Ancient Chinese astronomers, during the Han Dynasty (2nd century BC to 2nd century AD), divided the sky into four regions. The four regions were known as “The Four Symbols”.
The Four Symbols are mystical creatures: Black Tortoise of the North, White Tiger of the West, Vermilion Bird of the South, and Azure Dragon of the East.
Each region contains seven mansions, making a total of 28. These mansions correspond to the longitudes along the ecliptic that the moon crosses during its 27 hour 32 minute journey around the earth and serve as a way to track the moon’s progress.
Each symbol represents a direction and a season, and each symbol has its own characteristics and origins. The Four Symbols have been used many times in many different aspects of Chinese culture.
In 1987, a tomb was found at a Neolithic site in Puyang, Henan Province. Inside the tomb were some white clam shells and bones forming the images of the Azure Dragon of the East and the White Tiger of the West. It is believed that the tomb dates back to around 6,000 years ago.
After Taoism (modernly known as Daoism) became popular throughout China, The Four Symbols were given human names. The Black Tortoise of the North was called Zhi Ming, the White Tiger of the West was called Jian Bing, the Vermilion Bird of the South was called Ling Guang, and the Azure Dragon of the East was called Meng Zhang.
The Four Symbols have also been synthesised into the 5 elements (Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal, Water). The Tortoise represents Water, the White Tiger represents Metal, the Vermilion Bird represents Fire, and the Azure Dragon represents Wood.
The four symbols also represent the four seasons. The Black Tortoise represents Winter, the White Tiger represents Autumn, the Vermilion Bird represents Summer, and the Azure Dragon represents Spring.
Additionally, there is a fifth legendary beast, Huáng-lóng, also called the Yellow Dragon of the Centre. It is associated with the cardinal direction of “centre”, and its element is Earth.
The Black Tortoise
The seven mansions of the north (the Dipper, Ox, Girl, Emptiness, Rooftop, Encampment, and Wall) are shaped like the combination of a tortoise and a snake, with the snake coiling around the tortoise. These mansions are located in the north and they are black in colour. Although it’s name in Chinese is Xuánwǔ, this constellation is collectively called “The Black Tortoise”. It is also sometimes referred to as “The Black Warrior of the North”. The Black Tortoise is the God of the North in ancient myths, the God of Water, and the symbol of longevity.
The White Tiger
The seven mansions of the west (the Legs, Bond, Stomach, Hairy Head, Net, Turtle Beak, and Three Stars) are shaped like a tiger. These mansions, located in the west, are white in colour and they are collectively called “The White Tiger”. It is often reffered to as the White Tiger of the West (西方白虎, Xī Fāng Bái Hǔ) and is known as Baihu in the Chinese language. The White Tiger is the God of Metal, as well as being the God of Wars and the God of Fighting. In folk culture, the White Tiger is also believed to have divine power to ward off and punish evil, praise the good, and bring wealth and good match for marriage.
The Vermilion Bird
The seven mansions of the south (the Well, Ghosts, Willow, Star, Extended Net, Wings, and Chariot) are shaped like a bird. These mansions, located in the south, are red in colour and they are collectively called “The Vermilion Bird”, which refers to the phoenix. Characterised by its rebirth from the fire, the phoenix is therefore believed to be the incarnation of the God of Fire. People considered the phoenix to be a beautiful bird and the king of all birds due to its singing voice and appearance. The phoenix is a symbol of good luck and the divine.
The Azure Dragon
The seven mansions of the east (the Horn, Neck, Root, Room, Heart, Tail, and Winnowing Basket) are shaped like a dragon when joined together. These mansions, located in the east, are azure in colour and they are collectively known as the “The Azure Dragon”. The dragon is a divine animal in Chinese mythology. It changes from time to time, controls the cloud and rain, and benefits all things in the world. Ranked at the top of the four divine creatures, the dragon later became the symbol of imperial power. Emperors of all dynasties called themselves “the real dragon and the son of heaven.”