The Turtle is an animal with deep symbolism in Chinese culture, both positive and negative.
According to Chinese mythology, the turtle is part of a group of four divine creatures, which grants it divine properties.
Besides this divine status, the turtle is famed for its very long life span, which made it a popular symbol of longevity or even immortality.
However, the all this positive symbolism is tainted by it being considered an insult to call a person a turtle in Chinese. The historical reason for this is fascinating however.
A divine animal
According to the Li Ki, a Confucian classic text, there are four spiritual or auspicious animals. These are known as the Sì Xiàng.
They include the unicorn (Ch’i-lin), the phoenix (Feng-huang), the turtle (Kuei), and the dragon (Lung).
Each animal is seen as the leader of their kind. The unicorn is considered the greatest of all quadrupeds. The phoenix is held as the supreme among birds. The tortoise is viewed as the leader of all molluscs. The dragon is thought to be the king of all scaly creatures.
These four animals are made divine through their association with Pan Ku, a sculptor deity who carved the universe out of chaos.
Pan Ku is frequently shown with the four spiritual creatures. These are the unicorn, phoenix, tortoise, and dragon.
Because of divine status of these creatures, artisans who created images of the deity Ching Wa Shen, a frog spirit, follow a peculiar tradition.
These sculptors would take either a live tortoise, a snake, or a bird and place them in the belly of the statue.
The idea behind this practice is that these divine animals will imbue life into the materials of the image. These materials can include wood or clay.
An animal who can speak prophecies
Because of its divine nature, the tortoise was said to be able to utter prophecies.
The Chinese believed turtles could prophesize the future based on various stories and legends.
These tales included instances where turtles accurately predicted the destinies of dynasties, bore markings on their shells that foretold the rise of emperors, and carried writings that detailed the fortunes of the empire.
Other stories depicted turtles warning common folk of impending disasters, such as floods, and granting prophecies as rewards for benevolence.
These folk stories led to a widespread belief in turtles’ prophetic abilities and their association with divination in Chinese culture.
Turtles were used to foretell the future
The turtle was associated with divination from the very beginning of Chinese history. Its shell was heated in a strong fire until it produced lines or cracks, which would then be used to foretell the future.
These omens determined what decisions should be made in eight important areas: military expeditions, heavenly appearances, grants, treaties, results, arrival, rain and pestilence.
This tradition was honored continuously from antiquity up until modern times.
Some historians even mention an Imperial Edict issued to the late Li Hung-chang, ordering him to offer an offering of thanks to the tortoise for its protection of the dykes of the Yellow River.
Creator of Chinese caligraphy
In Chinese mythology, the unique Chinese calligraphy is said to have originated in the Shang Dynasty period.
According to myth, an Emperor from the Shang dynasty sought to divine the future using turtle shells cracks.
One day, a unique set of cracks on a tortoise shell seemed to resemble symbols, which the emperor and his diviners took as a new form of written language, marking the genesis of Chinese calligraphy.
In a different, more dramatized version, the Emperor did not sacrifice a turtle at all.
Instead the Emperor was instructed to go to the Lo River, and wait there until he would be presented with a divine message.
Soon a turtle appeared from within the river, bearing red lines on its back. The red lines said that the Emperor should resign his seat in favor of his chief minister, named Shun.
Just as with the previous version, the red lines would later become the Chinese graphical writing.
Associated with long life and immortality
In Chinese culture, the deer or stag, the stork, and the tortoise are seen as symbols connected to the Tree of Life, representing enduring longevity.
The tortoise, alongside gold, were considered signs of extended life and purity. This connection was made due to the long lifespan of the tortoise, leading to an ancient linguistic correlation between the words for “turtle” and “old”.
Turtles also had medicinal properties.
A mythical species of turtle, known as the Sanzugui, was indigenous to the Kuang River.
This unique three-legged creature was highly valued for its meat, believed to have healing properties.
Consumption of this meat was thought to ward off severe illnesses and alleviate painful inflammation.
Interestingly, the meat of three-legged turtles from other regions was considered deadly, while those from the Kuang River were believed to provide immunity against fatal diseases and protection from seasonal outbreaks.
Moreover, it was believed that wearing a piece of a Twisting-Turtle on one’s belt as an amulet could prevent hearing loss and even eliminate calluses.
The Tortoise and Snake symbol, representing their mythical union which was thought to have given birth to the universe, is another pervasive symbol of longevity in Chinese culture.
Wisdom and justice
According to Chinese folklore the turtle is a symbol of virtue and justice, and even embodies the triumph of the law against evil.
A renowned painting titled “Kuei She” depicts a fierce battle between a tortoise and a snake, with the tortoise emerging victorious.
In this artistic representation, the tortoise serves as a symbol of righteous power, while the snake embodies the forces of wickedness.
Buddhist temples often house tortoises in their aquatic enclosures as a custom believed to attract good fortune.
The act of feeding these turtles is seen as an auspicious deed that brings about luck.
A shaper of the world
The notion of celestial beings sustaining the earth to prevent its collapse is a frequent theme found in the mythology of many countries.
In Chinese mythology, this role is most often assigned to turtles who are believed to support the earth from beneath.
This narrative is occasionally linked to Nuwa, the revered mother of humankind and the deity credited with repairing the cosmos after an apocalyptic event.
In the most common version, it is said that Nuwa melted multi-colored stones to mend the heavens and she amputated the legs of a colossal tortoise to support the corners of the sky.
Another tale from Chinese folklore recounts a catastrophic flood that once transformed China’s nine provinces into nine islands.
A legendary hero named Yu is said to have managed the aftermath of this disaster.
He drained the water that inundated the Chinese plains, reconnecting the provinces with one another again.
At the western frontier, he carved out mountains, creating rivers and streams to manage the floodwaters. Similarly, on the eastern side, he constructed an irrigation system to channel the water into the sea, reclaiming the land for agriculture.
Finally, Yu connected the provinces with a network of roads.
In his monumental task, he was aided by a yellow dragon that carved a path by dragging its tail, while a black tortoise was responsible for transporting the mud away.
Symbol of stability and constancy
Chinese folklore regards the tortoise as a symbol of stability due to its various representations in myth and literature.
The tortoise is often depicted as supporting the Islands of the Immortals and even the foundations of the universe in some stories, signifying an unshakeable foundation.
In the Pangu creation narrative, a tortoise accompanies Pangu as he shapes the world, further emphasizing the turtle’s steady and enduring nature.
A symbol of North and Winter
In Chinese mythology, the four cardinal directions were originally represented by distinct deities: The Blue (or Green) Dragon of the east, the Red Bird of the south, the White Tiger of the west, and the Black Tortoise of the north.
However, over time, the Black Warrior, an emblem of the north, replaced the tortoise as a symbol. This change likely occurred because the term ‘tortoise’ came to be used derogatorily.
The Black Warrior is depicted as a tortoise entwined with a snake in art and is counted among the mythological Animals of the Four Directions. It is associated with the north, winter, the water element, and the color black, symbolizing night or water.
Unlike the other directions, the north was not revered in ancient times and the Black Warrior was feared as the destructive ocean wind deity. However, the Han dynasty ruled under the guardianship of the water element and the North, offering sacrifices to the Black Emperor.
In Chinese culture, the term “turtle”, and especially “turtle egg” is considered an insult due to historical, linguistic, and cultural contexts.
Turtle egg in particular is used to insult someone’s parentage, similar to how the English term “bastard” is used.
The historical origin of this insult can be traced back to the T’ang Dynasty.
During that period, the outcast class, known as “lo hu,” who had no legal status, was required to wear a strip of green cloth around their heads.
The men of this class often lived off the earnings from the prostitution of their wives and daughters, and so represented the lowest societal depth of immorality.
Because a turtle’s head is green, the animal became symbolically associated with these green-headed outcasts.
Therefore, calling someone a “turtle” originally meant classifying them among the most despised individuals and labeling them as illegitimate.
This derogatory use of the word “turtle” in Chinese culture is very similar to how Western cultures often use swears that invoke God or Jesus Christ.
- A dictionary of symbols by Cirlot, Juan Eduardo
- A dictionary of symbols by Chevalier, Jean
- Dictionary of symbols by Chetwynd, Tom
- A dictionary of dream symbols : with an introduction to dream psychology by Ackroyd, Eric
- Illustrated dictionary of symbols in eastern and western art by Hall, James
- Dictionary of symbols and imagery by Vries, Ad de
- Symbolism : a comprehensive dictionary by Olderr, Steven
- Dictionary of mythology, folklore and symbols by Jobes, Gertrude
- The complete dictionary of symbols by Tresidder, Jack
- 10 Turtle Symbolic Meanings in Chinese Mythology & Culture - May 25, 2023
- 11 Symbolic Meanings of Tigers in Chinese Culture - May 25, 2023
- No, Thor wasn’t fat in Norse Mythology (+ 3 other mistakes) - May 25, 2023