This group of symbols cover a wide variety of items with some sort of connection to nature. We have a separate section on other natural subjects: animals; flowers & fruit as well as birds. Here we cover elements, minerals and natural patterns, here is a full list:
Amber, which is solidified pine resin, is most commonly found in Yunnan province. Its orange color has led to an association with tigers. There is an ancient belief that the spirit of a tiger goes back into the earth on its death to form amber. Therefore Amber has been used in TCM to give the properties of tiger to medicines. Blood amber ( 血珀 xuè pò) is particularly potent and has been used as an aphrodisiac. From very early times the Chinese knew amber was tree resin as they studied the insects often trapped inside blocks of amber.
A large cloth ball is often seen in Chinese Opera. A long time ago at the Mid Autumn moon festival a maiden would throw a red ball and the suitor who caught it would become her husband. It was often fixed onto the bridal carriage to symbolize the wish for babies to come. Dragons play with an embroidered ball at the Lantern festival. At the entrance to temples there are often two stone lions, one of which has a ball under its left paw representing the egg of a lion cub.
Although long bushy beards are a common sight at the Opera, many Chinese struggle to grow anything more than a thin, wispy beard. On stage and in pictures a beard symbolizes strength and supernatural power. However a red or purple beard is considered demonic (from Buddhist representations) and this affected Chinese attitudes to early European traders when they arrived with ginger hair and beards.
The wish for children is a very common motif in paintings, embroidery and porcelain. However, it must be admitted that traditionally the wish is for boys not girls. This apparent misogynistic attitude has to be explained. In the traditional village context a daughter would soon enough leave to marry someone in another village and would then have limited contact with her birth family. On the other hand a boy would remain in the family home and have a strong Confucian duty to look after his parents into their old age. Scholarly or mercantile activity was restricted to men and so a family's dream of riches and preferment could only come about through bearing sons.
Traditionally children's hair was shaved off, leaving a boy with a central tuft over the forehead and a girl with two tufts over the ears.
Hé-hé èr xiān 和合二仙- the Heavenly twins are shown as two boys carrying a box and a lotus to symbolize a wish for peace ‘hé’ 和 (box) and harmony 荷 hé (lotus). A picture may be divided in two, each part having a mother and son, one side has the son holding a lotus flower on the other the son rides a qilin, both symbolize a wish for a son. A picture with children surrounded by peaches and pomegranates symbolizes the wish for many sons.
Cinnabar is an orange-red mineral of mercury (mercuric sulfide). It has been associated with alchemy and magic in both China and Europe from the earliest times. This is because when heated it gives off hydrogen sulfide and produces shiny, liquid metal - mercury - as if by magic. In China this transformation suggested properties that could lead to immortality, so some Emperors have been believed to have been poisoned by taking elixirs containing cinnabar as mercuric compounds are poisonous. Cinnabar was used to make the vermillion ink used solely by the Emperor. The Elixir of the Immortals 仙丹 xiān dān was also said to contain cinnabar. All metals were considered by some alchemists to be made up of a mixture of cinnabar and sulfur.
In Daoist belief there is a cinnabar zone just below the navel that is a key location in meditation.
Cinnabar used to provide the dye for making the red wax used for the 'chop' (seal) marks on documents and paintings.
Clouds are considered lucky and so feature heavily in Chinese pictures and symbolism. This is most likely down to the obvious connection that clouds bring the much needed rain to water the crops. It sounds the same as 运 yùn ‘luck, fortune, fate’.
Dragons are often shown playing in the clouds as dragons are the masters of water and rain. A picture of bats flying among clouds is a wish for good fortune. The simplified motif form for a cloud resembles the shape of the lingzhi elixir of immortality. Clouds are considered the union of yin and yang because they are a fusion of the elements of water and air, sky and earth. From this idea clouds can symbolize making love as the union of male and female.
As dew comes down from the sky to earth it symbolizes the benevolent rule of the Emperor, who as the ‘Son of Heaven’ was the link to the skies. Because a morning dew is such a fleeting affair it can symbolize a brief romance.
In ancient Chinese thought the Earth was a flat square and the Heavens were round. Heaven and Earth were considered the two great divisions, earth is yin and heaven is yang. In combination with another character for earth 地 dì 天地 tiān dì ‘heaven and earth’ represents the whole universe. In the Yi Jing, the most important first two hexagrams are the all yang 乾 qián (heaven) and all yin 坤 kūn (earth). Earth is one of the Feng Shui elements and one of the eight trigrams. The ancient cycle of 60 is made up of twelve earthly stems (地支 dì zhī) combined with the ten heavenly branches (天干 tiān gàn).
In traditional medicine the gall bladder was thought to control a person’s temperament. The gall bladder produces bile to help digest food and it was thought that it expanded when people became angry. The gall bladder of violent criminals was considered to be a very potent medicine. It is one of the eight treasures of Buddha.
People's hair (头发 tóu fà is almost universally black in China. Some youngsters now bleach it turn it orange/red, it is generally straight but in south china it can be naturally wavy. During the Manchu (Qing) dynasty men had to wear their hair as a pleated single, long 'queue' 辫子 biàn zi with forehead shaved to show subservience to the Manchus.
Traditionally, boys had their hair shaved to leave a single, central tuft while girl’s hair was shaved to leave two tufts one over each ear.
The heart is the source of emotions and by some is held to be the seat of the intellect as well. It is one of the five main body parts and is represented in the system of five elements with fire. Many characters associated with emotions include the heart radical to give the hint that they represent strong feelings such as 怒火 nù huǒ ‘rage’; 怕 pà ‘fear’; 情 qíng ‘lust’ and 忿 fèn ‘anger’.
Jade is such an important precious material in China that we have a whole section dedicated to it. It is valued above gold and symbolizes immortality. The Queen Mother of West has a jade pond 瑶池 yáo chí and holds a feast there for the immortals. The Jade Emperor is the supreme god in popular tradition.
Lacquer is made from either the sap of the Lacquer tree Toxicodendron vernicifluum ➚ or the sticky secretions of the ‘lac’ insect Kerria lacca ➚. The ‘lac’ form is produced by deliberately infesting trees with the scale insects and then the heavily coated wood is harvested. Lacquer's origin is clear from the composition of the character as it contains both ‘liquid’ and ‘tree’. The solid resin is dissolved in turpentine and water and is applied in many thin layers to wood or paper to make a waterproof, durable surface. The best quality lacquer has a hundred layers and can take years to produce as each layer has to completely dry before the next is applied.
It can be produced in different colors but red is the most widely seen. It was used extensively on the decoration of coffins for senior officials. Lacquerwork became popular late in China under the reign of Qing Emperor Qianlong; after which it became a specialty of the Japanese.
The meander pattern is used as a very common decorative edge on all types of object: lattice window frames, embroidery, lacquer-work, carpets and porcelain. The repeated linked meander pattern dates back thousands of years. It is usually made of nested squares but can also be of spirals and curves. Huí 回 means ‘return’ so there is also a certain symbolism of cycles and rebirth. Some consider that the pattern evolved out of the cloud and thunder pattern 云雷纹 yún léi wén.
The moon is chiefly associated with yin compared to the sun that is yang. From this assignment everything 'yin' is also considered to be associated with the moon: female; the Empress; cool and darkness. The Chinese lunar calendar follows the cycles of the moon, please see our section on the Chinese calendar for more on this. The Autumn Moon Festival marks the moon at its strongest influence. At the festival round, sweet moon-cakes are made and consumed with gusto.
The Chinese see the figure of a hare in the moon - not a man in the moon - the hare is said to be perpetually making the elixir of immortality at the base of a cinnamon tree. It is the abode of the goddess of the moon Chang-e. It is also associated with the three legged toad.
An eclipse of the moon was said to be caused by the Heavenly dog star 天狗星 tiān gǒu xīng attacking it and temple bells were rung to drive it away. The Heavenly Archer Houyi would also be called upon to save the moon from the eclipse. The moon was much beloved by the poets and 李白 Li Bai is said to have drowned trying to embrace the reflection of the moon in the waters of the Yangzi. In a picture it is shown as a pinkish disk among clouds with curling waves to suggest the tides that it controls.
Many mountains in China are sacred, some to Daoists, some to Buddhists and some to both. In folk religion each mountain has its own deity associated with it. The pictogram character for mountain 山 shān has three towering peaks. They represent the yang element in the landscape and as such connected to the governing yang element in China - the Emperor. Landslides were considered a strong sign that the Emperor's reign was in trouble. Mountain is one of the eight trigrams in Feng Shui and Yi Jing.
The five sacred Daoist mountains are Taishan, Shandong (East); Hengshan, Hunan (South); Songshan, Henan (Center); Huashan, Shaanxi (West) and Hengshan, Shanxi (North). While Emeishan in Sichuan is sacred to Buddhists along with many others. Chinese people climb mountain peaks as a form of pilgrimage, the routes to the top can be thronged with people. The climb physically and symbolically takes you closer to the heavens. The Kunlun mountains in the west (Qinghai) are the site of many legends, they are the source of jade and the reputed home of the Queen Mother of the West.
‘Mountains and sea’ represent an all encompassing phrase for the whole world 山海 shān hǎi There is a famous tale of the ‘Old Man and the Mountain’ where an old man became so annoyed with a long detour to get to the other side of a mountain that he set about digging a way right through it. When a scholar pointed out the folly that such an old man should contemplate such endless toil; the old man replied that his sons and then their descendents would continue the task until it was completed. Mao Zedong used this tale as a parable for achieving the unthinkable by ceaseless toil but in the original story it was the Supreme God Shangdi who took pity on the Old Man and set his immortal minions to cut a way through the mountains.
Numbers play a great part in symbolism in China. Each number has associations, for a full survey please see our numbers section.
In summary, four is the most unlucky and eight the luckiest but nine is the most powerful as it was associated with strong yang and the Emperor. Five is important because there are five elemental essences and associated with each element is a whole series of concepts in fives: color; musical notes; body organs; compass directions. Eight plays an important part in the Yi Jing system as there are eight trigrams. Odd numbers are considered yang and male; even numbers yin and female.
Each dynasty had a governing number which would decide many things - for example the size of the official's hats. An ancient counting system used the twelve earthly branches and ten heavenly stems to form the sexagesimal sequence of sixty. However a decimal system was instituted at an early date for most things.
The importance of numbers is very evident in the design of the Temple of Heaven, Beijing where almost everything comes in groups which have an underlying meaning. As nine is the Imperial number, this number predominates, with circles of nine stones expanding out by 9 until a count of 81 (9x9) stones are reached.
Freshwater pearls were found in Chinese rivers from ancient times. Its shiny translucent quality has long been associated with the moon. Legends consider pearls to originate from the moon which is sometimes known as 夜明珠 yè míng zhūthe ‘night shining pearl’. A pearl was once placed in the mouth of the deceased. Dragons are often shown chasing a pearl from the legend that the phases of the moon are due to a dragon eating it. As the pearl lies hidden inside an unprepossessing dark shell of a mussel, it symbolizes hidden beauty or talent. It is one of the eight jewels of Buddhism, in this form it may be surrounded with flames to denote its magical powers.
The absence of rain spelled death to our ancestors, so the wish for life giving rain is a very common theme. One of the earliest recorded consultations using oracle bones was the question ‘will it rain?’. All sorts of minor deities and gods could be turned to grant the wish for rain. Dragons as the controllers of all waters were the most powerful creatures. As rain falls from heaven (yang) to earth (yin) it is seen as the fruit of their union.
A rainbow 彩虹 cǎi hóng symbolizes this marriage of yin and yang. In ancient times the rainbow was shown as a two headed dragon.
In ancient times there were considered to be just two seasons: Spring and Autumn and this is the reason that the early part of the Zhou dynasty is called ‘Spring and Autumn Period’ it actually referred to annals of the whole year. The two seasons were then each split into two to make the familiar four seasons. For one brief time a fifth season was added to fit in with the five-fold categorization of all things under the theory of elements; the extra season was inserted between summer and autumn. Chinese seasons were linked to the lunar calendar and because New Year is late January or early February it explains why early blossom such as plum is considered a flower of winter rather than spring. The four seasons were symbolized by the flowers winter: plum blossom; spring: peony; summer: lotus and autumn: chrysanthemum.
Stones represent permanence and stability so it is not surprising that they symbolize longevity. A picture showing a rocky promontory over sea is often an allusion to the Isles of the Blessed, home to the immortals, in the East.
The character for stone is represented by a picture of a square stone falling off a cliff. From ancient times some stones, perhaps because of their shape, were considered sacred and received sacrifices for life-giving rain. Stones placed in front of buildings were placed to block the path of evil spirits, sometimes these stones originated from the sacred mountain Taishan and may have the inscription 石敢挡 shí gǎn dǎng ‘stone obstructs’. Perhaps reflecting this belief many official buildings have stone lions in front of them. Stone figures line the important Spirit Way to the burial site of the eminent.
The Chinese love for seeing exotic shapes is most evident in gardens where heavily pitted rocks (often limestone) play an important part in the design.
The sun as might be expected plays an important part in Chinese culture. It is the epitome of 'yang' (and in this regard is also called 太阳 tài yang) representing: light, heat, vitality, Spring and East (where the sun rises). It also represents the Emperor and so a solar eclipse might signify that the Empress (the moon) is too powerful, obscuring the Emperor's light. A picture of the sun and a phoenix together represents the Emperor and Empress and so expresses the wish for a happy marriage.
Another tradition has a celestial dog attacking the sun on a solar eclipse and it would need scaring off to restore the light. Traditionally a three-legged raven (or toad; cockerel) is said to live in the sun and there is the legend of the divine archer Houyi shooting down nine of the ten suns that threatened to burn up the Earth. Even in recent years Mao Zedong was compared to the sun, Mao badges were round to represent ‘The red sun in our hearts’ and the Chinese patriotic song is called ‘the East is red, the sun ascends’.
The sun's apparent movement along the ecliptic divides the year into 24 solar terms (jieqi) which mark out the course of the agricultural calendar ( 岁 suì calendar)
The swastika is a Buddhist good luck symbol. Because it was used by Nazi Germany as their emblem its image has been severely tainted even though the European usage appears to have developed separately. The swastika is an ancient symbol that came from India where it was the monogram of Vishnu and Shiva, it means ‘so be it’ in Sanskrit. It is said to symbolize the motion of blood in Buddha's heart. In China it is more associated with a wish for long life rather than good luck, it represents the endless turning of the wheel of life. It is equally propitious in its mirror image 卍 form. It frequently occurs as a border for artwork and in particular wooden lattice window design. Its four-fold symmetry made it an appropriate early representation for 方 fāng ‘square’.
In China it is also represented by 万 wàn which means 10,000 or more vaguely ‘countless; myriad; infinite’; making it appropriate as a symbol for plenty, multiplicity and immortality.
The notion of yin and yang swirling and enclosing each other was promoted by the Neo-Confucianist Zhu Xi (1130-1200). There is a belief that at birth the placenta is marked by the 'S' motif of the taiji. The taiji is a universal emblem of the duality of all things and the absence of absolutes - yin is never without a little yang and vice-versa. It also suggests the creation of all things from the union of two opposites. The character 太极 means literally ‘supreme ultimate’. However in popular usage it is mostly associated with the Tai Chi martial art.
It is a common motif, particularly when surrounded by the eight trigrams 八卦 bā guà that will hold evil at bay.
Ancient superstitions about thunder and lightning go back thousands of years. Throughout the world, thunder was regarded as the wrath of the gods. The character for thunder is made up of ‘rain’ over ‘field’ which symbolizes the importance of storms to water the crops. Lightning is 电 diàn a simplified representation of the old form 電 which is rain over a streak of lightning, Lightning is used in lots of character to do with electricity for example 电视 diàn shì ‘television’; 电脑 diàn nǎo ‘computer’ and 电话 diàn huà ‘telephone’. The god of thunder is portrayed beating mighty drums and he has wings and red hair. His chariot is drawn by the spirits of the dead. Thunder is significant in Buddhism as lightning symbolizes Buddha's doctrine.
The wave design is a common emblem in pictures and the hem of garments. It is a representation of water in regular waves to represent the sea. The tide 潮 cháo made up of waves sounds the same as 朝 cháo which means ‘Imperial court’ and so waves may symbolize a wish to enter Imperial service. A picture of a large and small fish 鱼 yú near the coast represents a wish for many (裕 yù) children to achieve high office.
Up until modern times ‘Chinese wine’ was a distilled spirit from fermented sorghum or rice, much stronger than wine and, not made from grapes and strictly speaking an ‘ale’. Grape wine 葡萄酒 pú tao jiǔ was not considered particularly palatable. It is only been in recent years that grape-vines have been cultivated and wine produced.
The character 酒 jiǔ shows a picture of an amphora shaped vessel for distilling together with the water radical.
Shaoxing, Zhejiang and Maotai (Moutai ), Guizhou are noted centers for traditional wine production. Drink was very much a social activity and carried out in moderation, often in the form of toasts at meals. Although being tipsy was considered OK, drunkenness was a severe loss of face and was rarely seen. Alcohol was never a part of religious ritual as it is in Christianity.
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