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The Significance of Turtles in Chinese Culture: History & Feng Shui

Chris Dinesen Rogers

By Chris Dinesen Rogers

Bronze statue of a turtle in the Forbidden City

It’s easy to understand how turtles would find a place in any culture. There are so many unique things about them, from their home-on-the-go shells to their long lifespan to their usual docile nature. Many concepts correlate with these traits. They figure in the traditions of many American Indians, such as the Cheyenne, Algonquin, and Lakota. The Chinese also revere the turtle for its longevity and parallels to life.

The turtle has assumed various guises in other cultures, from being a Vietnamese warrior with an enchanted sword to one of the seven gods of happiness for the Japanese. It appears both as a wise sage and a trickster. However, how has the turtle’s image changed through the centuries?

History of the Turtle’s Significance

References to the turtle in Chinese culture go back to the deity Shangdi up until the Zhou Dynasty that reigned 1046–256 BC. Before that shift, it was the greatest of them all in the first dynasty: the Zhang. The importance of the turtle goes to the beginning. The country was advanced for the time, with the development of writing and a calendar system.

Undoubtedly, the turtle was a novelty. After all, it’s a relatively small animal with a remarkably long lifespan. That gave the animal a mystical quality. It’s no wonder that it segued into spiritual significance. It also became a symbol of the army because of its perceived steadfastness. It factored into divination. Unsurprisingly, many examples exist of turtles in art from this period.

The turtle evolved into a significant figure in the concept of the “Four Fabulous Animals,” representing the cardinal directions. They included the black turtle of the north and winter, representing endurance and longevity. The azure dragon represented east and spring. The red bird of the south was summer. Finally, the white tiger of the west was the fall.

The takeaway is the connection between the spiritual world and the natural one. That put the turtle and other fabulous animals on a different level. It also shows the reverence the Chinese people had for these animals. It highlights the connectivity of the spiritual and natural that we don’t always see in this context.

Chinese pond turtle sitting on a stone in water
Image Credit: Andreas Altenburger, Shutterstock

Yin and Yang

Of course, it’s an oversight not to discuss the Yin and Yang when talking about Chinese culture. For every passive and feminine Yin, there is an active and masculine Yang. The two exist together. The carapace or upper shell of the turtle is associated with the Yin. It relates to Pangu, the creation figure, who separated darkness and light.

The turtle or tortoise was Pangu’s companion through this journey of Yin and Yang. That also gives the animal an elevated role in Chinese culture and adds to its complexity when you consider other dual roles, such as Heaven and Earth. The origin of chaos also figures into the mix, where the turtle plays a role in repairing the sky from a deluge. The animal takes on the status of a pillar of culture.

The Turtle and Feng Shui

The turtle’s role takes on a modern twist with the concept of feng shui. The four cardinal directions play a direct role, with the turtle assuming its northerly position. While we may think of it as a modern style twist, its origins are ancient. Balance and harmony are the goals for which the directions and their symbolism provide the roadmap.

The mix of real and mythical creatures is another example of Yin and Yang. The goal is to optimize the flow of chi composed of these elements in one’s life and home. It is relevant on an urban level and for an individual’s home. The black turtle of the north takes a starring role. The practice also incorporates the five elements of metal, earth, fire, wood, and water.

Feng shui embraces a common theme to unite the Yin and Yang of the earth and heaven. The turtle represents the Yin as something existing near the earth and is passive. After all, the animal is rather slow-moving. It’s also associated with water, where many species live for at least part of their lives. The turtle stands out with its two-parted shell, the upper carapace, and lower plastron.

Group of turtles in Guangzhou Zoo China
Image Credit: Mehdi Naeimi, Shutterstock

Final Thoughts

The turtle offers many analogies that embrace the Yin and Yang of Chinese culture. They are unique in many scores, which this symbolism highlights. It’s fascinating that the symbolism and its significance persist even to this day. The lessons are apropos because they encourage thought and dialogue of seemingly opposite elements. The truth lies in their connection.

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Featured Image Credit: UlyssePixel, Shutterstock

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