The Four Mythological Symbols of China
In ancient Chinese astronomy, the sky ecliptic was divided into four sections. Each of these sections contained seven mansions, and together they formed the 28 Mansions. The 28 Mansions may be considered to be equivalent to the zodiacal constellations in Western astronomy, although they reflect the movement of the Moon through a sidereal month rather than the Sun in a tropical year. This enabled the ancient Chinese to mark the travelling positions of the Sun and the Moon, as well as to determine the time and seasons. Each section of the sky is assigned to a mythological creature, collectively known as the Four Symbols. These creatures are the Azure Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Black Tortoise of the North, and the Vermillion Bird of the South. Apart from their astronomical significance, each of the Four Symbols is surrounded by various mythological associations.
According to the archaeological evidence, the concept of the Four Symbols may have existed as early as China’s Neolithic period (some 6,000 years ago). This is based on some clam shells and bones forming the images of the Azure Dragon and the White Tiger that were found in a tomb in Henan. In addition, it is claimed that one of the artefacts from the tomb of the Marquis Yi of Zeng (c. 433 B.C.) is a lacquer-painted wardrobe with the patterns of the Four Symbols and 28 Mansions.
The Azure Dragon is the mythological creature in the East, as it is said that when the seven mansions in that area (Horn, Neck, Root, Room, Heart, Tail, and Winnowing Basket) are joined up, they form the shape of a dragon. The Azure Dragon corresponds to the season of spring. As the dragon is considered by the Chinese as the noblest of animals, it is the head of the Four Symbols. Although Chinese dragons are commonly associated with water, the Azure Dragon is the exception, as its element is wood. In Chinese mythology, the dragon is regarded as a fearsome and mighty creature. Yet, unlike their Western counterparts, Chinese dragons are believed to be just, benevolent, and bringers of wealth and good fortune.
The Azure Dragon of the East. Image source.
The mythological creature in the West is the White Tiger, and its seven mansions are the Legs, Bond, Stomach, Hairy Head, Net, Turtle Beak and Three Stars. The White Tiger corresponds to the season of autumn. The White Tiger’s element is metal, and it was held to be the God of War. In this capacity, the White Tiger was seen as a protector and defender, not just from mortal enemies, but also from evil spirits.
The White Tiger of the West. Image Source.
In the North, the mythological creature in the Black Tortoise, and its seven mansions are the Dipper, Ox, Girl, Emptiness, Rooftop, Encampment and Wall. The Black Tortoise corresponds to the season of winter. The element of the Black Tortoise is water, and this mythological creature is commonly associated with longevity and wisdom (just as these virtues are traditionally attributed to ordinary tortoises in Chinese mythology).
The Black Tortoise of the North. Image Source.
The mythological creature in the South is the Vermillion Bird, and its seven mansions are the Well, Ghosts, Willow, Star, Extended Net, Wings and Chariot. The Vermillion Bird corresponds to the season of summer. Interestingly, the Vermillion Bird has been considered to be identical to the phoenix. The phoenix is traditionally associated with fire, and this is also the case with the Vermillion Bird. As a mythological creature, the phoenix is considered as a symbol of good luck.
The Vermillion Bird of the South. Image source.
Within the Four Symbols of ancient China, astronomy and mythology co-existed side by side and may be seen as a harmonious fusion of science and art. By studying these mythological creatures, one is able not only to learn about the scientific advances of the ancient Chinese, but also their belief system and the way they perceived and explained the world they lived in.
Featured image: The Four Symbols. Photo source.
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Available at: http://www.cultural-china.com/chinaWH/html/en/Traditions991bye1205.html
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Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Four_Symbols_(China)
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