Symbols play an important role in the Chinese tradition and culture. They follow a Chinese person throughout their life, from birth to death. Hence, entering the world of Chinese symbols enables us to better understand the nature of the people of China.
Chinese tradition and its connection to symbolism in a broad sense goes back to ancient times. Up until today, the Chinese pay to it a great deal of attention. They are eager to buy talismans and various amulets, which are thought to bring happiness, prosperity and protection against evil forces. According to the Chinese, it is symbols among other things, which bring order to the world, and allow us to live by certain principles. This is why the Chinese surround themselves with symbols at home, at work, carry them around or include in their company logo. In the world of Chinese symbols, it is animals and colours that play a pivotal role.
Dragon’s goodness, Turtle’s constancy
The Chinese believe in the power of the so-called four miraculous animals derived from ancient mythology: the dragon, the phoenix, the unicorn and the turtle.
The dragon symbolises luck and goodness. It is one of the most important creatures within the Chinese mythology and possibly the one most frequently associated with China by the average European. Since the beginning of time, the dragon has represented the male yang energy and creativity. To carry dragon talismans is thus meant to empower the Chinese person with positive energy. The dragon also plays an important role in the traditional wedding rituals in China. The implied meaning of the dragon’s dance during the wedding reception is strongly sexual. It is during that dance that the newlyweds leave the wedding reception to retire.
Another popular creature of power in China is the phoenix. In the Chinese mythology, the phoenix was pictured as the ruler of all birds. It became a symbol of virtue and grace, but above all of the yin energy. It is seen as the embodiment of femininity. The Chinese phoenix coupled with the Chinese dragon represent the perfect relation between a married couple, and is also a reference to the yin and yang energies.
The animal symbol of goodness in China is the unicorn. The Chinese version is, however, different from the one known in the Western culture. It may have not a single but two, or even three horns on its head. The unicorn is also a symbol of the willingness to have children. The turtle, on the other hand, is a symbol of endurance, independence as well as of wisdom and longevity. According to Chinese tradition, the turtle holds within the secrets of Heaven and Earth.
Apart from these four supernatural creatures, the Chinese symbolism also contains other animals such as the tiger, the deer, the crane or the lion.
The Lion in Chinese beliefs is a symbol of power, majesty and happiness. It is supposed to protect people from evil forces. Sculptures showing a lion are often seen in front of the entrance to important buildings and public objects. The TIENS Group also uses this symbol in its branding. It is a lion with spread wings – the Heavenly Lion, which is a symbol of strength and freedom.
White sadness, red happiness
Colours in China may often symbolise different things than in Europe. This is worth noting both in business and social interactions. It is, therefore, easy to commit a faux pas while giving presents, sending letters or invitations and choosing clothing for both more or less official occasions. Let us take white for instance, the Western symbol of purity, innocence, assigned mainly to wedding traditions, hence associated with happy moments. However, in Chinese tradition white describes mourning and sadness.
For a Chinese person the colour of happiness is red. This is why decoration used during wedding ceremonies are in this colour. Similarly, during other family festivities a red ribbon with a coin is tied around the leg of a newborn child for instance. The colour of the ribbon is supposed bring the child happiness during their life, and the coin is meant to protect from evil. In China, a month after a child is born, a celebration is organised to honour the newborn, during which the guests present the child with red eggs. They symbolise harmony and happiness. Red in China also means loyalty and courage, it brings fame and aids maintaining good health. Thus, the Chinese believe it is always advisable to always have something of the red colour with oneself.
Game of colours
During contacts with the Chinese be careful with black. In has double connotations in China - both positive and negative. It may symbolise determination, righteousness and selflessness whilst resembling iron. It may, however, also mean evil, secrecy, cunningness and deceit. Violet, on the other hand is a ’safe’ colour, which the Chinese connect to wisdom and empowerment. Blue, in turn, means purity, naiveness and melancholy. Its shade in the Chinese tradition is rather green-blue. It is often associated with childhood. Green is the colour of spring, life, dynamism, but it may also have bad connotations. For example, green can be associated with infidelity.
In the past, yellow, which to a Western mind - similarly to red - connects with the colours of China, was an imperial colour. Assigned solely to the imperial family, it symbolised power and wealth. Later on, its use became more frequent, however in today’s China it is no longer connected so unambiguously.
While exploring the Chinese symbols it is worth bearing in mind China is constantly redefining itself. Although tradition is a great value there, the Western world permeating business, cultural, and political interactions, influences the Chinese everyday life. Hence, exceptions from the rule do occur, when a Chinese bride wears white, and a global Chinese company’s logo bears colours associated positively also in Europe.