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Chinese mythology reimagined: The fantastic beasts of Lunar New Year 2023

The Azure Dragon, Vermilion Bird, Black Tortoise, White Tiger, alongside the lionesque Qilin (read on to learn more) — you'll see these four symbols of ancient Chinese mythology everywhere during the Lunar New Year, from red packets to lanterns and spring couplets.

But let's not limit their significance to just one time of year, these fantastic beasts have a rich history and cultural importance that goes way beyond just being symbols of luck.

Written around 1000 B.C.E, I Ching, or the Book of Changes, is an ancient Chinese divination text that traces the origins of the five beasts back to the beginning of the world. 


It is said that they were born from the ring of the yin-yang, which brought order to the chaotic spirit of Taichi. This concept represents an eternal interaction of opposing forces that extends beyond the notion of good and evil. Every experience — including day and night, male and female — is seen as a living example of the harmonious coexistence of opposing entities.


According to the Five Phases, also known as the Five Elements or Wu Xing, each beast represents an element — namely wood, fire, earth, metal, and water — and is associated with a specific season, direction, and virtue.


青龍 / Qīnglóng
Azure Dragon

The Azure Dragon is one of the most revered creatures in Chinese mythology. This powerful beast is said to reside in the eastern quadrant of the sky, reigning over the element of wood and the season of spring. Its vibrant blue and green scales shimmer in the sunlight, and its mighty roar can be heard for miles.


Although the Azure Dragon is often depicted as a fierce and powerful creature —  a common motif in Chinese imperial architecture — it is more than just a creature of brute strength. In traditional Chinese paintings, it’s often portrayed as the embodiment of the Emperor, as well as symbols of power, nobility, and good luck. 


Virtues: benevolence, integrity, courage


朱雀 / Zhūquè
Vermilion Bird

The Vermilion Bird is a fierce and powerful creature that symbolizes the element of fire. Representing the south, this bird is said to have the ability to control flames and bring good luck and prosperity to those who possess its image or representation.


In ancient Chinese mythology, the Vermilion Bird is often depicted as a five-colored pheasant with flaming plumage, and is considered to be the king of all airborne species.


Aside from being a symbol of power, the Vermilion bird is also seen as a protector of the people. It is said to have the ability to ward off natural disasters and bring happiness and bliss to those who possess its image or representation. Also, according to folklore, the bird would fly down from the heavens during the Lunar New Year to bring good luck and prosperity to the people.


Virtues: loyalty, righteousness, bravery


玄武 / Xuánwǔ
Black Tortoise

When it comes to the sea, look no further than the Black Tortoise. In Chinese cosmology, the Black Tortoise is said to control the waters and is considered to be the god of the northern sky. Moreover, for those who are fortunate enough to have its presence in their lives, they will be blessed with longevity and prosperity. 


One of the most interesting things about the Black Tortoise is that it is often portrayed as being entangled with a snake. This is said to symbolize the balance between the forces of nature and man's ability to control them. The tortoise represents the earth and its ability to withstand the forces of nature, whereas the snake represents the water and its ability to move and change. Together, they symbolize the balance between nature and humanity.


Virtues: wisdom, perseverance, longevity


白虎 / Báihǔ
White Tiger

The White Tiger is a fierce and powerful creature that commands respect and admiration. It represents the element of metal and the cardinal direction of the west. Its white skin and black stripes symbolize the balance between yin and yang, whereas its power and strength are said to bring good fortune and wealth to those who possess it.


Beyond its symbolism, the White Tiger has a rich history in Chinese folklore. It is said to have once been a fierce and ruthless beast, but was tamed by a powerful emperor and subsequently became a loyal protector of the kingdom. In ancient China, it was also revered as a symbol of the emperor and the military, often depicted in various forms, such as statues or engravings on weapons, as a way to bring strength and protection to the emperor and the army.


Virtues: integrity, nobility, valor


麒麟 / Qílín

The Qilin, also known as the Kirin, is a creature of legend and wonder in Chinese folklore. With its dragon-meets-deer-like appearance, adorned with scales and antlers, the Qilin is said to be a peaceful and gentle creature that brings prosperity and good luck. It's said to be able to walk on grass without disturbing it, which is a testament to its purity and grace.


The Qilin is often associated with the element of earth as it symbolizes the center of the universe. It also represents  good governance, the Qilin only appears during the reign of wise and just rulers. 


In Feng Shui, the Qilin is often placed in the main entrance of a house or office to bring good luck, harmony, and prosperity to the inhabitants — especially for families with young children.


Virtues: compassion, generosity, kindness.