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Chinese Symbols and Their Meanings



A symbol is a mark, sign, or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship. Symbols allow people to go beyond what is known or seen by creating linkages between otherwise very different concepts and experiences. All communication (and data processing) is achieved through the use of symbols.


Jung believed that synchronicities mirror deep psychological processes, carry messages the way dreams do, and take on meaning and provide guidance to the degree they correspond to emotional states and inner experiences. Ancient (including Chinese) has understood this concept and recreate these synchronicities in physical form in our environment; known as feng shui. However, some modern scientist has rejected this idea.


Jung says "Even a scientist is a human being. So it is natural for him, like others, to hate the things he cannot explain. It is a common illusion to believe that what we know today is all we ever can know. Nothing is more vulnerable than a scientific theory, which is an ephemeral attempt to explain facts and not an everlasting truth in itself."


The whole world is an omen and a sign.

Listed below, in alphabetical order, is a comprehensive list of objects that include those which have become symbols because of their similar pronunciation to auspicious Chinese words.  Also included are other objects frequently seen on charms that have become symbols due to mythology, history, or cultural associations.


Apple

An apple can be a visual pun for peace because the Chinese word for apple (pingguo 苹果) and the word for peace (pingan 平安) are both pronounced ping.

A persimmon (shi 柿) paired with an apple (pingguo 苹果) forms the rebus "may your matters (shi 事) be safe (pingan 平安)".


Apricot

An apricot grove, or field of apricots, is a symbol for success in the imperial examination system because the very first celebration honoring successful candidates allegedly took place in an apricot grove.


Bamboo

Bamboo symbolizes the ideals of a Confucian scholar because both are perceived as upright, strong, and resilient while still being gentle, graceful, and refined. Bamboo also represents the ideals of the Taoists (Daoists) because it can bend during the worst weather but not break. Bamboo depicted on a charm is also a pun because the Chinese word for bamboo (zhu 竹) and the Chinese word for "to wish" or "to congratulate" (zhu 祝) are pronounced the same.


Cabbage

The cabbage (baicai 白菜 or qingcai 清菜) is a symbol of wealth because it has the same pronunciation as the word "money" or "wealth" (cai 财).


Carp

The carp fish is a commonly seen visual pun because the Chinese character for carp (li 鲤) is pronounced the same as both the character (li 利) for "profit" and the character (li 力) for "strength" or "power". The carp is also a symbol for an abundance of children because it produces many eggs. A pair of carp symbolizes a harmonious marriage.


Chestnut

The Chinese word for chestnut (lizi 栗子) sounds exactly like saying "establishing" (li 立) "sons" or "children" (zi 子) and therefore is a good luck symbol for creating a family.

The first character in chestnut (li 栗) sounds the same as "etiquette" or "manners" (li 礼) and symbolizes those qualities in women.


Clouds

Clouds, sometimes referred to as "auspicious clouds" (xiangyun 祥云), represent the heavens and also "good luck" because the Chinese word for cloud (yun 云) is pronounced the same as yun (运) meaning "luck" or "fortune". Its form often resembles the auspicious shape of the lingzhi "fungus of immortality". The cloud is a commonly seen design and when repeated in a pattern symbolizes never-ending fortune.


Coin

Chinese coins are a potent symbol of wealth and prosperity. Ancient Chinese coins are round with a square hole in the middle which reflects the Chinese view of the earth as square and the heavens as a circle. A coin (qian 钱) can be a visual pun for "before your eyes" because the hole in the center is called an "eye" and the coin (qian) has the same pronunciation as the word "before" (qian 前). An old word for coin is quan (泉). A pair of coins is shuang quan (双泉) which has the same pronunciation as "both complete" (shuang quan 双 全).


Coral

Coral (shanhu 珊瑚) is included as one of the Eight Treasures and symbolizes longevity and official promotion. As a symbol of longevity, the Chinese have traditionally believed that coral represents an "iron tree" (tieshu 铁树) that grew under the sea and blossomed only once every hundred years. Red coral is considered particularly auspicious because the Chinese believe the color red signifies good luck, good fortune, and happiness. (See ribbons and fillets for more about the color red.) Coral resembles deer antlers and deer are symbols of longevity. Coral is also a symbol of official promotion because a coral button on the hat identified one of the nine grades of government officials.


Crab

The Chinese word for crab (蟹) and the Chinese word for harmony (协) are both pronounced xie. The crab symbol is sometimes used on charms which express a desire for peace such as the large tian xia tai ping (天 下太平) charm shown at Peace Coins and Charms.

The crab is also used to symbolize success in the imperial examination system. This is because the Chinese word for the crab's shell (jia 甲) has the additional meaning of "first" as in achieving the highest score in the examination to become a government official.


Crane

The crane (he 鹤) is believed by the Chinese to live to a very old age and therefore is a symbol of longevity. The crane's white feathers also represent old age.

A crane standing alone can represent success in becoming a high government official as seen on a charm at Pendant Charms. The image of the crane was embroidered on the robes of high government officials. Because the pronunciation (he) is the same as that for the word "harmony" (he 合), the crane is sometimes shown on charms to imply a good and harmonious marriage.



Date

The date fruit or Chinese jujube (zao 枣) conveys the meaning that something is going to happen soon because it has the same pronunciation as the word for "early" or "soon" (zao 早). For this reason, dates were placed on bridal beds and the wood of the date tree was used to construct beds for children.


Deer

Deer are among the most frequently seen animals on charms. The Chinese character for deer is 鹿 which is pronounced lu. The Chinese character 禄, which refers to the salary a government official receives, is also pronounced lu. A picture of a deer is, therefore, expressing a wish for a top government office with a high salary.


Dragon

Chinese dragon symbolizes benevolence, prosperity, longevity and the renewal of life. Ancient Chinese believed the dragon brought rain, good harvests and fertility. The dragon is the symbol of the emperor when it has five claws.


Mandarin Ducks

Mandarin ducks (yuanyang 鸳鸯 or xi 鸂) are believed to mate for life and, therefore, a pair of mandarin ducks symbolize fidelity, conjugal affection, peace and prosperity.


Eagle

The eagle or hawk (ying 鹰) symbolizes a "hero" (yingxiong 英雄) because the pronunciation is the same.


Elephant

The elephant is considered an auspicious animal because the Chinese character for "elephant" (xiang 象) has the same pronunciation as the Chinese word for "auspicious" or "lucky" (xiang 祥). The elephant is sometimes shown carrying a "treasure" vase (bao ping 宝瓶) on its back. Since the word "vase" (ping 瓶) has the same pronunciation as the word for "peace" (pingan 平 安), the implied meaning is "may you have 'good luck' (elephant) and 'peace' (vase)".


Five Blessings

According to the ancient Chinese classic the "Book of History" (shujing 书经 or shangshu 尚书), also known as the "Classic of History", there are "Five Blessings" (wufu 五福), refer to longevity (shou 寿), wealth (fu 富), health and composure (kangning 康宁), virtue (xiu hao de 修好德), and the desire to die a natural death in old age (lao zhong ming 考 终命).


Four Blessings

The "four blessings" (si fu 四福) are happiness (xi 喜), salary of a high official (lu 禄), longevity (shou 寿), and good luck (good fortune) (fu 福).


Goldfish

The goldfish (jinyu 金鱼) is a symbol for wealth because its first character (jin 金) means "gold" and its second character (yu) sounds like jade (yu 玉). Goldfish also symbolize abundant wealth because the first character (jin) means gold and the second character (yu) has the same pronunciation as the word for "abundance" or "surplus" (yu 余).



Gourd

The gourd is popular as a charm symbol to ward off evil spirits and disease because its first character (hulu 葫芦) has the same pronunciation as the word to "protect" or "guard" (hu 护) and also the word for "blessing" (hu 祜). In some dialects, the Chinese word for gourd (hulu 葫 芦) sounds the same as fulu (福 禄) which means "happiness and rank (as in attaining a high government office)".



Horse

The horse (ma 马) symbolizes speed, power, and perseverance. The horse is usually depicted as the bearer of good things. For example, a galloping horse with several scrolls (the Yellow River Diagrams) tied on its back represents the bringing of the origins of Chinese culture to the legendary Chinese leader Fuxi.


Lion

The lion is considered to be a brave and intelligent animal and thus symbolizes power and majesty. The Chinese word for lion (shi 狮) has the same pronunciation and can be a visual pun or rebus for "teacher", "master", "tutor" or "preceptor" (shi 师). For this reason, the lion can symbolize a high government official because in ancient times there existed a "Senior Grand Tutor" (tai shi 太师) and a "Junior Preceptor" (shao shi 少 师). In general, a stone or bronze lion outside a residence or official building acts as a guardian protecting the occupants from harm. Usually, there is a pair of lions with a male playing with a ball and a female protecting her cub. A pair of lions is considered to be auspicious and symbolizes happiness and the wish for a successful and prosperous career. The lion dance (shiziwu 狮子舞) is an ancient and popular custom based on the lion being considered an auspicious animal. It is believed that if a lion can be enticed to enter one's gate, the household will enjoy wealth and treasures.


Magpie

A magpie (xi que 喜 鹊) is frequently used to symbolize "happiness" because the first character xi is the same word as happy (xi 喜). If the magpie is shown upside down, it means happiness has "arrived" because the Chinese words for "upside down" (倒) and "arrived" (到) are both pronounced dao. Two magpies facing each other symbolize "double happiness" (shuang xi 喜喜). A pair of magpies also symbolize marriage. This is based on an ancient legend concerning two heavenly lovers, the Oxherd and the Weaver Girl (Weaving Maiden). The two are separated for eternity except for one day each year (known as qixi 七夕, the Double Seven, or Sisters Festival) when they are allowed to meet each other by crossing a celestial river on a bridge made of magpies. One can say "there is a happy bird (magpie) on the tip of the plum branch" as xi shang mei shao (喜上梅稍) which sounds exactly like saying xi shang mei shao (喜上眉稍) which means "happiness up to one's eyebrows". This expression means "very happy".


Mirror

Mirrors in China symbolize good fortune and are believed to protect against evil spirits.

Traditional marriage gifts included a bronze mirror (tongjing 铜镜) and shoes (xie 鞋) because the words combined express "together and in harmony" (tongxie 同谐).


Monkey

The monkey is frequently seen as a visual pun for the Chinese inscription ma shang feng hou (马上风猴) where a monkey is shown riding on a horse. The first two characters of the inscription (ma shang) mean "on the horse" but also mean "at once". The third character (feng ) means "wind" (breeze) but the Chinese for "to grant a title" is also pronounced feng (封). The fourth character (hou) means "monkey" but another character with the same pronunciation (hou 侯) means "a marquis (i.e. a high official)". Therefore the picture of a monkey on a horse is a visual pun or rebus for the wish for an immediate promotion in official rank.


Mountain

Mountains (shan 山) are the places closest to the gods and because of their expanse and heights covey the meaning of limitless.



Onion

The onion (cong 葱) is a visual pun for intelligence because it has the same pronunciation as the word for "intelligent" or "clever" (congming 聪明).


Orange

Oranges symbolize riches and good fortune because of their gold color. Also, the chinese character for the orange is ju (桔) which is composed of mu (木), meaning "tree", and ji (吉) meaning "lucky or auspicious". The two components of the character, therefore, imply that the orange is a "good luck" fruit.


Peach

The peach (tao 桃) signifies the second month of the lunar calendar. The peach symbolizes marriage, spring, justice and especially Daoist immortality (longevity).


Peacock

The peacock symbolizes beauty and dignity as well as the desire for peace and prosperity.

The ancient Chinese believed that one glance from a peacock could make a woman pregnant.


Peanut

The peanut (huasheng 花生) is an auspicious symbol because its second character (sheng 生) means to "give birth". The peanut thus symbolizes the wish for many children.


Pearl

Dragons are often depicted as chasing a "pearl" like a jewel object. The pearl may be thought of as a metaphor for perfection and enlightenment, particularly if the dragon represents the emperor. The dragon and pearl symbolize the endless cycle of transformation. The pearl can also refer to riches, pure intentions and genius in obscurity.


Peony

The tree peony or mudan (牡丹) signifies the third month of the lunar calendar and symbolizes longevity, loyalty, happiness and eternal beauty. Because of the way it sometimes grows as doubles, the peony appears to the Chinese like strings of cash coins and thus has come to symbolize prosperity and wealth. For this reason, another name for the peony is fuguihua (富贵花) which means "flower of wealth and honor". A peony in a vase (ping 瓶) has the hidden meaning of "wealth and honor" (peony) and "peace" (because the vase is a rebus for "peace" (pingan 平 安).


Phoenix

The Chinese phoenix is a mythical bird known as the fenghuang (凤 凰) in Chinese. The Chinese phoenix symbolizes joy and peace. It is believed that the phoenix only makes an appearance during periods of prosperity, peace, and good government.


Pomegranate

The pomegranate (shiliu 石榴) signifies the sixth month of the lunar calendar and, because of its many seeds, represents fertility, offspring and descendants. For this reason, the pomegranate is an important symbol in Chinese marriages. The first character (shi 石) has the same pronunciation as the word for "generations" (shi 世) and thus strengthens the meaning as generations of descendants.


Rhinoceros Horns

A single or pair of rhinoceros horns (xijiao 犀角) is usually included as one of the Eight Treasures. Rhino horns symbolize happiness because the first character (xi 犀) is pronounced the same as the character for happiness (xi 喜).



Ribbons

These ribbons add importance to the power of the object they surround. The ribbons can be thought of as rays or auras emanating from the object and symbolizing miraculous powers. The Chinese for ribbon is dai (带) which also has another meaning of "to carry". Another Chinese character with the same pronunciation (dai 代) means "generations". When the ribbon is shown connecting two or more auspicious objects, the hidden meaning of the ribbon, therefore, is "to carry along (good luck, good fortune, etc.) for generations".

The Chinese word for a ribbon attached to an official seal or medal is shou dai (绶带). Shou (绶) has the same pronunciation as the word for "longevity" (shou 寿) and since dai (带) is pronounced the same as "generations" (dai 代), the hidden meaning is "longevity for generations". Even though Chinese charms are not able to display colors, the Chinese always use red-colored ribbons in real life. Red (vermilion, cinnabar) is the color representing joy and it is used widely for marriages and other festive occasions. The Chinese word for red is hong (红). Other Chinese words with the same pronunciation include "great" (hong 宏) and "vast" (hong 洪), so any object wrapped in a (red) ribbon would also be enhanced through the phonetic pun of great and vast.


Ruyi (Sceptre)

The ruyi (如意) was a sceptre which represented power and authority. The ruyi was originally a short sword with a sword-guard used for self-defense or gesturing. The name "ruyi" is usually translated as "as you wish" or "in accordance with your desires". The ruyi now symbolizes good wishes and prosperity.

Swallow

The swallow (yan 燕) is associated with springtime and thus represents the coming of good fortune and prosperous change. Swallows are seen as bringing "new" to "old" because they, in effect, make "repairs" by building their mud nests in the cracks of walls and graves.


Sword

Immortals and gods use swords to cut through ignorance and evil.


Teapot

A teapot or pot (hu 壶) can convey the meaning of "to protect" (hu 护) or "blessing" (hu 祜) because the characters share the same pronunciation.


Tiger

The tiger (hu 虎) is one of the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac and is considered the ruler of the beasts on Earth as opposed to the dragon which rules the beasts in the sky and heavens. The word for tiger (hu) is also a pun because it has the same pronunciation as the word "protect" (hu 护). In ancient China, the tiger was the Guardian Spirit of Agriculture which could devour the Drought Demon. Tigers appear on amulets because they are powerful animals, symbolize heroism, and are believed to be able to eat evil spirits, or at least cause them to flee, and can in general protect people from misfortune.


Tortoise

The tortoise (gui 龟) has a long life-span and is, therefore, a natural symbol for longevity.

The tortoise also represents strength and endurance. The physical appearance of the tortoise resembles the Chinese view of the universe in that it has a round domed outer shell like the vault of heaven and its lower body is flat like the earth. Its shell was used in very ancient times in divination.


Treasure Bowl

The Chinese "treasure bowl" (ju bao pen 聚宝盆), also known as the "treasure basin", is a magical container which can create unlimited riches. By placing a gold coin inside the "treasure bowl", for example, the bowl will suddenly be filled with gold coins. Treasure bowl stories can be traced back to ancient times.


Vase

A picture of a bottle or vase can represent the meaning of "peace" or "safety" because both the character for vase (ping 瓶) and that for peace (pingan 平安) are pronounced ping. A vase (ping 瓶) with flowers from all four seasons (siji 四季) conveys the hidden meaning of peace for all the year (sijipingan 四 季平 安).


Water Buffalo (Ox)

Because of their importance to agriculture, the water buffalo or ox (niu 牛) symbolizes springtime, harvest and fertility. To city dwellers and government officials, the water buffalo also represents a simple and idyllic life.


Writing Brush and Silver Ingot

To express the hope that "things will certainly go according to your wishes", a charm can have the Chinese characters (如意) for "as you wish" but may also depict a writing brush and a silver ingot or sycee (细 丝) (a saddle-shaped silver ingot used for money in ancient China).

This is because the characters for "brush" (bi 笔) and "ingot" (ding 锭) said together are "bi ding" which is the same pronunciation as the characters 必定 (bi ding) for "certainly".



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JASON CHAN

At my practice, I use Ba Zi and Feng Shui to provide my clients with a comprehensive assessment of their lives. I take into account the unique energies of a person’s home and surroundings, as well as the energies of the environment and the person’s own destiny. With these insights, I am able to offer my clients assistance to help them reach their goals, and improve their lives.

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