In Chinese Constellations, there are four mythological creatures who guard the world in four directions, which are named ‘Four Symbols’ or the ‘Four Mythological Symbols’ (‘Si Xiang’ in Chinese). They are the Azure Dragon, the Vermilion Bird, the White Tiger, and the Black Tortoise.
As recorded in Shan Hai Jing (an ancient book of mythic geography that has existed since the 4th century), each one of them represents a direction and a season, and each has its own individual characteristics and origins.
These mythological creatures have been synthesized into the 5 element system. 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 of the North represents Water. In this system, the fifth element Earth is represented by the Yellow Dragon of the Center.
Azure Dragon (Qinglong)
According to the theory of the Five Elements, the Azure Dragon is a holy beast representing the east. In ancient times, the dragon enjoyed a much higher status in China than in India, as the Chinese believe the dragon is a supreme holy animal, the symbol of the emperor. Among the many dynasties China has been through, some rulers have taken the Azure Dragon as their reign title, such as Emperor Ming of the Wei Kingdom in the Three Kingdoms Period.
Vermillion Bird (Zhuque)
Vermillion Bird, also called ‘Zhuniao’, is the god of the south. “Zhu” refers to the vermillion color, like the fire, so “Zhuque” also refers to the phoenix. It is said to have the ability to be reborn from the fire, just like the immortal bird in western mythology, so it is also named fire phoenix. In Chinese legend, Zhuque is said to have a chicken’s head, swallow’s chin, snake’s neck, fish’s tail, and five-color feathers.
White Tiger (Baihu)
The White Tiger is a holy beast representing the west, and the season it stands for is autumn. It is also a symbol of force and the army, and so many things entitled White Tiger in ancient China are related to military affairs. For instance, there are the white tiger banner in the ancient army and the white tiger image on Commander’s Tally. In the Han Dynasty, the White Tiger was usually carved on the stone relief of a tomb door, or on the lintel of a tomb passage with the Azure Dragon, to ward off evil spirits.
Black Tortoise (Xuanwu)
At the very beginning Xuanwu referred to the tortoise giving divination: the tortoise has a black back, and is said to have the ability to enter the nether world to inquire forthcoming things. After getting the answer, it would come back showing the answer with some certain signs. Later on, it is usually depicted as both a tortoise and a snake, specifically with the snake coiling around the tortoise. As the tortoise lives in water, it becomes the water god; and the tortoise enjoys a long life, so Xuanwu becomes the symbol of longevity; the nether world is said to be in the north, as people in the Shang Dynasty would face north when practicing divination, thus Xuanwu becomes the god of the north.