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The Four Symbols (Chinese: 四象; pinyin: Sì Xiàng, literally meaning "four images"), are four 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 East Asian cultural sphere.
|Literal meaning||Four Images|
|Vietnamese alphabet||Tứ tượng|
|Vietnamese alphabet||Tứ Thánh Thú|
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 (西水坡) 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.
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 (ca. 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. The Chinese classic Book of Rites mentions the Vermillion Bird, Black Tortoise (Dark Warrior), Azure Dragon, and White Tiger as heraldric animals on war flags; they were the names of asterisms associated with the four cardinal directions: South, North, East, and West, respectively.
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: Seiryuu (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.
In I ChingEdit
Yì yǒu tài jí ，
shì shēng liǎngyí ，
liǎngyí shēng sìxiàng ，
sìxiàng shēng bāguà ，
Correspondence with the Five PhasesEdit
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.
|Four Auspicious Beasts||Five directions||Five seasons||Times of day||Five colors||Wuxing||Four Symbols||Yao||Five Gods|
|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)|
- Chinese astrology – Astrology based on Chinese astronomy
- Chinese constellations – Groupings used in Chinese astrology
- Color in Chinese culture – Values ascribed to colors in Chinese cultural tradition
- Four Dwarves (Norse mythology) – Four dwarves in the Prose Edda book Gylfaginning
- Four Heavenly Kings – Buddhist gods
- Four Holy Beasts – Four sacred animals in Vietnamese mythology
- Four Living Creatures – Class of heavenly beings
- Four Mountains – Four deities, heroes or legendary mountains in Chinese mythology
- Four Perils – Four malevolent beings in Chinese mythology
- Four Seas – Four bodies of water that metaphorically made up the boundaries of ancient China
- Four sons of Horus – Ancient Egyptian gods
- Four Stags (Norse mythology) – Four stags in the Poetic Edda
- Four temperaments – Proto-psychological theory
- Hindu astrology – Indian form of astrology
- Lokapala – Guardians or Kings of the cardinal directions
- Purple Forbidden enclosure – Chinese historical constellation
- Royal stars – Persian definition in astronomy
- Tetramorph – Symbolic arrangement of four differing elements
- Wufang Shangdi – Traditional Chinese fivefold deity
- "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.
- 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.
- 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".
- 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。"
- Brady, N.; Weil, R. (2014). Elements of the Nature and Properties of Soil. p. 89.
- Book of Changes "繫辭上 - Xi Ci I (The Great Treatise) 11.3" with James Legge's translation
- 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.
- Schirokauer, Conrad; Brown, Miranda (2005). A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations (3rd ed.). ISBN 0-534-64307-8.
- 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". Primaltrek.com. Retrieved 22 May 2018.
- 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. [...]"