If you have experience with Chinese culture, you may have observed one beautiful Chinese symbol or two, whether in the Chinatown of your country or Chinese movies, in the forms of characters, bigrams, designs or art motifs. In this article, we will list some popular Chinese symbols and meanings significant to Chinese people.
Chinese Symbols and Their Meaning
Symbols abound in the Chinese culture, in which Chinese people believe they can enhance the likelihood of better wealth, health, opportunity, career, relationships and so on by putting auspicious symbols and motifs on the decorative arts, clothing, chinaware and other objects they used in their surroundings.
When seeing some Chinese characters in a tattoo or on a T-shirt, many people get curious and raise the question of what does the Chinese symbol mean? To find out the meanings of some Chinese text symbols, you only need to point your smartphone’s camera at the character, and your AR language translator App will convert the character into your target language in no time.
Most of the time, however, you only get the literal translation of the character. As for the cultural meanings behind it, only a native Chinese translator or that who is well-versed in the Chinese culture can accurately and completely relay the hidden Chinese symbol meanings from one language to another. But there’s more to discover when it comes to Chinese symbols.
Chinese Culture Symbols
If you are familiar with Chinese culture, you’ll notice that Chinese symbols are not confined to characters. The unique decorative patterns, ornaments, iconography elements and auspicious symbols, including clouds, waves, bats, etc., which are widely used in Chinese visual arts, are also parts of Chinese symbols, with each representing their particular meaning.
Ancient Chinese people believed in harmony between man and nature (天人合一).
Similarly, Chinese culture symbols were also heavily influenced by nature, including cosmology, natural landscape, fauna and flora and other composite elements. These Chinese symbols are associated with auspicious meanings such as happiness, wealth, and good fortune, which have been used and adored by the Chinese for thousands of years to express their wishes or desires to bring good things to their lives. The following is a list of some common Chinese symbols and meanings.
|Type||Name and Description|
|Clouds||Xiangyun (祥雲)/ auspicious clouds, a symbol of peace and the heavens|
|Cosmic symbol||Yunjian (雲肩)/ cloud collar motif, which is usually used on Hanfu, the traditional dress of the Han Chinese.|
|Bat||Fu (蝠)/Bat, homophone for Fu(福), meaning good fortune|
|Five Bats||Wu Fu (五蝠)/Five bats, homophone for Wu Fu (五福), meaning five blessings including longevity, wealth, health and composure, love of virtue, and timely dealth.|
|Bats with the Chinese symbol of Swastika (卍/Wan)||Wan Fu (萬蝠), homophone for Wan Fu (萬福), meaning ten thousands of/infinite good fortune.|
|Elephant||Xiang (象), homophone for Xiang (祥), meaning an auspicious sign|
|Horse||Ma (馬)/A horse, a symbol for speed and perseverance|
|Crane||Dandinghe (丹頂鶴)/A red-crowned crane, a symbol for longevity, immortality and wisdom|
|Deer||Lu (鹿)/Deer, homophone for Lu (祿)，meaning wealth and official promotion|
|Single Fish||Yu (魚)/fish, homophone for Yu (餘), meaning wealth and abundance|
|Double fish||Shuangyuwen (雙魚紋)/Double fish/ twinfish pattern in the form of two horizontal fishes with each facing an opposite direction, a symbol for marital happiness, fertility and abundance.|
|Dragon||Long (龍)/Dragon is believed to be able to control the weather to assure fruitful harvest. It has long been the symbol of the emperor of China, with wit, intelligence, power, ambition, vitality, and good fortune all in one person.|
|Phoenix/Fenghuang||Fenghuang (鳳凰)/Phoenix is a mythical bird with composite animal body parts of a swan, a swallow, a rooster, a Manchuria crane, a Manchurian duck, a snake and a fish. Feng is the male phoenix and Huang is the female, which symbolizes the empress of China. A pair of Feng and Huang is the symbol of marital happiness.|
|Qilin||Qilin (麒麟) features a scaly body, hooves, a cow’s tail, and a single/two fleshy horns, symbolizing virtue and perfection.|
|Single Gourd||One Hulu (葫蘆)/gourd, a fruit with many seeds, symbolizes fertility and many offsprings.|
|Double Gourd||Two Hulu (葫蘆)/gourds, the symbol of deities and immortals|
|Peaches||Tao (桃)/Peaches often associates with immortality and immortal deinity or longevity together with the Chinese character “壽”.|
|Pomegranates||Shiliu (石榴)/Pomegranates is a fruit with many seeds, symbolizing fertility and many offsprings.|
Stylized Chinese Circle Symbol
Chinese people love symmetrical designs. The circle is probably the most important shape in Chinese culture. Being an essential part of Taoism and Chinese medical philosophies, the circle represents the state of harmony, the balance between the yin and yang, and the duality of nature. It has deeply influenced Chinese culture and its visual arts.
The Chinese people adore things with auspicious meanings. They often put different auspicious things together to multiply the likelihood of fulfilling their wishes or desires, by combining the Chinese symbolic character “卍”(ten thousand) with the bats, the homophone for good fortune, to express that the good blessings are wished 10,000 times. Or in this case, they adapt their beloved auspicious characters in a circular design. We’ve aggregated the most widely used Chinese circle motifs in the list below. Each Chinese circle symbol can be seen on Chinese decorative ornaments, porcelain ware, clothing, and other forms of Chinese visual arts.
|Cai (財)||Stylized character||Wealth|
|Fu (福)||Stylized symbol||Upright: Good fortune/prosperity|
|Fu (福)||Stylized symbol||
Dao (倒) is the homophone for Dao (到), which means arrive/reach. Putting the character “福” upside down means not only are you blessed with good luck, the good luck has also reached you already.
|Lu (祿)||Stylized symbol||Wealth and official promotion|
|Shou (壽)||Stylized symbol||Longevity|
|Wan Shou (萬壽)||Composite: Stylized symbol with the Chinese symbol of Swastika (卍/Wan)||Longevity is blessed/lasts 10,000 times.|
|Stylized symbol||Double happiness, wedding bliss|
|Taiji (太極)||Taoist symbol||Supreme Ultimate|
|Wuji (無極)||Taoist symbol||Primordial Universe prior to Supreme Ultimate|
|Yin and Yang (陰陽)||Taoist symbol||Concept in Chinese philosophy that describes the opposite but interconnected forces|
Chinese Text Symbols
Compared to the Chinese culture symbols which symbolic references are complicated to understand, the Chinese text symbols are more recognizable. The text symbols for different implications are basically different characters in nature. Recognizing Chinese text symbols is virtually the process of matching the characters of your desired words in your Chinese glossary. But each character also has scores of cultural allusions behind it, which only knowledgeable Chinese translators can convey.
|Description||Traditional Chinese||Simplified Chinese||Symbolism|
|Chinese Symbol for Love||愛||爱||Double Xi (囍)/ Red peas / Mystic knot/ Mandarin duck/ Male and female phoenix (Fenghuang)|
|Chinese Symbol for Hope||希望, 望, 期望, 祈望||希望, 望, 期望, 祈望||Vigorous elements like the season spring, the color green, the rising sun, and sunflowers.|
|Chinese Symbol for Happiness||福, 幸福||福, 幸福||Double Xi (囍)/ Bats/ Five Bats/ Bats with the symbolic character wan (卍)|
|Chinese Symbol for Wealth||財, 財富, 富||财, 财富, 富||Pigs/Gold ingot (金元寶)|
Chinese Symbol for Respect
|尊敬, 尊重||尊敬, 尊重||Carnation|
Chinese Symbol for Strong
|強壯||强壮||Tiger (虎虎生威)/Dragon and Horse (龍馬精神)/Bamboo|
|Chinese Symbol for Long Life||長壽||长寿||Tortoises/Crane/Peaches/Pine trees|
Chinese Symbol for Power
|權, 權力||权, 权力||Five-clawed dragon/ Fu lions or Fu dogs|
|Chinese Symbol for Prosperity||成功, 繁榮, 興旺||成功, 繁荣, 兴旺||Pomegranates/ Blossomings of all sorts of flowers|
|Chinese Symbol for Luck||幸運, 好運||幸运, 好运||The color red/ Tortoise/ Dragon / Chinese puns/ The number 6, 8 and 9|
|Chinese Symbols for Forever||永, 永遠||永, 永远||Chinese true-lover’s knot|
|Chinese Symbol for Best Friends||至交, 好友||至交, 好友||Arms and legs (情同手足)/ Liver and gall (肝膽相照)|
Translation of Chinese Symbol Meanings
It takes three to four dedicated years to master the Chinese language and more years to fully understand the Chinese culture and mindset. It could be over a decade before you could accurately interpret Chinese symbols and their meanings.
If you want to translate some Chinese symbols and meanings but don’t want to invest that amount of time in learning the knowledge by yourself, the shortcut here is to work with a reliable translation company that understands the ins and outs of Chinese culture. As a professional language service company based in South China, Wordspath has extensive experience interpreting traditional Chinese culture from and into 150+ languages without anything getting lost in translation. If you need help with translation for Chinese symbols and meanings, feel free to contact us.
Apart from the Chinese symbols and meanings mentioned and listed above, there are many others this post doesn’t cover. When translating cultural-relevant content, it’s essential to keep your eyes open to things that might be considered a symbol in the source culture.
The translation is never solely about the conversion of texts between languages. When adapting content to suit the requirements of another culture, it’s critical to take the culture and text symbols into account, ensuring the intent behind the content and its hidden cultural implication is either kept or replaced with the equivalent in the target culture.