The Four Symbols are mythological creatures appearing among the Chinese constellations along the ecliptic, and viewed as the guardians of the four cardinal directions. These four creatures are also referred to by a variety of other names, including "Four Guardians", "Four Gods", and "Four Auspicious Beasts". They are the Azure Dragon of the East, the Vermilion Bird of the South, the White Tiger of the West, and the Black Tortoise (also called "Black Warrior") of the North. Each of the creatures is most closely associated with a cardinal direction and a color, but also additionally represents other aspects, including a season of the year, an emotion, virtue, and one of the Chinese "five elements" (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water). Each has been given its own individual traits, origin story and a reason for being. Symbolically, and as part of spiritual and religious belief and meaning, these creatures have been culturally important across countries in the Sinosphere.

Four Symbols
Clockwise from top left: Black Tortoise of the North, Azure Dragon of the East, Vermilion Bird of the South and White Tiger of the West
Chinese name
Literal meaningFour Images
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetTứ tượng
Chữ Hán四象
Korean name
Japanese name
Four Gods
Chinese name
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetTứ Thánh Thú
Chữ Hán四聖獣
Korean name
Japanese name
Neidan Illustration of Bringing Together the Four Symbols 和合四象圖, 1615 Xingming guizhi



Depictions of mythological creatures clearly ancestral to the modern set of four creatures have been found throughout China. Currently, the oldest known depiction was found in 1987 in a tomb in Xishuipo in Puyang, Henan, which has been dated to approximately 5300 BC. In the tomb, labeled M45, immediately adjacent to the remains of the main occupant to the east and west were found mosaics made of clam shells and bones forming images closely resembling the Azure Dragon and White Tiger, respectively.[1]

The modern standard configuration was settled much later, with variations appearing throughout Chinese history. For example, the Rong Cheng Shi manuscript recovered in 1994, which dates to the Warring States period (c. 453–221 BCE), gives five directions rather than four and places the animals differently. According to that document, Yu the Great gave directional banners to his people, marked with the following insignia: the north with a bird, the south with a snake, the east with the sun, the west with the moon, and the center with a bear.[2] The Chinese classic Book of Rites mentions the Vermillion Bird, Black Tortoise (Dark Warrior), Azure Dragon, and White Tiger as heraldic animals on war flags;[3] they were the names of asterisms associated with the four cardinal directions: South, North, East, and West, respectively.[4]

In Taoism, the Four Symbols have been assigned human identities and names. The Azure Dragon is named Meng Zhang (孟章), the Vermilion Bird is called Ling Guang (陵光), the White Tiger Jian Bing (監兵), and the Black Tortoise Zhi Ming (執明). Its Japanese equivalent, in corresponding order: Seiryū (east), Suzaku (south), Byakko (west), Genbu (North).

The colours associated with the four creatures can be said to match the colours of soil in the corresponding areas of China: the bluish-grey water-logged soils of the east, the reddish iron-rich soils of the south, the whitish saline soils of the western deserts, the black organic-rich soils of the north, and the yellow soils from the central loess plateau.[5]

In I Ching


The chapter 繫辭上; Xì Cí shàng; 'The Great Treatise I' in the I Ching (易經; 'Classics of Changes') describes the origins of the Four Symbols thus:[6][7]


Yì yǒu tài jí ,
shì shēng liǎngyí ,
liǎngyí shēng sìxiàng ,
sìxiàng shēng bāguà ,

   In Change there is the Supreme Polarity, (太極; Taiji),
   which generates the Two Modes. (兩儀; Liangyi)
   The Two Modes generate the Four Images, (四象; Sixiang)
   and the Four Images generate the Eight Trigrams. (八卦; Bagua).

Correspondence with the Five Phases

Bronze mirror with cosmological decoration from the Belitung shipwreck, including Bagua and the Four Auspicious Beasts

These mythological creatures have also been syncretized into the Five Phases system (Wuxing). The Azure Dragon of the East represents Wood, the Vermilion Bird of the South represents Fire, the White Tiger of the West represents Metal, and the Black Tortoise (or Black Warrior) of the North represents Water. In this system, the fifth principle Earth is represented by the Yellow Dragon of the Center.[8]

Four Auspicious Beasts Five directions Five seasons Times of day[9] Five colors Wuxing Four Symbols Yao Five Gods[10]
Azure Dragon East Spring Dawn Blue-green Wood Young yang Goumang (句芒) / Chong (重)
Vermilion Bird South Summer Midday Red Fire Old yang Zhurong (祝融) / Li (犁)
White Tiger West Autumn Dusk White Metal Young yin Rushou (蓐收) / Gai (該)
Black Tortoise North Winter Midnight Black Water Old yin Xuanming (玄冥) / Xiu & Xi (修 & 熙)
Yellow Dragon or Qilin Central Midsummer   Yellow Earth Houtu (后土) / Goulong (句龍)

The Four Symbols are represented in an inspired line of skins for characters of the first-person-shooter Overwatch. In the game's 2018 Chinese New Year (Year of the Dog) event, playable characters Zarya, Mercy, Pharah, and Genji received cosmetic skins based on the Black Tortoise (Xuanwu), the Vermillion Bird (Zhuque), the Azure Dragon (Qinglong), and the White Tiger (Baihu), respectively.

See also

A Han-dynasty pottery tile emblematically representing the five cardinal directions


  1. ^ "西水坡遺址里的圖案擺放,預示著古代某種神秘的星象". KK News (in Chinese (Taiwan)). 2018-04-30. Archived from the original on 2021-11-26. Retrieved 2019-09-18.
  2. ^ Pines, Yuri. "Political Mythology and Dynastic Legitimacy in the Rong Cheng Shi Manuscript Archived 2012-04-25 at the Wayback Machine". Bulletin of SOAS, Vol. 73, No. 3 (2010), p. 515.
  3. ^ Liji, "Qu Li Shang (Summary of the Rules of Propriety Part 1)", 69 quote: "行:前朱鳥而後玄武,左青龍而右白虎。" James Legge's translation: "On the march the (banner with the) Red Bird should be in front; that with the Dark Warrior behind; that with the Azure Dragon on the left; and that with the White Tiger on the right".
  4. ^ Zheng Xuan (annotator) & Kong Yingda (clarifier), Book of Rites: Annotated and Clarified, "Vol 3. Qu Li 1". Siku Quanshu version. p. 27 of 158. quote: "前南後北,左東右西。朱鳥、玄武、青龍、白虎,四方宿名也。"
  5. ^ Brady, N.; Weil, R. (2014). Elements of the Nature and Properties of Soil. p. 89.
  6. ^ Book of Changes "繫辭上 - Xi Ci I (The Great Treatise) 11.3" with James Legge's translation
  7. ^ Zhu Xi (2020). The Original Meaning of the Yijing: Commentary on the Scripture of Change. Translated by Joseph A. Adler. New York: Columbia University Press. p. 46.
  8. ^ Schirokauer, Conrad; Brown, Miranda (2005). A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations (3rd ed.). ISBN 0-534-64307-8.
  9. ^ Ashkenazy, Gary (16 November 2016). "The Hidden or Implied Meaning of Chinese Charm Symbols – 諧音寓意 – Differences between Chinese Coins and Chinese Charms". Retrieved 22 May 2018.
  10. ^ Zuozhuan "Duke Zhao's 29th year - zhuan". quote:「夫物,物有其官,官修其方,朝夕思之。……故有五行之官,是謂五官,……木正曰句芒,火正曰祝融,金正曰蓐收,水正曰玄冥,土正曰后土。……少皞氏有四叔,曰重、曰該、曰修、曰熙,實能金、木及水。使重為句芒,該為蓐收,修及熙為玄冥,……此其三祀也。顓頊氏有子曰犁,為祝融;共工氏有子曰句龍,為后土,……」. Translation by Durrant, Li, & Schberg (2016) "Every kind of thing has its official, who is charged with perfecting the methods for it and keeping these in mind day and night. [...] Thus, there were the officials of the Five Resources(/ Agents / Phases), known as the Five Officials. [...] The Director for Wood was known as Goumang, the Director for Fire was known as Zhurong, the Director for Metal was known as Rushou, the Director for Water was known as Xuanming, and the Director for Earth was known as Houtu.[...] Shaohao had four younger brothers named Chong, Gai, Xiu, and Xi, who were talented with metal, wood, and water. He made Chong the Goumang, or Director for Wood; Gai the Rushou, or Director for Metal; and Xiu and Xi the Xuanming, or Director for Water.[...] Zhuanxu had a son named Li, who was the Zhurong, or Director for Fire. Gonggong had a son named Goulong, who was the Houtu, or Director for Earth. [...]"