Turtles & Tortoises In Chinese Culture: Art, Symbolism, History

Turtles & Tortoises In Chinese Culture

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Turtles have been regarded as mythological creatures symbolizing many different virtues in a number of countries and sociopolitical regions around the world. In today’s article, I’ll specifically talk about turtles in Chinese culture and share interesting tidbits about their art, symbolism, and history.

Permanence, stability, tenacity, power, creativity – turtles have been tied to these five virtues primarily in Chinese culture. According to multiple myths, turtles symbolize the universe itself due to the nature of their physical structure. The protective dome-like shell represents the sky while the flat body represents the surface of the earth as we know it.

But that doesn’t even cover a fraction of the myths related to turtles and tortoises in Chinese culture. Today, let’s dig deep and find out all there’s to know about the symbolic and historical significance of turtles in Chinese culture.

Turtles Vs. Tortoises In Chinese Culture

Fun fact, before the 1600s, the word ‘turtle’ practically didn’t exist at all. Nowadays, we mostly refer to the land-dwelling turtle kinds/species as tortoises. Alternatively, the aquatic ones or partially aquatic ones are referred to as turtles.

A nice little way to remember this is that – turtles can survive in a mostly aquatic environment i.e. rivers, lakes, etc. Similarly, the tortoises can’t due to the structural differences.

But before the 1600s, there weren’t any specific etymological symbols to differentiate between turtles and tortoises. The reptiles i.e. land-dwelling ones were simply called tortoises. And for the aquatic ones, people normally used marine or aquatic as an adjective before the word tortoise.

Hence, the words ‘turtle’ and ‘tortoise’ have been used interchangeably in most of the ancient myths. However, critical interpretation or analysis of the ancient texts can open the doorways to a few more explicit meanings.

For instance – since tortoises are land-dwelling creatures, they naturally develop a sturdier shell compared to turtles. Also, their shells are more rounded and compact to enhance their adaptability in harsh wildlife.

Hence, tortoises have often been used as symbols of strength, rigidity, stability, etc. in ancient Chinese culture. The idea of the universe also springs from a similar concept. I’ll get to the details of that myth in a little while.

Alternatively, in terms of physical structure, turtles have softer domes i.e. shells compared to tortoises. Their shells are not only thinner but also more flat than rounded.

This structural adaptation helps them to swim better and survive longer in an aquatic environment. Also, their shells are more streamlined as well to help with swimming. Compared to turtles, tortoises are heavyweight with chubby legs to help them walk on rough ground better.

Turtles, on the other hand, have webbed feet, which they use to both walk on soil and comfortably swim in water. Hence, luck, survivability, adaptability, and creativity – virtues like these have been often attributed to turtles in Chinese culture.

Here’s a little chart to help you remember the structural differences between turtles and tortoises better alongside the substantial contrast in the cultural symbolism –

ReptilesShellHabitatFeetWeightSymbolism
 SpeciesShellHabitatFeetWeightSymbolism
TurtlesSpread out, comparatively thinner, streamlinedMostly aquatic, can survive on land as wellWebbed structure to swim betterComparatively lightweightCreativity, luck, adaptability
TortoisesDome-like rounded shape, thicker, sturdierProminently land-dwellers, can’t swim wellThicker legs to carry the heavy shellComparatively heavyweightPower, tenacity, longevity

Overall, the myths contain the legacies of both turtles and tortoises in the same subtext. But with critical interpretation, one can find subtle differences in the meaning.

Turtles: The Prime Symbol Of Endurance & Longevity In Chinese Culture

China has survived the rise and fall of hundreds of powerful dynasties throughout the eras. Similarly, turtles have outlived many of its contemporary species including the mighty dragon. This establishes a direct parallel between the two in terms of longevity, endurance, strength, and adaptability.

Let’s break the parallel down step-by-step to figure out why turtles pose such an enigmatic presence in Chinese culture.

Firstly, the turtle/tortoise develops a sturdy shell to protect itself from outside dangers. Despite having a slow evolution, the mechanism of self-preservation and self-defense is why turtles live for hundreds of years.

And the rigidity doesn’t lie in the shell only either. The bone structure of the tortoise supports the sturdy shell to the max. It’s almost as if the tortoise is a soldier, encased in impenetrable armor to protect itself from the dangers.

Similarly, the socio-political philosophy of China has always been to preserve a strong military prowess over the world. They hardly let outsiders consult on internal matters. A hierarchical structure is heavily prioritized to preserve the interests of the governing body itself over everything else.

Hence, despite having slow progress in terms of economic and industrial evolution, China has lived through multiple destructive clashes to tell the tale in the present day.

Just like how the shell protects the vital internal organs of the tortoise, the judicial and military strength of China continues to be the country’s impenetrable armor before the outsiders.

Metaphysical Symbolism Of Turtles In Chinese Culture

‘Metaphysical’ refers to something that transcends the idea of administrative notions such as time, space, energy, etc. Symbolism, on the other hand, refers to the impact these metaphysical notions leave on the mortal world.

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1. The Myth Of Pangu

Huainanzi contains one of the most vivid descriptions of the formation of the universe according to Chinese beliefs. Before the formation, the universe was in a state of disorder. This state of disorder or chaos is referred to as ‘Hundun’.

Pangu is the name of the entity that was born within this chaos. He later went on to use the complementary powers of Yin and Yang to fix the disorder and create the universe.

It took him 18,000 years to get rid of the chaotic state. During this time, he was accompanied by three of the four majestic beasts – the dragon, the phoenix, and lastly, the tortoise.

Upon the reinstatement of the energetic harmony, Pango too, passed away as he was a product of the chaos itself. After his death, his body parts formulated the universe. Such as – his left & the right eye became the sun & the moon respectively.

Although the turtle is merely seen as a helper in this myth, contemporary legends lead to vastly alternate scenarios. According to the varied notions, the concept of heaven and earth might have been influenced by the turtle itself.

The round dome-like shell symbolized the heaven or the sky which protected the earth i.e. the flat bottom. This notion, as absurd as it may sound, is at the core of Taoist philosophy.

2. The Tale Of Nüwa & Fuxi

Heaven’s ties with the earth were severed due to the battle of lordship between Gong Gong and Zhuan Xu. And that’s how chaos encapsulated the universe once again.

Nüwa attempted to fix the four pillars to restore the ties between the sky and the earth. During this time, to prevent the sky from falling apart on Earth, Nüwa cut off the four legs of the tortoise and used them as supporting pillars.

Without the help of the tortoise, the sky would fall into a state of disarray and destroy the earth. By supporting the sky with four legs, the tortoise helped to preserve the equilibrium.

The Legend Of Yu & The Yellow River

Chinese history sits upon a rich selection of myths that eventually went on to formulate the core values of the culture. These myths or stories were based upon real scenarios to bring out inner conflicts & justify moral actions.

One such myth revolves around a man named Yu under the rule of Emperor Shun in the golden antiquity age. When the gentle and ever-so-prosperous Yellow River started to overflow, an era of mass flooding ensued in China.

Eventually, Emperor Shun consulted Yu, a man known for his ability to turn into a bear or a dragon at will. The emperor hoped that the man’s deific powers could be of aid somehow.

However, neither Yu nor his father Kun were able to solve the issue for close to an entire decade. Lastly, Yu attempted to resolve the issue with ‘swelling soil’ from the Gods.

This soil contained magic properties as it swelled up upon touching the water. With the help of this soil, Yu managed to seal off all 250,000 springs of the Yellow River.

But even with the sources sealed off, most of the regions near the Yellow River were still flooded. After both careful consideration and divine intervention, Yu managed to dig multiple irrigation channels throughout China.

The ditches redirected the water to the shallow marshy lands, leaving valuable silt in abundance. Later on, the layers of silt helped the agricultural economy to prosper enormously.

Due to these natural and economic advancements, the Yellow River, to this date, is referred to as the ‘Mother of the Chinese People’ in various texts and revelations.

With all that said, you may wonder, what was the role of turtles or tortoises in this story?

Well, according to myths, Yu didn’t come up with the idea to dig ditches to relieve the flooded areas on his own. He stumbled upon a well-crafted map on a tortoise shell which then led to the creation of multiple irrigation channels.

Yu later went on to become the first-ever emperor of the Xia dynasty – one of the most prosperous Chinese dynasties.

It also lasted for almost 500 years during which China achieved a great many milestones in terms of mechanical, social, and agricultural advancements.

And almost all of it can be attributed to the map on the turtle’s back – without which there’d be no irrigation channels. This myth is a prominent example as to why turtles are the symbols of wisdom and longevity in Chinese culture.

The Legend Of The Black Tortoise

The black tortoise, also known as the black warrior, is one of the four primary heavenly beasts in Chinese culture. According to the Chinese constellations, the four beasts guard the four directions i.e. east, west, north, and south. Additionally, they also possess the power of the five core elements – earth, wood, metal, water, and fire.

Among them, the Black Tortoise is associated with the direction north and the elements earth and water. The tortoise is also the only divine beast to be associated with two elements at once.

According to many Chinese myths, that’s why the present-day turtle can survive on both land & water.

In China, the black tortoise is also well-known as the ‘divine turtle’ or the ‘spirit turtle’. The locals believed that the spirit turtle could open the doors to the netherland i.e. the afterlife. Hence, they considered the black tortoise as the protector of the deceased soul’s after they had passed.

Fun fact – to achieve the status of the ‘spirit turtle’, the turtle had to live for more than ten thousand years.

Again, to be a ‘divine turtle’, the turtle had to live for five thousand years or more.

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According to other historical literary works like the Baopuzi, the spirit turtle only needed to be a thousand years old.

The myth of the ten thousand years old spirit turtle likely originates from the tale of Celestial Emperor Shang Di. Apparently, the emperor blessed the turtles with a long lifespan as he considered them as a sign of auspiciousness.

The Black Tortoise is also the only realistic creature out of the four divine beasts. The other three – Chimera or the White Tiger, The Azure Dragon, Phoenix or The Vermilion Bird only exist in fairytales and myths.

Overview Of The Four Divine Beasts

Interested in knowing more about the other celestial beasts? Here’s a brief overview and comparison of all four divine beasts side-by-side:

AnimalDirectionElementSeasonCultural SymbolismEnglish Vs. Chinese Term
Tiger/Qilin/ ChimeraWestMetalAutumnProtection against evil spirit/negative energy, an entity brimming with courage & vitalityWhite Tiger – Bai Hu
DragonEastWoodSpringBringer of luck, prosperity, the symbol of regeneration, royalty, and hopeAzure Dragon – Qinglong
Tortoise/TurtleNorthEarth, WaterWinterSymbol of perseverance, longevity, endurance, wisdomBlack Tortoise – Xuanwu
PhoenixSouthFireSummerSymbol of transformation, fiery passion, power, and energyVermilion Bird – Zhuque

The Tortoise & The Serpent

Among the four divine beasts, the black tortoise is the only one to occupy two different elements – earth and water. However, the turtle possesses the element water primarily.

So, what leads to its association with the earth element?

Well, in myths, the black tortoise is almost always depicted with a snake/serpent around its neck. Further proof of this association can be found in the Neolithic tombs, ancient texts such as the Book Of Rites, Summer Palace statues, etc.

Take a good look at the picture above. You’ll find out how the myths have strongly influenced even the ideogram itself.

The initial character clearly depicts a snake-like head with a turtle-like body. Over the course of time, the Chinese character for the tortoise has adopted the neutral status. But the evolution of the character strongly showcases the influence.

Although the tortoise and the serpent are depicted as celestial comrades keeping the earth and water in a divine equilibrium, some interpretations take a darker turn.

For instance – many consider the pair as a symbol of continuance in a forlorn state. In this interpretation, both the tortoise and the serpent are looking to overpower the other. However, none of them get to deal the final blow due to the inter-dependency. As such, they continue to move in equilibrium to preserve the mutual interest i.e. to survive.

As the tortoise shell is thick, the snake can’t penetrate the shell to inject its venom into the vital organs. Alternatively, as the tortoise has a short neck, it can neither reach nor bite off the serpent’s head at once.

In terms of elemental cohesion, this interpretation makes a lot of sense as well. The tortoise (water), despite being vast, can’t drown all of the earth.

Again, the serpent (earth), despite having the strongest weapons, can’t penetrate or win over the oceans.

Ultimately, both elements stay in a state of harmonic equilibrium where they help the other one survive & evolve. The elements not only complement each other but also complete each other in more ways than one.

Do you get the correlation yet? Throughout the multiple interpretations, the tortoise and the serpent are effective representations of the Yin-Yang theory itself.

The Immoral Mating

In another interpretation, the myth of the tortoise and the serpent arises from the notion that the two species mated with each other in ancient times.

In fact, the tortoise is associated with the color black to symbolize the immorality of the aforementioned event. According to the myths, the Chinese people had a superstition that no male tortoises existed at all. Hence, to procreate, all the female tortoises mated with snakes.

The image of a snake entwined with the black tortoise might have been a product of this mass belief. To this date, in many regions, the term ‘wu-gui’ i.e. the black tortoise is used as a swear word to insult and invalidate the parental authorities.

The Ideology Of Feng Shui: How The Modern Era Feng Shui Applications Originate From The Black Turtle Legends

Feng Shui is the ancient Chinese practice of exercising harmony and balance in everything, even in inanimate setups.

Here’s a brief rundown of the benefits of feng shui applications in everyday life –

  • Placing the feng shui turtles in a northerly direction can repel the negative energy and protect the inhabitants
  • Water ornaments such as ponds, fish tanks, etc. can help to bring in more wealth inside the house
  • Placing female feng shui turtles can help to resolve disturbance within the family and strengthen relationships
  • Keeping the bedroom in the health area can help a sickly person recover faster than usual
  • Keeping the health and wealth area clean and tidy can help to restore mental energy and invite more wealth
  • Placing feng shui turtles in the front-facing entryway can bring good fortune to anyone who enters the household
  • Metal feng shui turtles help to slowly increase the mental and intellectual capacity of the inhabitants

The ideology of feng shui has a direct correlation with the myth of the black tortoise. In fact, feng shui roughly translates to – ‘The Way Of Wind & Water’.

Do The Elements Ring Any Bells?

Yep, that’s right. Feng Shui originates from the Taoist philosophy & it’s the embodiment of the Yin & Yang theory. The Black Tortoise also represents a harmonic equilibrium between sky and earth, then again, heaven and hell as well.

According to Taoism beliefs, the hard shell of the tortoise and the soft underbelly provide opposing but complementary forces for the tortoise to survive extreme conditions. As such, they’re the perfect embodiment of the Yin & Yang theory.

Again, they can also pass through heaven and hell at will. Ancient scholars believe that it’s due to their perseverance that they could control their Chi at will. And that’s why it was possible for them to visit the underworld without succumbing to the negative energy completely.

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The ideology of feng shui delivers a similar essence. By proper placement of the five elements, the goal is to create a balance within the household so that negative energy can co-exist with positive energy without taking over.

Just like how the tortoise and serpent stayed in a complementary equilibrium to keep the universe stable, feng shui operates on a smaller but similarly effective scale. By practicing feng shui around the house properly, you can achieve both physical and mental peace and comfort.

Warding Off Evil With Turtles: The Eight Diagrams

As the black soldier of the north, the tortoise is believed to have supernatural powers against the evil spirit. In addition to achieving luck and longevity, some people keep pet turtles to keep the negative energy away from the house.

Again, Bagua i.e. the set of eight symbols/diagrams is a famous Taoist cosmology notion in China. The diagrams vaguely represent the Yin and Yang theory with multiple interrelated concepts. The Chinese believe that it repels evil spirits and helps to restore the energy balance.

Many scholars suggest that these eight diagrams depicting multiple lines to dictate the energy flow were inspired by the lines on the tortoise shell. The hypothesis sounds similar to the story of Yu and the Yellow River, doesn’t it?

The Boon Of The Three-Legged Tortoise

While studying Chinese culture, if you go over the literary portions of Shan Hai Jing (Classics Of Mountains & Seas), you’ll come across the story of the three-legged tortoise.

According to the ancient story, the three-legged tortoise had the power to grant an astonishing amount of immunity to terminally ill patients. In fact, consuming a three-legged turtle would give you immunity against deadly skin diseases.

Medicinal Benefits Of Turtles In Chinese Culture

The turtles weren’t simply blessed with symbolic properties only. In ancient times, they served as the perfect anecdote for various deadly illnesses as well.

To this date, the Chinese consider turtle meat a nutritious delicacy. Furthermore, they use the calcium-enriched shells to formulate medicines that boost immunity and vitality.

In addition to the calcium compounds, the turtle skin and bones contain collagen in abundance. Consuming this collagen can cure skin diseases by accelerating the rate of formation of new i.e. fresh hoye cells in the area.

Hence, turtle soup is a common sick meal for Chinese people looking to find their lost strength due to various illnesses. Since the soup is both nutritious and holds mythical value, it’s a go-to dish in many old-fashioned Chinese households.

Turtle Worshipping In Ancient China

Since turtles were considered divine beasts, they were worshipped in many regions. In fact, if someone hurt turtles i.e. killed them for food or medication, the locals believed that misfortune would strike upon that individual evidently.

Again, in other subcultures, people offered turtles to the Gods to invite luck and fortune. Live turtles were used during the ceremony as offerings to God. Oftentimes, they’d be released back into the wild after the ceremony.

However, many regions got over the superstitious mindset and cooked and distributed the turtle meat as lucky offerings.

This eventually led to the tradition of offering red dough turtles made of flour during the ceremonies. It was both a cruelty-free option and it was easier to feed more people.

Unfortunately, with time, it started to become the only option. Reckless consumption has forced wild turtles to become an endangered species in China. Recently, an article was published in science.org that listed overexploitation as one of the primary causes behind the impending extinction.

In rich households, people offered gold turtles as offerings. Even now, you can find many artworks and statues resembling these gold turtles for sale on the market.

People buy them to invite good fortune into their homes. Also, they believe the gold turtles can increase the longevity of the family and help them prosper in the future.

The Curse Of The Once-Worshipped Turtle

Here’s the thing about cultural symbolism – as the eras pass by, they become open to many different interpretations. Hence, in different regions of China, turtles are considered as bad omen or symbols of impending doom.

Just as many of the regions believe in the strong medicinal properties of turtles, other regions consider it a sin to harm them or devour them.

As they were once worshipped as one of the four primary celestial beasts, the people consider it bad luck to cause any type of harm to the turtles or the tortoises.

Again, in some regions, turtles are simply considered bad luck or a symbol of laziness. As turtles are slow by nature, the lazy guys of society are compared to these creatures.

Superstitions such as – keeping turtles at an establishment will lead to its befalling – still rotate around many provinces.

Upon reviewing the modern Chinese street etymology, one can also find derogatory expressions such as – turtle egg, turtle head, turtle hair, etc. Basically, these expressions are often used to call a person airheaded, lazy, unlucky, etc.

It’s quite ironic how different superstitions interpret the myths in a completely opposite way. While traditional interpretations identify slowness as a sign of wisdom, modern interpreters identify it as a sign of laziness & frailty.

Similar ideological differences are found in the metaphysical symbolism of deities in all possible cultures. Ultimately, it all boils down to philosophical interpretations based on the current age ideologies.

And that’s simultaneously the best and worst part of myths. They’ve got the power to open the channels to critical analysis and interpretation of the ancient texts while preserving the core values of the culture in the process.

Before You Go…

Throughout the eras, the turtles have left a significant imprint on Chinese culture and history. From being considered lucky charms to creating lifelong traditions – turtles can be found in all the major aspects.

In today’s article, I attempted to provide a broad overview of the significance of turtles in Chinese culture in terms of art, symbolism, and history. While the research was painstaking and took weeks, it felt great to know about all the myths.

Hopefully, you, too, enjoyed finding out about these well-known and not-as-well-known tidbits about the friendly neighborhood turtles in your area.

To know more about how and where these symbolisms started to take effect in the past and present world, read up on – Origin & History Of Turtles: Ancient Myth to Modern Science. And if you’ve got some other interesting info to share about the origin and symbolism of turtles, do share as I’d love to know more!

Primary Reference: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1Er0j_Mub0HvIRTL7LJP4HvcAh2g9HDiQ/view?fbclid=IwAR1GQEpLM9ccm7n84P34uCpNm85H4zBMPZa6yeWXeDWRHCAR7ceo-LVn5Ec

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About Author

Muntaseer Rahman started keeping pet turtles back in 2013. He also owns the largest Turtle & Tortoise Facebook community in Bangladesh. These days he is mostly active on Facebook.

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