Chinese Symbols

Anthropology: Ancient Chinese Symbols and Their Meanings

Chinese culture is one of the world’s oldest and most complicated. Nevertheless, many Chinese principles, including Taoism, Confucianism, and other ancient Chinese philosophies, can still be found today. As a result, Chinese history is littered with many Chinese symbols with numerous interpretations and significant cultural impact.

Let us look at some of the famous ancient Chinese symbols.

Yin and Yang Chinese Symbol
Credit: CIO

Yin and Yang

Perhaps the most well-known symbols of ancient Chinese philosophy are yin and yang. The sign illustrates the concept of nature’s duality, which explains how seemingly opposing elements can be intertwined and require one another to live. However, the sign also demonstrates that each side has a core element — represented by a dot — in common. Therefore, neither side is superior to the other, and the two sides must always be in balance for harmony.


The dragon sign, also known as “long” or “long,” is Chinese culture’s most prominent animal Chinese symbol. In Chinese mythology, there are various types of dragons, each of which represents something different. Emperors claimed to be descended from dragons in ancient times, so many crests included dragons. The five-clawed dragon symbolises imperial strength and majesty. Rain, thunderstorms, typhoons, the sky, and the seas were all considered patron deities of these heavenly beings. They are also a symbol of good luck and positive energy, and maximum power and transformation.


The dragon is frequently associated with the phoenix or Fenghuang in Chinese culture. The phoenix symbolises the Empress and beauty, and it only appears during prosperous and peaceful times. It is a symbol of immortality and is a lovely bird with vivid feathers. It is the forerunner of significant occurrences for mortals. The phoenix is also a symbol of big aspirations in Feng Shui, such as the birth of a child, construction of a monument, completing a challenging endeavour, or accumulating life’s greatest assets.


The horse is one of the most prominent creatures and recurring motifs in Chinese mythology. It symbolises speed, perseverance, youthful vitality, imagination, culture, diligence, power, and integrity. It also represents culture, diligence, power, and integrity. The horse is a show of military might during times of conflict. It links to the sun and the element fire.


The ancient Chinese referred to the snake or serpent as Little Dragon Chinese symbol and its moulted skin as Dragon skin. Depending on the situation, the snake has a variety of meanings in Chinese culture. The snake is a sign of sinisterness, indifference, and evil in its negative interpretation. It is also exceptionally cunning and manipulative. Beautiful ladies who are cold or merciless are known as “beautiful snakes” in China. On the other hand, snakes have a positive connotation as symbols of luck, authority, and the pursuit of love and pleasure.

Fu Lion Chinese Symbol
Credit: TurboSquid

Fu Lions

Fu lions, sometimes known as dog lions, can be seen in ancient Chinese art. These Fu lions exemplify exceptional bravery, strength, and vitality. They are also messengers of holy creatures and connect with protecting abilities, so their representations as guardians exist in temples, wealthy mansions, and villages. Fu lions symbolised affluent or wealthy households because they were generally sculpted from ornamental stones and cast in bronze and metal.


In Chinese culture, the monkey is a revered and respected emblem. It is a clever, mischievous, bold, and vibrant creature. The monkey is an indisputable emblem in Chinese culture, influencing literature, folk rituals, history, art, and everyday life. The monkey is also the ninth sign of the Chinese zodiac, and its Chinese name is “shen hou,” which means “metal” in Wuxing theory. In ancient China, the monkey was also considered a lucky symbol.

Peaches of Immortality

Ancient Chinese believed that the peach grants immortality. It was thought that immortals ate the fruit and that anyone who ate it would live forever. As a result, it became a symbol of a long and healthy life. As a result, it finds existence in Chinese art and literature alongside other emblems of immortality and longevity, such as the crane and the deer. Peaches are the elixir of life in Taoism, and the fruit is a symbol of spring, marriage, and other festivals.


In Chinese culture, the pearl has many different connotations. Born into such modest creatures as oysters, the pearl has a smooth, round, whole, and magical aspect that denotes divinity. In ancient artwork, dragons depict as chasing a magical flame pearl and links to wisdom, prosperity, spiritual energy, power, immortality, thunder, and the moon. The pearl likewise symbolises the journey of the soul or spirit in its desire for perfection. In ancient funerals, people put pearls within the mouths of the deceased, since the ancients believed the pearl embodied the principles of life. As a result, it may aid the deceased on their journey to the afterlife.


Because the rooster crows every day when the sun rises, it manifests the Sun God. As a result, the rooster connects with divine qualities. As such, people began to worship their gods and employ roosters and their blood as a barrier against evil. It was also linked with honesty and punctuality because it awoke at the crack of dawn, allowing humans to determine the time of day. There were thoughts that roosters were related to the mythological phoenix and became a symbol of good fortune. Roosters were also thought to be ghost hunters and denoted strength and bravery. In Chinese folklore, ghosts were afraid of the rooster’s crow because they would lose their evil powers at dawn, and the bird’s crowing signalled that the day was approaching.


Other everlasting Chinese symbols, such as peaches, are frequently painted on cranes. Because cranes take the souls of the dead to heaven, the picture of a crane with expanded wings standing on one leg represents immortality and longevity. Cranes were a sign of high status when they flew.  Cranes with peony flowers represented prosperity and long life, while cranes with lotus blooms represented purity and longevity. A crane sitting on a ledge, facing the sun, is a symbol of omniscient power. Birds, in general, have a favourable connotation in Chinese mythology. However, birdcages are forbidden in Feng Shui because they bring bad luck, confinement, and retardation of growth and advancement.

Endless Knot Chinese Symbol
Credit: Wikipedia

Endless Knot

The Endless Knot is one of the Eight Auspicious Symbols in Tibetan Buddhism, and it is depicted by decorative interlaced and right-angled lines that appear to have no beginning or end. As a result, they signify Buddha’s immeasurable wisdom and compassion. It’s also a symbol of the idea of existence and a long, happy life free of difficulties. In some views, the knot depicts the interaction of opposing forces, symbolising duality in manifestation and unity, which gives rise to cosmic balance and harmony.


Another significant Chinese symbol of longevity is bamboo, which appears alongside pine and wild cherry trees. As a result, it’s known as the “winter’s three buddies.” It symbolises good moral qualities, modesty, loyalty, and resistance. It also represents elegance and loneliness in some circumstances, and bamboo frequently appears in Chinese calligraphy and paintings in this spirit. As a result, bamboo is known as the “gentleman” of plants. So, it is because the plant is associated with a positive attitude and motivation to endure under challenging conditions. According to a Tang Dynasty poet, the deep roots of the bamboo reflect resoluteness, while its straight stem denotes dignity and its pure exterior chastity.

Three-Legged Crow

The three-legged crow is a legendary creature that represents the sun’s incarnation. The story of Xihe, the Sun Goddess, and her ten sun children exists in Chinese mythology. Every dawn, these youngsters would fly up into the sky one by one, heralding the arrival of the day, but one day, they broke the pattern, and all flew up into the sky at the same time, scorching the Earth. Dijun, the sun’s father, warned his sons to be good, but they disobeyed him. As a result, Dijun dispatched the archer Yi to assassinate them. Yi killed nine suns, which turned into three-legged crows but left the tenth alive for the sake of the Earth’s prosperity. The three-legged crows became connected with the sun as a result.


The moon connects with brightness and tenderness in Chinese culture. Thus, the Chinese celebrate the Moon Festival on the 15th day of the lunar calendar’s eighth month. It is a holiday during which family members join together and enjoy abundance, luck, and harmony under the light of the full moon, since the round form of the moon symbolises a family reunion. Ancient Chinese thinkers thought that the moon was populated by the fairy or moon goddess Chang E and her companion, Jade Rabbit, who constantly pounded the elixir of life.


In Chinese mythology, the giant tortoise and the turtle are both essential beasts. The tortoise is one of the four sacred animals and is the principal representation of all shelled species. Moreover, it is a symbol of stability and longevity. A tortoise and a round disc symbolise long life. Ancient scholars believed the marks on the tortoiseshell were the eight trigrams of Taoist cosmology or the magic square, and they studied them extensively. The tortoise was also said to represent Pan Gu’s attendant, the world’s creator. So it is because it gathered all the wisdom over their long lives, and their shells were utilised for divination. The ancient Chinese used a hot rod to write on their shells, causing them to break.


The tiger is one of the Chinese zodiac animals that represents bravery. It is also popular as yin energy, especially when it is with the yang-representing dragon. This beast provides excellent protection due to the Chinese character of the tiger. The God of Wealth, according to legend, would ride on the back of a black tiger. During conflicts, the tiger acted as a military symbol, and the troops would dress up in tiger outfits to terrorise the enemy. Tigers can also repel evil. Tigers are sought in China today because of their bones’ alleged mystical medical properties, which can treat disorders like arthritis. The Chinese says when a tiger dies, it transforms into orange amber.

Badger and Magpie

In Chinese tradition, the badger and the magpie have positive meanings, and when these two mammals appear together, it is a sign of pleasure. The Chinese word “human”, meaning badger, sounds identical to “human” for delighted, cheerful, and joyful. They are usually always accompanied by magpies, who bring happiness. A perched magpie indicates happiness in the future. In comparison, a soaring magpie and a badger symbolised happiness on Earth and in the sky.

Credit: Shanghai Pathways


Bats are a Chinese symbol of good fortune, unlike in the West. The five bats of happiness, or “Wu fu”, represents long life, riches, health, love, and natural death.” The “shou” symbol, which represents longevity, is sometimes represented by these five bats. The ancient Chinese painted representations of bats and used them as designs on jewellery to bring them good luck. Chinese folks still draw “Riyu,” a good luck charm in the shape of a bat’s wings, to this day. Depending on the circumstances, bats can also have a variety of additional meanings in Chinese culture. A red bat represents happiness, a bat with peaches represents a long and happy life, and five bats and a bot represent a life full of all of life’s benefits.


Butterflies are the messengers of good news in Chinese culture, and they symbolise delicacy. Ironically, butterflies are a sign of immortality, even though their lives are brief. Butterflies also associate with marital pleasure. Butterfly sightings with plum blooms are a sign of beauty and longevity. They are a sign of long life when seen with a cat. Butterflies, when paired with a chrysanthemum, symbolise beauty in old age. They also associate with summer and happiness.  Butterflies also portray romance in China, according to the Chinese. Two butterflies fluttering together symbolise an unbreakable love link between couples. They also signify a pleasant social life and young love.


The carp was a symbol of good fortune in ancient China. Many images show carps with dragons, implying that a carp might travel upstream and leap the Yellow River’s waterfalls at Dragon Gate, transforming into a dragon, according to legend. As a result, the carp connects with high-ranking government jobs. The Dragon Gate was thought to be the Court’s entrance at the time. The idiom “carp jumping over the dragon’s door” is now used to compliment someone with exceptional talent and wish them well in the future.


Cicadas are a Chinese symbol of high status in traditional folklore. They are proud and lofty because they live on dewdrops and symbolise purity because they sit high on treetops. Antiquities and artwork depicting regal and noble headgear with a golden cicada with large eyes symbolise refinement and awareness of one’s surroundings. As a result, ancient Chinese preachers would advise high-ranking officials to live like a cicada. Since ancient times, cicadas have been a symbol of resurrection, life after death, spiritual realisation, and immortality.

Due to its fascinating lifecycle, newly hatched cicadas fall off the branches and burrow into the ground, where they feed for up to seventeen years. They emerge in the sunlight, climb trees, and shed their outer skins to reveal themselves as fully developed insects. This process gave the Chinese an analogy for spirits of the dead as they crossed over into the eternal realm. Jade amulets were placed on the lips of the dead during the Han dynasty. It was in the hopes of resurrection and immortality.

Credit: Wikipedia


In Chinese mythology, the toad is a companion of Liu Hai, the God of Wealth, and as a result of this relationship, the toad represents a yearning for wealth and abundance. The toad, also famous as “chan” in some areas, sounds close to “qian,” which is the Chinese word for “currency.” As a result, it also links to wealth. Zhang Guo Lao, one of the Daoist tradition’s Eight Immortals, sometimes appears riding a toad. Purity, fertility, regeneration, longevity, and yin are all symbols of the phosphorescent toad. These associations link to Chang E, the Moon Goddess who turned into a toad after transforming from a beautiful girl. The Moon Goddess became a patron deity for women’s reproductive prowess and the personification of people’s desire to have children, because toads are highly fertile animals.


The deer is the only animal in Chinese mythology and Chinese symbol that can find the herbs of immortality, and the God of Longevity frequently accompanies it. The deer associates with a long life, wealth, and success. Stags are also hunted, and their horns pounded into a fine powder for traditional medicine because of this parallel. The “li,” which means “beautiful and elegant,” comes from the Chinese word for deer.

The character’s previous appearance depicts a deer with two necklaces. There’s also classic Chinese folklore about a deer dedicated to its parents. For example, Zhou Yanzi’s father became unwell, and the only treatment was deer milk. Zhou Yanzi concealed a herd of deer to get the milk, wrapped himself in deerskin, and successfully milked a doe. It is one of the 24 types of filial piety and appears in Chinese art.


The second phase of Wu Xing, the Five Elements, is Fire. Fire, in Chinese philosophy, denotes the Emperor’s great intellect and symbolises the subject’s prosperity. It’s also a symbol for the summer solstice. Yang is related to fire because it rises and has expansive energy. Fire associates with strength, perseverance, and energy in Taoism. On the other hand, excessive fire can indicate restlessness, impatience, violence, and reckless and impulsive behaviour. Similarly, people love fire for warmth and light but fear about its ability to burn. Thus, fire is associated with both the destructive emotions of hate and the positive feelings of joy in traditional Chinese medicine.


As you can see, Chinese symbols have a wide range of meanings that vary by place. The symbols appear throughout magnificent Chinese artwork, literature, and philosophy.

Leave a Reply