If you are familiar with Chinese culture, you must also know how much Chinese society values symbols and acknowledge their importance in key events and occasions. For us, Chinese symbols may be just some characters or shapes, but for the Chinese community, they are either auspicious, good luck or cautious elements. Deep symbolic inspirations of celestial bodies are found even in the thousands of years old archaic remains of monoliths. So, Chinese society is deeply rooted in cultural traditions, festivals, and decades-old symbolic interpretations. These symbols are heavily embedded in Chinese culture which represents local philosophies such as Confucianism and emphasis on moral and social ethics.
Even the word “symbol” represents that we are talking about the representation of something. So let’s delve into this read and find out the answers to the most asked question, what does the Chinese symbol denote, mean, and represent?
Table of Content
Relationship Between Cultures and Symbols
Cultures and symbols go hand in hand. For every culture, the symbols vary as well as their meaning. For example, in the Middle Eastern regions, red is the color of danger while in Chinese society, red represents luck and happiness. On the other hand, in India red is the color of purity and spirituality. Also, symbols are the mirror or building blocks of a culture as they play a major role in the interpretations of the key events.
These symbols express identity and are a form of the most strong non-verbal communication. By knowing about different symbolic representations of different cultures, you get insight into people’s minds, preferences, and social norms.
Significance of Chinese Symbols
On a broader spectrum, all of the symbolic meanings fall on one thing, belief. And Chinese people are firm believers. Chinese symbols represent good and bad fortune. In addition to fortune, they also portray wealth, happiness, health, and prosperity. Moreover, some symbols are considered ominous which is why they are avoided at all costs. For example, the Chinese number 4 (四 sì) is considered an unlucky number because it sounds the same as the word death (死 sǐ).
Chinese symbols represent Chinese philosophies, according to their sane wisdom, these people are living their lives for thousands of years. Moreover, these philosophies include Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. These are not just philosophies but also indigenous Chinese religions. Taoism revolves around the balance of opposites. Confucianism represents stillness, dignity, and harmony. Furthermore, Buddhism goes for impermanence, which means that all things are subject to transition and change. These religions are also the major symbolic representations that have been there since the beginning of Chinese culture.
Types of Chinese Symbols
The implications of multiple types of Chinese symbols range from happiness to death, loyalty to wisdom, pleasure to pain, and many more. Even if you are not interested in Chinese characters, you must have seen these characters on clothing or on some traditional utensils. They are not just for decoration but also hold meanings. These characters are also a part of Chinese visual arts.
You will also find many drawings and paintings containing these characters. You might get to know the superficial meaning of these characters but a native Chinese will be able to tell you the exact and elaborated meaning and the historical legend behind each character. Following are some of the types of Chinese symbols that hold significance for the Chinese people.
- Animals such as lions, bats and dragons
- Cosmology which includes clouds and stars
- Fruits such as peaches
Above mentioned are just a few types because there are hundreds of symbols in Chinese culture. And this is what makes the Chinese community different from others.
Chinese Symbols and Their Meanings
We have already talked about the significance of Chinese symbols and their different representations. So now let’s just get into the major Asian symbols and meanings.
In the Chinese language, numbers are of a great deal as they symbolize good and bad luck. Every number has its importance and its violation is considered very offensive. The number zero is simply a good number. In the case of number one, it is neither good nor bad. This number also represents loneliness. For example, 11 November is Singles’ Day in China.
The number two represents goodness. With an even number such as 24 or 28, it means “easy prosper”. The number three represents the stages of life, birth, marriage, and death. It also means “to split” or “to break up”. The number four is very unlucky in Chinese society. Even buildings don’t contain the 4th floor. Not only the number four but also the numbers 13 and 14 are considered ominous.
Not only Chinese but also Indians consider 13 as an ominous number. Various movies have been made by both the film industries that signify bad things that happen to people when they are associated with this number.
The number five has a deep connection with Chinese philosophies. It presents the five elements of nature: water, fire, metal, earth, and wood. For example, the American cartoon Avatar: The Last Airbender, represents Chinese philosophies. Though the show is American, it very vividly showcases Chinese culture. Also, the number six is good for business while seven is great for relationships.
|Number||Chinese Character||Meaning / Representation|
|0||(零)||A good number|
|1||(一) Yī||Neither auspicious or inauspiciousSymbolizes loneliness|
|2||(二) Èr||A good number|
|3||(三) Sān||A good number that represents life|
|4, 13 and 14||(四) Sì, (十三) Shí sān and (十四) Shí sì||Unlucky numbers that represent death and bad omen|
|5||(五) Wǔ||Symbolized the major five elements of nature (water, metal, wood, fire, and earth)|
|6||(六) Liù||Good fortune in terms of business|
|7||(七) Qī||A good number for relationships Also, it is a bad number because of ghost month (July)|
|8||(八) Bā||A very lucky number|
|9||(九) Jiǔ||A lucky number|
2. Material Things
Other than numerology, the Chinese community also takes into account material things such as vases. For people from different heritage, a vase is just a container for flowers or a decoration piece. But for Asians, it is a sign of peace. Even the pronunciation of vase (瓶)) and peace (安) is similar in the Chinese language. Also, vases in the shape of gourds were used to contain medicine in the past. It also depicts how even material things hold so much importance.
In Chinese culture, nature also holds much importance. For example, clouds, Xiangyun (祥雲) are auspicious. In other words, they represent heaven and peace. Cosmology is the origin of our universe and this is the most auspicious thing for the Chinese community. The element of water when it comes to water bodies is also considered very lucky.
Living organisms such as elephants, horses, cranes, and bats, each have their unique significance and sometimes that varies because of symbolism. Some animals such as bats and birds are considered fortunate while turtles are considered a bad omen especially when kept as a pet.
|Cat||(猫) māo||Disperses evil spirits|
|Crab||(螃蟹) pángxiè||Brings prosperity|
|Tiger||(虎) hǔ||Strength, courage, and protection|
|Crane||(鹤) hè||Longevity and immortality|
|Tortoise||(龟) guī||Stability and support|
|Elephant||(象) xiàng||Power and wisdom|
|Horse||(马) mǎ||Speed and strength|
|Butterfly||(蝴蝶) húdié||Beauty, love, and transformation|
|Rooster||(鸡) jī||Punctuality and vigilance|
|Bat||(蝙蝠) biānfú||Good fortune|
|Deer||(鹿) Lu||Great business opportunity|
|Double fish||(雙魚紋) Shuangyuan||Two horizontal fish facing on opposite sides bring fertility and marital happiness|
|Cricket||(蟋蟀) Xīshuài||Fighting spirit|
|Owl||(猫头鹰) Māotóuyīng||A sign of death|
|Parrot||(鹦鹉) Yīngwǔ||Warning to stay faithful in a relationship|
|Rabbit||(兔) Tù||Represents hope|
|Snake||(蛇) Shé||Shows supernatural power and cunningness|
From a broader concept, fruits represent life and are associated with the goddess of fertility. In Chinese culture, every fruit has its meaning. Fruits hold more importance in the Chinese community, especially around the Chinese New Year. Fruits like cherries are famous for joy and love. As we know red is very auspicious for the Chinese so red cherries are a necessary part of every home especially around New Year.
Citrus fruits, pomelos, and grapes are also associated with good fortune and joy. Pomelos are linked with family reunions. As grapes grow in bunches, they represent togetherness. These Chinese symbols’ meanings are a matter of life and death for the Chinese.
|Pomegranate||(石榴) Shiliu||Fertility and the birth of many off-springs|
|Single Gourd||(葫蘆) One Hulu||Represents many off-springs|
|Double Gourd||(葫蘆) Two Hulu||Represents deities and immortality (a less painful death)|
|Peach||(桃) Tao||Immortal deity and longevity|
|Dragon fruit||(火龙果) Huǒ lóng guǒ||Auspicious fruits that bring good luck|
|Persimmon||(柿) Shi||Longevity and good fortune|
|Pineapple||(菠萝) Bōluó||Brings prosperity and luck|
|Apple||(苹果) píng guǒ||Brings harmony and tranquility|
6. Fantasy Animals
According to the Chinese people, dragons have great control over their lives. For non-Chinese people, dragons are imaginary and mythical creatures but for the Chinese, that is not the case. Chinese believe that dragons influence water, hurricanes, rain, and floods. There are even dragon festivals in China where the Chinese perform the Chinese dragon dance and celebrate the happy occasion.
You will also find dragon-shaped creatures on buildings in China, representing their core values. Along with dragons, Tao Ties are also mythical creatures that are one of the four evil creatures in Chinese culture. These four evils or Si Xiong are Tao Tie (饕餮), Qiong Qi (穷奇), Tao Wu (梼杌) and Hun Dun (混沌). These creatures represent greed, war, and distortion of truth.
|Dragon||(龍) Long||Wit, power, and good fortune|
|Phoenix||(鳳凰) Fenghuang||Marital happiness|
|Tao Tie||(饕餮)||Represents gluttony|
Tao Tie is the greatest of all evils as it is full of greed. According to a legend, Tao Tie is so greedy that it even eats its own body.
7. Text Symbols
Many of the textual symbols are associated with animals that represent both good and bad fortune. These characters are common in daily use by the Chinese community.
|Chinese Textual Symbols||Symbolism|
|(福) Fú||Blessings, used for decoration such as, a wall hanging|
|(礻) Shì||Gift from God|
|(財富) Cáifù||Gold, wealth|
|(長壽) Chángshòu||Long life|
|(永遠) Yǒngyuǎn||Represents Chinese lover’s knot, people in love stay together|
8. Circle Symbols
Circle symbols are considered the most important in the Chinese language. For better understanding, we can say that, if wall hangings of fantasy animals in homes bring prosperity then pictures of these circle symbols take your luck to the moon and beyond. The meaning of Chinese symbols, especially circle ones, is the cardinal element of good fortune. These circle symbols have roots in Taoism such as the most famous Yin Yang symbol.
Following are some of the circle symbols with their representations:
|Name||Chinese Circle Symbol||Representation|
|(陰陽) Yin and Yang||Circle made up of black and white swirls||Opposite forces that interconnect and counterbalance each other|
|(無極) Wuji||Blank circle||Stillness|
|(萬壽) Wan Shou||Chinese symbol of Swastika (卍)||Long life that lasts 10,000 times|
|(雙喜) Double Xi||A stylized symbol with a pattern inside a complete circle||Represents double happiness, mostly wedding bliss|
|Taiji (太極)||Similar to Yin Yang with kaleidoscope-like movement||Unity and duality of nature|
Wuji is a Taoist symbol that represents stillness. It is an empty circle that also denotes the universe that existed before the Big Bang theory.
2. Yin Yang
The Chinese circle symbol, Yin Yang, is the combination of good and bad. The symbol contains equal portions of black and white swirls, with a black dot in the white region and a white dot in the black region. Have you seen the animated movie Kung Fu Panda? It is the most appropriate and explanatory movie when it comes to describing this symbol. The story revolves around a panda that finds peace with his past via interconnecting and counterbalancing the opposite forces.
This symbol is a Chinese philosophy, an active part of Taoism. Yin stands for shadow, femininity, and coldness while Yang stands for hot, active, and masculinity.
It is a Taoist symbol, just like Yin Yang. The only difference is that the circle with white and black swirls moves in a kaleidoscope-like movement.
Surely, the Chinese universe of symbols is an interesting and attention-intensive world. There are different characters, animals, and fruits that play vital roles in Chinese society. These symbols are either auspicious or inauspicious. The representation of these symbols is evident in movies and TV shows. In case you are moving to China or any Chinese-influenced country, you need to take these symbols into account.
Chinese also have a strong belief in legend and mythical creatures which is present in their various festivals. Above all, one can say that Chinese society is a blend of ancient cultures and modern dynamics that both go hand in hand.