit had to be appeased with offerings. Another superstition had it that even the writing of the character for a fox was unlucky so the homophone was used instead.

狐假
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi [hu jia hu wei]
fox fake tiger power
A fox will pretend to have the power of a tiger. The story is that a fox followed a tiger in a parade. The animals panicked and the fox claimed that this was because they were frightened of the fox not the tiger
A trick of cunning to appear more powerful
狐悲
Tù sǐ hú bēi [tu si hu bei]
hare die fox sorrow
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Showing false grief to conceal true feeling
To weep crocodile tears

Gecko bì hǔ

gecko, lizard

The gecko is a common sight in Chinese houses, scampering over the walls and ceilings to catch insects. The name denotes its hunting skill, it means ‘wall tiger’. It is considered one of the five poisonous creatures and so a potion of all five mixed together was very potent. A very powerful potion was said to have been prepared by feeding a gecko on cinnabar for a year; the pounded remains were then applied to the skin to both detect and protect against infidelity.


Glow Worm yíng huǒ chóng

glow-worm, Lampyris noctiluca
A female Common Glow-worm (Lampyris noctiluca) in the grass in Aston Rowant, Oxfordshire, UK. Image by Timo Newton-Syms available under a Creative Commons License

The glow-worm (Lampyris noctiluca) is common across from Europe into Asia, it is the female that gives the brightest glow to attract males. Symbolically it stands for beauty and loyalty.

In a tale mentioned in the Three Character Classic, Chē Yìn was too poor to use a lamp, in order to study the classics and pass the Imperial examinations he collected many glow-worms so he could see to read at night. He went on to pass the exams and became a senior government official.


Hare tù zi

hare, magpie
Magpies and Hare.This large handscroll, perhaps originally part of a large screen painting, was painted by the Chinese artist Cui Bo, active during the reign of Shenzong (r. 1067-85) of the Song Dynasty. Image by National Palace Museum available under a Creative Commons License

The hare in China is not generally distinguished from its close relative the rabbit, so ‘hare’ and ‘rabbit’ are used interchangeably. The hare has its place in the astrological zodiac of twelve animals. It is associated with the moon, the Jade Rabbit Yùtù was the name of the Chinese moon rover that landed in 2013. It was thought that the gray shape on the moon is the form of a hare which is mixing the elixir of immortality, and this associated the hare with longevity. A man with a hare's head surrounded by six boys represents the Moon Festival (Zhongqiujie ) at full moon in the eighth month. A red hare is an auspicious animal and appears when rule is virtuous. There are legends that a hare becomes pregnant by gazing at the moon or just licking the fur of the female.

The character for injustice, oppression yuān is made up of the character for a hare under a cover, suggesting this wild creature, in particular, does not enjoy incarceration.

Jiǎo tù sān kū [jiao tu san ku]
crafty hare three burrows
A crafty rabbit has three burrows
To succeed there must be several alternative strategies
There's more than one way to skin a cat
守株待
Shǒu zhū dài tù [shou zhu dai tu]
guard trunk wait for hare
Keeps watching a tree waiting for rabbits
Counts on luck rather than action to reach goals. Laziness and inaction
Ignorance is bliss
狐悲
Tù sǐ hú bēi [tu si hu bei]
hare die fox sorrow
A fox mourns the death of a rabbit
Showing false grief to conceal true feeling
To weep crocodile tears
窝边
Tù zi bù chī wō biān cǎo [tu zi bu chi wo bian cao]
rabbit no eat burrow side grass
Rabbits do not eat the grass around their burrows
Thieves do not steal from neighbors

Horse

Tang dynasty, horse, sculpture
Tri-colored glazed pottery horse of the Tang Dynasty

Horses as pasture animals feature more in China in ancient times when the center of civilization was further north around the Yellow River. Horses came from Central Asia, Mongolia and Tibet . In the ancient Yi Jing the horse represents 'yin' compared to the dragon 'yang'. The god of war Guan yu (Guan di) rode a red-haired horse. It is associated with the element metal and west.

The character is a pictogram of a rearing horse, perhaps clearer in its old form of . The legendary Mù wáng of the Zhou dynasty is often portrayed in paintings. Eight horses drew his chariot with which he toured the provinces.

In the Tang and Mongol dynasties - both peoples from the northern pasture lands - horses were greatly admired animals and appear in a wide range of artwork. Horse meat was and is still eaten in China.

In symbolism a horse laden with goods is a wish for a government post. It often also indicates swiftness. A monkey hóu on horse back expresses the wish for promotion quickly as hóu is a noble rank and mǎ shǎng ‘on horseback’ is a metaphor for ‘arrive quickly’. A picture of an official on horseback under a canopy and accompanied with nine other people, commemorates the legend of Liang Hao (Song dynasty) who passed the Imperial Examinations at the age of 84, a symbol of dogged determination.

腾达
Fēi huáng téng dá [fei huang teng da]
fly yellow gallop extend
To fly in the sky like the legendary horse Fei Huang (flying yellow)
Sudden rise to success and honour
骥伏枥,
Laǒ jì fú lì, zhì zài qiān lǐ [lao ji fu li, zhi zai qian li]
old thoroughbred hidden stable, aspiration exist 1000 miles
The old horse in the stable still yearns to gallop 1000 miles
High ambitions never fade
Old soldiers never die, they just fade away
塞翁,
Sài wēng shī mǎ, ān zhī fēi fú [sai weng shi ma, an zhi fei fu]
frontier old man lose horse, peace know wrong blessing
When the old man from the frontier lost his horse; how could he have known that it would not be fortuitous? The story is that a man lost his horse but actually it went over the Great Wall and brought back several horses with it
A setback may turn out to be a blessing in disguise.
Every cloud has a silver lining
Sǐ mǎ dāng huó mǎ yī [si ma dang huo ma yi]
die horse equal live horse doctor
Treating a dead horse as if it is still alive
Persevering when it is already too late. A lost cause.
Flogging a dead horse
Zǒu mǎ kàn huā [zou ma kan hua]
walk horse look flower
Looking at the flowers while riding a horse
To take a cursory look at something. Smug

Lion shī

Qing dynasty, lion
Lion sculpture at Chen Clan Temple Guangzhou, Guangdong

Although the lion has never dwelt in China, it is a common art motif with lion statues guarding the entrances to temples. The character contains the homophone shī which means ‘master’ combined with the ‘animal’ radical.

Although some lions were given to the emperor as tribute from vassal kingdoms most knowledge of the beast came indirectly so representations are often more like pet dogs than fierce cats. The lion is usually depicted resting on the ground with forefeet pointing outward and is mostly associated with Buddhism. At entrances to temples the lion on the right is male and holds a ball in its paw while the left lion is female and holds a cub. A pair of lions symbolize happiness and wish for a prosperous career.

Lion dances ( shī zi wǔ) often have the lions chasing a ball ( qiú) and two lions chasing a ball is a common motif similar to two dragons chasing a ball. The lion dance was traditionally associated with the Lantern festival but is now seen generally at most Chinese festivals. If the dancing lion can be enticed into a home it will bring good luck.


Monkey hóu

monkey
Four dancing monkeys.

The monkey is seen a cheeky, irreverent creature in China always bringing fun and laughter. Monkeys live in central and southern China but not in the north. It has a high place in the zodiac of twelve animals. The character for monkey hóu has a man shooting an arrow at a target, representing a nobleman, adding the ‘dog’ radical turns it into the prince of animals: the monkey. In southern China some minority people were presumed to be the descendents of monkeys. Monkeys were considered able to drive away evil spirits and for this reason were worshiped and tolerated near houses.

The most famous monkey character is the Monkey King 悟空 Sūn wù kōng who features in the ‘Journey to the West’ which is the most famous tale in China made into numerous films. A legend has a monkey stealing the peaches of immortality from the garden of the Queen Mother of the West (Xi wang mu) and so a monkey is often depicted carrying off a peach.

A monkey riding on a horse expresses the wish for quick promotion as hóu is a noble rank and mǎ shǎng ‘on horseback’ is a metaphor for ‘arrive quickly’. A bee or wasp fēng may be included as to make the phrase 封候 mǎ shàng fēng hòu (feng means ‘grant title’). Two monkeys in a pine tree symbolize a wish for promotion to last many generations.

沐猴
Mù hóu ér guàn [mu hou er guan]
tree monkey but wear hat
A hat-wearing macaque
A worthless person hiding behind imposing looks. Trying to impress too hard
All that glitters is not gold
Shā jī gěi hóu kàn [sha ji gei hou kan]
kill chicken give monkey look
Kill a chicken before a monkey. The monkey can then take the message as a warning
To punish somebody as a lesson and warning to others
猢狲散
Shù daǒ hú sūn sàn [shu dao hu sun san]
tree fall monkey troupe break up
When a tree falls, the monkeys scatter. When a leader loses power, his followers are disorganized.
An organization needs a strong leader. Chaos results when a leader is deposed.

Ox niú

ox, oxherd, Niulang, Zhinu
The oxherd Niulang seeking to reach his estranged bride Zhinu in the sky.

The ox has for centuries toiled in the fields of China. The same character niu is used for oxen; water buffalo as well as cattle. The Emperor Hongwu founder of the Ming dynasty had humble origins and a boy riding an ox/water buffalo may represent him.

Because it is such a useful animal some Chinese will not eat beef, although this custom may come from the India because of the ban in both Hinduism and Buddhism. It is an animal of proverbial strength and water buffalo are often associated with rivers and water. Beef tea has for long been a potent medicinal tonic.

At New Year the Emperor himself dug a ritual furrow using an ox-powered plow. The ox is associated with Spring; harvest and fertility and is one of the twelve animals of the zodiac.

Jiǔ niú maó [jiu niu yi mao]
nine ox one hair
Nine cows are missing just one hair
An insignificant amount. A trivial matter.
A drop in the ocean
鼎烹
Niú dǐng pēng jī [niu ding peng ji]
ox cauldron boil chicken
Cooking a chicken in a pot designed for an ox
Inappropriate scale for action. A minor event does not require such large preparation

Panther bào

panther

The panther (and the same character denotes leopards as well) symbolizes the taming of cruelty. It was an uncommon animal in China and does not feature greatly in paintings. If is portrayed with a magpie ( symbolizing joy) the panther can stand as a homophone for bào meaning ‘announce; herald’ so together they give the wish for joy.


Pig zhū

pig

The pig has long been domesticated in China. It is one of the twelve zodiacal animals. It is a very widely eaten meat - except by the sizable Muslim population. A legend has it that the founder of the Khitan people of northern China had a pig's head and so the Khitan people would not eat pork.

The character for pig is used as part of the character for home jiā, it show a pig under a roof, as the animals used to live with the family in rural homes. A superstition to protect new born babies was to give them pig's trotters for shoes and a pig head mask so the demons would think it was a pig not a human and leave them alone.

The ferocious wild boar yě zhū used to live in the dense forests along the Yangzi and attack farmers and eat their crops.


Rat dà shǔ

rat,  fruit, leaves
Decorative motif, Plate 100. Available under a Creative Commons License

The rat is rather surprisingly the first in the cycle of twelve zodiacal animals, the story goes that a rat was smart enough to jump on the back of the ox to jump to the head of the queue of animals when they were being named. The character for rat shǔ is a pictograph showing its head, tail and whiskers. The mouse is called xiǎo shǔ ‘little rat’ in contrast to dà shǔ ‘big rat’, the mouse plays little part in legends and superstitions.

The constant activity of rats has been paralleled with the acquisitive action of misers and rats are associated with money. In one legend it was rats that brought rice to people's attention as a nutritious food. However it is also thought they can turn into demons; some legends have them becoming quails at spring time.

If rats move into your house it is a bad sign as cats will follow and it indicates the house will soon be derelict and abandoned. Not so long ago the local rat catcher would demonstrate his skill by laying out bundles of rat corpses on the street.

Shǔ cùn guāng [shu mu cun guang]
mouse eye inch bright
A mouse's vision is only one inch long
Looking ahead for only a short time. Only planning for the immediate future.

Sheep yáng

Xinjiang, goat, desert, wildlife
A flock of goats in the desert near the Tarim basin, Xinjiang

Sheep are one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac. The character can represent either ‘sheep’ mián yáng or ‘goats’ shān yáng. The sheep is a creature of northern rather than southern China although Guangzhou is known as the ‘City of Rams’ due to a legend about the populace being relieved from famine by the kind intervention of magicians mounted on rams.

As it sounds the same as yáng it can be used to symbolize the male principle 'yang' and the sun. The character is an ancient pictogram of the animal showing its horns and body as seen from above. Rather sadly the character for lamb gāo is the character for sheep held over a fire. Combining the character for sheep and ‘large’ gives a more kindly attribute - the character for 'beautiful' měi.

Sheep symbolize respect for parents xiào because lambs kneel to take their mother's milk. Lamb and mutton are commonly used by the Muslim Hui minority as a substitute for pork.

补牢
Wáng yáng bǔ láo [wang yang bu lao]
lose sheep mend pen
Mend the pen after the sheep are lost
Can mean taking action too late or to protect against a future repeat of misfortune
Mend the stable door after the horse has bolted
Yáng maó chū zài yáng shēn shàng [yang mao chu zai yang shen shang]
wool come out at sheep body on
Wool comes from a sheep
Unrealistic expectations. You get what you pay for

Snake shé

snake
Sculpture in Tazishan Park - Chengdu, China. Artist unknown. Reproduction of this artwork is permitted by the "freedom of panorama" in China. Image by Daderot available under a Creative Commons License

The character for a snake uses the radical for insect chóng followed by a pictogram of a cobra rising on its tail. It is one the five noxious creatures with centipede; gecko; scorpion and toad.

A snake is one of the twelve astrological year animals. Snakes are considered wise and cunning but treacherous. As a snake sloughs its skin it may be used to symbolize transformation. There are not that many venomous snakes in China, the few that remain are in Guangxi, Yunnan and Guangdong. There is a legend of the bái shé ‘White snake’ in Hangzhou where a snake was transformed into a woman who marries a man, a monk who then sees through her disguise had her confined to a pagoda but not before a son was born who rose to become a great scholar.

The meat of the snake is eaten quite widely and it is a common ingredient in traditional medicine particularly snake liver. Snakeskin is considered a lucky charm.

Dǎ cǎo jīng ché [da cao jing che]
strike grass startled snake
Striking the grass alerts the snake
Unwisely alerting an enemy
蛇添
Huà shě tiān zú [hua she tian zu]
draw snake add foot
Drawing a foot on a snake
Ruin by over doing something. Too meticulous
Gild the lily
Qiáng lóng nán yā dì tóu shé [qiang long nan ya di tou she]
strong dragon difficult press soil head snake
Even a dragon finds it difficult to conquer a snake in its lair
Knowledge of local area and people gives them a distinct advantage even against a strong enemy
蛇吞
Rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng [ren xin bu zu she tun xiang]
person heart no attain snake swallow elephant
A person's greed is like a snake that seeks to swallow an elephant
Greed is insatiable

Spider 蜘蛛 zhī zhū

spider, web

The spider is considered a lucky creature because it dangles from its web on high and so symbolizes good fortune descending from the heavens. Another auspicious connection comes from the name for spider chóng xǐ zǐ because means ‘happiness, delight’. It may specifically signify the return home of a son. On the negative side it sometimes takes the place of the scorpion in the tally of five noxious creatures.


Tiger

tiger

The tiger is the chief of wild animals and used to be widespread in China. It was useful as it kept down the population of wild pigs. It is a zodiacal animal and represents bravery. The character ‘hu’ sounds the same as meaning ‘protect’ and so a tiger is a powerful protective motif. It was considered to have the power to keep away demons. The God of Wealth sometimes rides on the back of a black tiger.

It was heavily used as a military emblem with soldiers wearing tiger suits to frighten the enemy. Because it is such a powerful animal many parts of the tiger were considered equally powerful medicine and to this day tigers are hunted to supply the Chinese market for medicinal potions. As a tiger was supposedly never seen to limp, its bones were considered a cure for arthritis. On its death a tiger's body was at times considered to transform into orange amber. The White Tiger of the West 西 xī fāng bái hǔ is one the four divisions of the lunar month and day (mansions).

Cáng lóng wò hǔ [cang long wo hu]
hide dragon lie tiger
Hidden dragon, crouching tiger
There are people lurking with great power and strength
shān bù róng èr [yi shan bu rong er hu]
one mountain not hold two tigers
Two tigers cannot share one mountain
Two equally talented or able employees do not work well together
Hǔ fù wú quǎn zǐ [hu fu wu quan zi]
tiger father not dog child
A tiger does not father a dog
A son is similar to his father
Like father, like son
狐假
Hǔ jiǎ hǔ wēi [hu jia hu wei]
fox fake tiger power
A fox will pretend to have the power of a tiger. The story is that a fox followed a tiger in a parade. The animals panicked and the fox claimed that this was because they were frightened of the fox not the tiger
A trick of cunning to appear more powerful
拔牙
kǒu bá yá [hu kou ba ya]
tiger mouth pull up tooth
To extract a tooth from a tiger's mouth
To be very daring and/or to take unnecessary risks
Mǎ mǎ hǔ hǔ [ma ma hu hu]
horse horse tiger tiger
Some people say it comes from an old story in which a horse and a tiger get into a fight. Neither animal could defeat the other. In time, mentioning the two animals together came to mean a fight with no definite winner - and ma ma hu hu came to mean 'so so.'. There is also a story that, a long time ago, an artist drew an animal. He asked other people what the animal he drew was. Some said it looked like a horse while others said it was a tiger. They said, 'ma ma hu hu' because the drawing was just 'so-so'.
So so; average; careless
Qí hǔ nán xià [qi hu nan xia]
ride tiger difficult down
When on a tiger's back, it is hard to dismount
When taking risks you have to live with the consequences, it is difficult to back out
He who sups with the Devil should have a long spoon
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ [qian pa lang hou pa hu]
before fear wolf behind fear tiger
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides

Toad 蛤蟆 há ma

toad, Zhouzi, sculpture
Golden toads, a symbol of prosperity in front of the God of Wealth Tower in Old Town of Zhouzi, Taiwan

The term 蛤蟆 há ma can apply to either frogs or toads. With rice paddy-fields so widespread in rural China toads are a common sight as they loves wet habitat and insect prey. It is one of the five noxious creatures with geckos; scorpions; snakes and centipedes. On the more positive side, the similar sounding is a term for a baby, so can symbolize a wish for children.

Toads are also known as chán and in some districts this sounds the same as qián ‘money, coin’ and so there is a strong association of toads with riches.

There is a legend that a three legged toad lives in the sun, some say the moon. The same creature is said to be the companion of Liú Hǎi the god of wealth, and because of this association the toad often symbolizes a wish for riches. Zhang Guo Lao, one of Eight Immortals is sometimes depicted as riding a toad.

井底
Jǐng dǐ zhī wā [jing di zhi wa]
well bottom's frog
A frog in a well. The story is of a frog that only knows of the water in the well and knew nothing of the sea.
A blinkered approach to life. Living in own private world ignoring the real world

Tortoise guī

feng shui, turtle, tortoise, calligraphy
Bronze tortoise used in Feng Shui

The humble tortoise is an important creature in Chinese mythology. A giant turtle, the 'Ao' is tie up with creation legends. Both tortoises and turtles are termed guī, the turtle is specifically termed hǎi guī 'sea tortoise'. The original complex form of the character is shows a snake-like head with feet on the left side and tail below. The shape of its shell epitomizes the earth - the flat ground below and the vaulted sky above.

The turtle is often used as a memorial, the turtle has an engraved stone tablet in its back which lists the accomplishments of the deceased.

Many parts of the creature are used in traditional medicine, as it is such a well protected and long-lived creature. As it was never seen to mate it was considered that all tortoises were female. It is the chief representative of all shelled creatures. In pictures it represents the wish for a long life and also solidity. The Black Tortoise of the North is one of the four divisions of the lunar year and day representing winter and the north. Tortoiseshell however comes from a Malay turtle and not tortoises.

A picture with a round disk and a tortoise symbolize certainty of long life as jade disk’ sounds the same as ‘must’. The markings on its shell have long been puzzled over, some say the eight trigrams were inscribed on the back of a tortoise, and also that the magic square was marked out on the Lo Shu turtle . It was considered an attendant to the creator of the world Pan Gu. Because they have such a long lives, they are considered to accumulate knowledge of the world and so turtle/tortoise shells were used in 'oracle bone' divination. The pattern of cracks that emerge when a heated rod was placed against the shell gave the 'answer' to the question that had been written on the shell. The shells give the earliest record of writing known anywhere in the World.


Unicorn 骐麟 qí lín

qilin, Foshan, Guangdong
Ceramic qilin as animal on roof ridge, Ancestral Temple, Foshan, Guangdong

The Chinese unicorn shares some qualities with the Western version. It is a mythological animal that is peaceful and loving. Like the dragon it is such an important a creature we have a Qilin section fully describing it. It is the representative of all furry creatures such as deer, horses and cattle. Its infrequent appearances are auspicious and in a picture it conveys good wishes and in particular a wish for many children.

Fèng máo lín jiǎo [feng mao lin jiao]
phoenix hair unicorn horn
As rare as phoenix feathers and unicorn horns
Seeking the unobtainable

Wolf láng

wolf

Wolves were fairly common in northern China so it is surprising that they did not acquire the rich symbolism and legends that animals such as the tiger and monkey have done. It is seen as a rapacious beast and as in Europe used to portray someone blinded by self interest and greed. Genghis Khan was reputed by the Chinese to be descended from a wolf. A wolf is considered to be a lecher and so a sè láng is a ‘lecher’ or ‘pervert’.

Láng xīn gǒu fèi [lang xin gou fei]
wolf feeling dog lungs
Wolf aggression, dog bark. Ungrateful; cruel and unscrupulous
Ungrateful and unscrupulous
Qián pà láng hòu pà hǔ [qian pa lang hou pa hu]
before fear wolf behind fear tiger
To fear wolves ahead and tigers behind
To be obsessed by fears of attack from all sides

Source references used for this page: Book : A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols, Eberhard, Routledge, 1983 pp. 19-21, 26-27, 32-33, 37, 52-53, 57-59, 66, 74, 79-86, 93-94, 106-107, 117-118, 124-125, 131, 139-140, 147-148, 164-165, 192-193, 222-224, 236-237, 246-247, 252, 264, 268-272, 290-296, 302-304, 316 Book : Chinese Symbolism and Art Motifs, C.A.S. Williams,Tuttle,1993 pp. 16, 34-38, 51-52, 58-59, 70-71, 115, 124-128, 132-141, 168-171, 183-186, 200-202, 205-206, 220-225, 253-255, 277-278, 302-304, 326-327, 339, 356, 362-364, 398-406, 413-415, 440 Book : Fun with Chinese Characters, The Straits Times, Federal Publications,1982 pp. 50, 63-65, 74, 81-83, 116-117, 125 Book : Myths and Legends of China, Werner, Dover, 1922 p. 41 Book : Symbolism in Chinese art, Walter Yetts, HardPress Publishing, 1912 p. 25-27 Book : The Cambridge Encyclopedia of China, ed. Brian Hook, Cambridge University Press, 1991 pp. 289, 396 symBat (primaltrek) symElephant (asianart) symFish (education) symFox (wikipedia)
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Citation information: Chinasage, 'Symbolism of Animals in Chinese Art', last updated 14 Jan 2016, Web, http://www.chinasage.info/symbols/animals.htm.

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