Chinese Symbols


Chinese culture is one of the oldest and richest in the world, and their symbols tell us a lot about how people in the Middle Kingdom thought.  A large basis for all Chinese symbols was the Wu Xing, or Five Elements.  These five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water were seen as the primary basis for change, and they were used to represent the seasons.


The five elements, or phases, have been around since the 1st century BC, when the Han Dynasty was in power.  The symbols were used in such disparate fields as medicine, music, Feng Shui, astrology, and martial arts.  All of the characters are still in use today, and have gained an ever greater following in the west.


l  The Wood Element:  Like the forests, trees, and shrubs that can grow back after losing a limb, the wood element represents regeneration, renewal, and growth.  Wood can also represent direction, movement, and one’s vision for their life.  The season of wood is spring, as this is the time of flowering and rebirth, the continual movement of the ancient force, Chi.


l  The Fire Element:  Just as one small spark can ignite a mighty conflagration, so too can fire spark and ignite life.  Fire represents the fullest expressions of Yang and does much to help circulate the blood as well as the bodies naturally occurring Chi.  Summer was the time of the fire element, and the hot and sweltering aspects of that time do much to remind us of our life spark.


l  The Earth Element:  Earth is our home, and the Earth element represents shelter, nourishment, and safety.  In ancient Chinese writings, the Earth element was at the center with the four other elements circled around it.  This element also governs our spleen and stomach, as those are the organs that nourish and support us.  The Earth element didn’t have a season per se, but it did represent a long summer or autumn. 


l  The Metal Element:  Critical to breathing and respiration, as well as inspiration and the release of impurities from our bodies, the metal element was one of the most important of the five elements, and a necessary one for our bodies as well.  The period for metal was the time of the harvest, autumn. 


l  The Water Element:  The water element expressed stillness, refreshment, cleansing, and power.  Its season was winter, a period of extreme stillness, but also refreshment from the supplies we stored.  Water is essential to every cell of our bodies, and without we seriously risk our health and vitality.


l  Yin/Yang:  The most important symbol in all of Chinese history, however, is the yin yang.  This symbol represented how all things were interconnected and dependent upon one another, making their very existence dependent upon their opposite.  The symbols have gained notoriety throughout the world, but are still central to the philosophies of many Chinese martial arts and the I Ching.  No other Chinese symbol can even come close to having the recognition that the Yin Yang has received.


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