"What are the Four Intelligent Creatures? They are: the Unicorn, the Phoenix, the Tortoise, and the Dragon"
from the Li Ki (Book of Rites and Ceremonies)
So it has been said that these are the four spiritually endowed animals sacred to ancient China.
The Unicorn (Ch'i-lin)
The Ch'i-lin, is a symbol of longevity, grandeur, contentment, illustrious offspring and wise administration. It is the incarnate essence of the Five Elements, the noblest of animals, and the emblem of perfect good. The Ch'i-lin combines good will, gentleness and benevolence, and for this reason is considered the King of Beasts. It can walk on water or land, and is careful to not kill insects or grass. It never drinks muddy water, and is always solitary in China, where it is thought to have a livespan of a thousand years.
The Ch'i-lin is sometimes depicted as resembling a large stag or musk deer, about twelve cubits tall (1), with a head like a horse or ox, the forehead of a wolf, horse hooves, and a voice like bells. Male Ch'i-lin have a fleshy tipped horn growing from the top of its head. More classic descriptions picture the Ch'i-lin with the body of a horse, covered in scales, with two horns bent back. (2) Its back is colored in the Five Colors--red, black, yellow, blue and white--(3) to symbolize its perfection, while it belly is either yellow or brown.
Legend has it that the Ch'i-lin is not native to the Flowery Lands, but comes from Heaven, and only appears before the birth of benevolent kings and wise sages. It is said to have first been seen in 2697 BCE at the palace of Emperor Huang-ti. Its final appearance heralded the birth of Confucius. Some legends say that the mother of Confucius became pregnant by stepping in the footsteps of the Ch'i-lin on her way to prayer. Other stories relate how the Ch'i-lin appeared before the mother-to-be, and spat out a jade tablet which read, "Son of Mountain Crystal, when the dynasty crumbles, Thou shalt rule as a throneless king."
The Ch'i-lin is sometimes called the Dragon Horse and is represented by Buddhists as carrying on its back the Book of the Law. A Dragon Horse supposedly emerged from the Yellow River and appeared to Fu Hsi, the first legendary emperor of China, bearing on its back a map from which written language evolved.
In 1206, Chinghis Khan set out with his armies to invade India. On the eve of entering the country, an animal like a deer with a horse head and a single horn, came before the great Khan and bowed three times in submission. Chinghis Khan took this as a sign from Heaven, spared India, and returned to Mongolia.
It is thought that the Ch'i-lin has not been seen in more recent times because mankind has too greatly degenerated.
The Phoenix (Feng Huang)
The Feng Huang symbolizes sun and warmth, summer and harvest. It is said to have been born of fire, and is considered the Emperor of Birds.
The Feng Huang resembles a wild swan, with the throat of a swallow, the tail of a fish with twelve feathers, the forehead of a crane, the crown of a mandarin drake and the back of a tortoise. Its five colored feathers represent the five virtues. It stands five cubits high, and has a five-octave voice. The male bird has three legs and is thought to live in the sun.
The Feng Huang is benevolent, and will not harm insects or grass. It lands only on the wu t'ung tree, drinks only sweet water, and eats only bamboo seed. It is often shown as being attended to by several smaller birds. Male and female Feng Huang depicted together are the symbol of everlasting love.
The Feng Huang is also the emblem of the Empress of China, and of brides on their wedding day. The plumage of the peacock and Chinese pheasant, both symbols of beauty, are used "when phoenix feathers are unavailable".
The Feng Huang appears only when reason prevails, during times of peace and prosperity. It visits gardens and palaces of virtuous emperors as a visible token of celestial favor. The first sighting of a Feng Huang was during the reign of Emperor Huang-ti in the year 2600 BCE. It was last seen at the grave of the father of Hung Wu, when Imperial power passed into the hands of his sons during the Ming Dynasty.
The Tortoise (Kuei)
The Kuei is the symbol of longevity, strength and endurance. It is also known in astrological terms as the Black Warrior, ruler of the northern quadrant of Heaven, symbol of winter and the universe. The Kuei's back represents the sky, with the markings corresponding to the constellations. Its belly, with its straight lines, symbolizes Earth. Its longevity is said to be equal to the life span of the son and the moon, and it is said to be able to conceive by mere thought. The Kuei is the Chief of Shell Animals.
In Chinese mythology, T'ien-Ti, the Emperor of Heaven, became displeased with the Earth, and caused a flood to erase humanity and its wickedness. Yu, a god, pleaded with T'ien-Ti to stop, and asked permission to reform the Earth. With the help of a huge black tortoise, who carried on its back magic earth to soak up the water, and a dragon, who sculpted valleys and mountains with its tail, Yu rebuilt the Earth in a span of thirty years.
The Eight Diagrams, from which was born Chinese mathematics, divination and metaphysics, was revealed to Emperor Fu Hsi in 2852 BCE by Than-Qui, the Tortoise Spirit, who carried the markings on the back of his shell.
My favorite story tells of the Temple of Heaven at Beijing being built on wood columns which were set on the backs of live tortoises. It was believed that since tortoises could live for three thousand years without food or water, they could preserve the wood from decay.
Tortoises are kept in tanks at Buddhist temples. Religious devotees earn merit (karma) by feeding them or adding to their numbers by buying them from street vendors who sell them as food.
The Dragon has many forms in Chinese mythology.
The T'ien-lung is the Celestial Dragon, who carries on its back the palace of the gods. The Shen-lung are the Spiritual Dragons, the makers of the wind and rain. These dragons are most important to crops, and are the ones most often depicted in Chinese art.
The Li, of which there are four, inhabit the oceans. These Sea Dragon Kings live in palaces of crystal and jade. They have yellow scales, shaggy legs and tail, a jutting brow, flaming eyes, small black ears, whiskers and a gaping mouth full of long sharp teeth. The Li are immortal and can communicate without speaking. On occasion, they are used by the undersea gods and goddesses as a means of transport.
The Chiao dwell in the mountains, and are shaped like a snake, with a small head, crimson chest, green striped back, yellow sides and four legs. The are about thirteen feet long. The Ti-lung are the Earth Dragons, who govern the rivers and streams. The Fu-ts'ang lung are the Dragons of hidden treasure, guardians of the wealth that is hidden from mortal eye. In addition, there are nine other forms which are considered sub-species, and whose forms adorn various household objects.
Dragons are also identified by both physical type and color. Physical categories--serpentine, clawed, horned and winged--are thought to correspond to the various life cycles, with serpentine being the youngest, and winged being the oldest. Azure dragons are omens of spring; red or black dragons are ferocious and cause storms; yellow dragons possess the greatest virtue and intelligence; and are only seen during times of perfection.
The dragon is the King of Scaly Creatures. It has the power of invisibility and transformation, often appearing in human form. Dragons are generally well meaning, but sometimes fly into fits of rage, causing havoc and storms. They are also deaf. Dragons are fond of beautiful gems, roasted swallows, and are especially fond of teasing spiders. Dragons are thought to be afraid of iron, centipedes, China-berry leaves, beeswax, tigers and five-color silk thread.
The most important treasure a dragon possesses is its magic pearl, which the dragon always kept near, either in its mouth or under its chin. The pearl gives off a radiant light that never fades, and is the symbol of wisdom, enlightenment, self-realization and spiritual richness. Dragons become powerless if their pearls (of wisdom) are stolen…
The first Chinese are thought to have descended from Nu Kua, who was part dragon, part mortal. The humans that descended from her were tutored by her consort Fu Hsi (first legendary emperor). The dragons that descended from her were fluid, appearing often in human and animal forms, and were regarded with awe and affection.
There is a superstition that holds dragons responsible for the invisible lines that run through China, which metaphysicists compare to the ley lines of Briton. These lines are thought to be Earth's veins, through which the natural forces flow; if obstructed, disaster is thought to be the consequence.
The Celestial Dragon, identified by the five claws on it feet, has been an emblem of Imperial power since the Han Dynasty (206 BCE) and is reserved for symbolic use by the Emperor and heirs, and by princes of the first and second rank. Princes of the third and fourth rank use the four-clawed dragon as their symbol. All other nobles who are allowed to use the dragon in their symbology are restricted to the three-toed variety. The dragon is also worn by grooms on their wedding day.
1. An ancient form of measurement originating in Egypt, the length of one's elbow to the tip of one's middle finger. An English cubit is about 18 inches.
2. In Mongolia, there is an antelope having slightly curved black horns that are two feet long and ringed. They call this Unicorn Orango, and hold it as a sacred animal.
3. For a definition of color symbolism in China, please see Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives.
Outlines of Chinese Symbolism and Art Motives, C.A.S. Williams, Charles E. Tuttle Co, Tokyo, 1981
The Book of Imaginary Beings, Jorge Luis Borges, Avon Books, NY 1969
The Lore of the Unicorn, Odell Shepard, Harper Colophon Books, Winchester MA 1979
The Book of the Dragon, Judy Allen and Jeanne Griffiths, Chartwell Books Inc., Secaucus NJ 1979
Dragons, Gods and Spirits from Chinese Mythology, Tao Tao Liu Sanders, Schockton Books, NY 1983