The four legendary animals defend the world in four directions in Chinese Constellations, and are known as the ‘Four Symbols’ or ‘Four Mythological Symbols’. These include the Azure Dragon, Vermilion Bird, White Tiger, and Black Tortoise. According to Shan Hai Jing, which is an old book of legendary geography that dates back to the fourth century, each one signifies a direction and a season, and each has its own unique traits and origins.
These legendary animals have been combined to form the five elements theory. The East’s Azure Dragon symbolizes Wood, the South’s Vermilion Bird represents Fire, the West’s White Tiger represents Metal, and the North’s Black Tortoise represents Water. The fifth element, Earth, is represented by the Yellow Dragon, which is the Center of this system.
Black Tortoise (Xuanwu)
The Black Tortoise, also known as “Xuanwu”, has a black back and is said to have the power to access the nether realm to enquire about the future. After receiving the answer, it would display the answer with particular signals.
Centuries later, it is typically represented as a tortoise and a snake, with the snake coiling around the turtle. As the tortoise lives in water, it became the water god; and because the tortoise lives a long life, Xuanwu became the symbol of longevity. In addition, the nether realm is thought to be in the north, as people in the Shang Dynasty faced the north while praying, thus Xuanwu became the god of the north.
Vermillion Bird (Zhuque)
The Vermillion Bird, commonly known as ‘Zhuniao,” is the god of the south. “Zhu” alludes to the vermillion hue, as does “Zhuque,” which also refers to the phoenix. As it is thought to rebirth from fire, much like the immortal bird in western mythology, it is also known as the fire phoenix. Zhuque is reported to have a chicken’s head, a swallow’s chin, a snake’s neck, a fish’s tail, and a five-color feather.
Azure Dragon (Qinglong)
The Azure Dragon, according to the Five Elements theory, is a sacred beast that represents the east. The dragon was very prominent in China in ancient times, as the Chinese think it is the most sacred animal and the emperor’s symbol. Throughout China’s history, several monarchs, such as Emperor Ming of the Wei Kingdom during the Three Kingdoms Period, have used the Azure Dragon as their reign title.
White Tiger (Baihu)
The White Tiger or “Baihu” is a heavenly beast that represents the west. It is also a symbol of power and the army, and many items called the White Tiger in ancient China were tied to military matters. To ward off evil spirits, the White Tiger was commonly carved on the stone relief of a tomb entrance or on the lintel of a tomb passage alongside the Azure Dragon during the Han Dynasty.