In China a saying goes around that Four Divine Creatures guard the world in four directions, namely, the Azure Dragon in the East, the White Tiger in the west, the Vermillion Bird (Zhuque) in the South, and the Black Tortoise (Xuanwu) in the north. As recorded in Shan Hai Jing (The Classic of Mountains and Sea), each of the Four Creatures represents a season – the Azure Dragon stands for the spring, the Vermillion summer, the White Tiger autumn, and the Black Tortoise Winter.
The Azure Dragon
According to the theory of Five Elements, the Azure Dragon is a holy beast representing the east. In ancient times, the dragon enjoyed a much higher status in China than in India, as the Chinese believe dragon is supreme holy animal, the symbol of the emperor.
Among the many dynasties China has been through, some rulers have taken the Azure Dragon as their reign title, such as Emperor Ming of the Wei Kingdom in the Three Kingdoms Period.
The White Tiger
According to the theory of Five Elements, the White Tiger is a holy beast representing the west, and the season it stands for is autumn.
The White Tiger is also a symbol of force and army, so many things entitled White Tiger in ancient China are related to military affairs, for instance, the white tiger banner in ancient army and the white tiger image on Commander’s Tally. In the Han Dynasty, the White Tiger was usually carved on the stone relief of a tomb door, or on the lintel of a tomb passage with the Azure Dragon, to ward off evil spirits.
The Black Tortoise (Xuanwu)
At the very beginning Xuanwu referred to the tortoise giving divination: the tortoise has black back, and is said to have the ability to enter the nether world to inquire forthcoming things. After getting the answer, it would come back showing the answer with some certain signs. Later on, it is usually depicted as both a tortoise and a snake, specifically with the snake coiling around the tortoise. As the tortoise lives in water, it becomes the water god; and the tortoise enjoys a long life, so xuanwu becomes the symbol of longevity; the nether world is said to be in the north, as people in the Shang Dynasty would face north when practising divination, thus xuanwu becomes the god of north.
The Vermillion Bird (Zhuque)
Zhuque (Vermillion bird), also called “Zhuniao”, is the god of south in ancient Chinese legend. “Zhu” refers to the vermillion color, like the fire, so “zhuque” also refers to the phoenix. It is said to have the ability to reborn from the fire, just like the immortal bird in the western mythology, so it is also named fire phoenix. In Chinese legend, Zhuque is said to have chicken’s head, swallow’s chin, snake’s neck, fish’s tail, and five-color feather.
To observe the celestial phenomena, the ancient Chinese divided the sky ecliptic into four regions, each assigned a mysterious animal. They are Azure Dragon on the east, Black Tortoise on the north, White Tiger on the west, and Vermilion Bird on the south. Each region contains seven mansions, making a total of 28 mansions. These animals are known as “Four Symbols”...
Emperors are called Ziwei Star (Polaris) in old Chinese myths. When the Ziwei Star descends to the secular world, he would always be accompanied by 28 heavenly generals, which are the Twenty-eight Mansions, including Wenqu Star in charge of one’s official career, and the Altair and Vega which have evolved into the moving romance of “The Cowherd and the Weaving Girl”.