The Meaning of Certain Animals, Plants, And Supernatural Beings Found In Some Classic Chinese Poems

Welcome to the second post in my blog series on Fir-Flower Tablets: Poems Translated from the Chinese by Florence Ayscough and American poet Amy Lowell. In this post, I’ve continued to excerpt from Ayscough’s excellent introduction to the poems.

It will be observed that I have said practically nothing about religion. The reason is partly that the three principal religions practised by the Chinese are either so well known, as Buddhism, for example, or so difficult to describe, as Taoism and the ancient religion of China now merged in the teachings of Confucius; partly that none of them could be profitably compressed into the scope of this introduction; but chiefly because the subject of religion, in the poems here translated, is generally referred to in its superstitious aspects alone. The superstitions which have grown up about Taoism particularly are innumerable. I have dealt with a number of these in the notes to the poems in which they appear.

Certain supernatural personages, without a knowledge of whom much of the poetry would be unintelligible, I have set down in the following list:

Immortals who live in the Taoist Paradises. Human beings may attain “Hsien-ship,” or Immortality, by living a life of contemplation in the hills. In translating the term, we have used the word “Immortals.”

Beneficent beings who inhabit the higher regions. They are kept extremely busy attending to their duties as tutelary deities of the roads, hills, rivers, etc., and it is also their function to intervene and rescue deserving people from the attacks of their enemies.

A proportion of the souls of the departed who inhabit the “World of Shades,” a region resembling this world, which is the “World of Light,” in every particular, with the important exception that it has no sunshine. Kindly kuei are known, but the influence generally suggested is an evil one. They may only return to the World of Light between sunset and sunrise, except upon the fifth day of the Fifth Month (June), when they are free to come during the time known as the “hour of the horse,” from eleven a.m. to one p.m.

Yao Kuai
A class of fierce demons who live in the wild regions of the Southwest and delight in eating the flesh of human beings.

There are also supernatural creatures whose names carry a symbolical meaning. A few of them are:

Ch’i Lin
A composite animal, somewhat resembling the fabulous unicorn, whose arrival is a good omen. He appears when sages are born.

A symbol of the forces of Heaven, also the emblem of Imperial power. Continually referred to in poetry as the steed which transports a philosopher who has attained Immortality to his home in the Western Paradise.

Fêng Huang
A glorious bird, symbol of the Empress, therefore often associated with the dragon. The conception of this bird is probably based on the Argus pheasant. It is described as possessing every grace and beauty. A Chinese author, quoted by F. W. Williams in “The Middle Kingdom,” writes: “It resembles a wild swan before and a unicorn behind; it has the throat of a swallow, the bill of a cock, the neck of a snake, the tail of a fish, the forehead of a crane, the crown of a mandarin drake, the stripes of a dragon, and the vaulted back of a tortoise. The feathers have five colours which are named after the five cardinal virtues, and it is five cubits in height; the tail is graduated like the pipes of a gourd-organ, and its song resembles the music of the instrument, having five modulations.” Properly speaking, the female is Fêng, the male Huang, but the two words are usually given in combination to denote the species. Someone, probably in desperation, once translated the combined words as “phœnix,” and this term has been employed ever since. It conveys, however, an entirely wrong impression of the creature. To Western readers, the word “phœnix” suggests a bird which, being consumed by fire, rises in a new birth from its own ashes. The Fêng Huang has no such power, it is no symbol of hope or resurrection, but suggests friendship and affection of all sorts. Miss Lowell and I have translated the name as “crested love-pheasant,” which seems to us to convey a better idea of the beautiful Fêng Huang, the bird which brings happiness.

A supernatural bird sometimes confused with the above. It is a sacred creature, connected with fire, and a symbol of love and passion, of the relation between men and women.

The “paired-wings bird,” described in Chinese books as having but one wing and one eye, for which reason two must unite for either of them to fly. It is often referred to as suggesting undying affection.

Real birds and animals also have symbolical attributes. I give only three:

Represents longevity, and is employed, as is the dragon, to transport those who have attained to Immortality to the Heavens.

Yuan Yang
The exquisite little mandarin ducks, an unvarying symbol of conjugal fidelity. Li T’ai-po often alludes to them and declares that, rather than be separated, they would “prefer to die ten thousand deaths, and have their gauze-like wings torn to fragments.”

Wild Geese
Symbols of direct purpose, their flight being always in a straight line. As they follow the sun’s course, allusions to their departure suggest Spring, to their arrival, Autumn.

A complete list of the trees and plants endowed with symbolical meanings would be almost endless. Those most commonly employed in poetry in a suggestive sense are:

Ch’ang P’u
A plant growing in the Taoist Paradise and much admired by the Immortals, who are the only beings able to see its purple blossoms. On earth, it is known as the sweet flag, and has the peculiarity of never blossoming. It is hung on the lintels of doors on the fifth day of the Fifth Month to ward off the evil influences which may be brought by the kuei on their return to this world during the “hour of the horse.”

Riches and prosperity.

Purity. Although it rises from the mud, it is bright and spotless.

Literally “the first,” it being the first of the “hundred flowers” to open. It suggests the beginnings of things, and is also one of the “three friends” who do not fear the Winter cold, the other two being the pine and the bamboo.

A small epidendrum, translated in this book as “spear-orchid.” It is a symbol for noble men and beautiful, refined women. Confucius compared the Chün Tzŭ, Princely or Superior Man, to this little orchid with its delightful scent. In poetry, it is also used in reference to the Women’s Apartments and everything connected with them, suggesting, as it does, the extreme of refinement.

Fidelity and constancy. In spite of frost, its flowers continue to bloom.

Ling Chih
Longevity. This fungus, which grows at the roots of trees, is very durable when dried.

Longevity, immutability, steadfastness.

This plant has as many virtues as it has uses, the principal ones are modesty, protection from defilement, unchangeableness.

A tree whose botanical name is sterculia platanifolia. Its only English name seems to be “umbrella-tree,” which has proved so unattractive in its context in the poems that we have left it untranslated. It is a symbol for integrity, high principles, great sensibility. When “Autumn stands,” on August seventh, although it is still to all intents and purposes Summer, the wu-t’ung tree drops one leaf. Its wood, which is white, easy to cut, and very light, is the only kind suitable for making that intimate instrument which quickly betrays the least emotion of the person playing upon it—the ch’in, or table-lute.

A prostitute, or any very frivolous person. Concubines writing to their lords often refer to themselves under this figure, in the same spirit of self-depreciation which prompts them to employ the euphemism, “Unworthy One,” instead of the personal pronoun. Because of its lightness and pliability, it conveys also the idea of extreme vitality.

Beautiful women and ill-success in life. The first suggestion, on account of the exquisite colour of the flower; the second, because of its perishability.

Picture of Peach Blossoms by Giuseppe Castiglione /  Láng Shìníng. See my previous post about his work.

Longevity. This fruit is supposed to ripen once every three thousand years on the trees of Paradise, and those who eat of this celestial species never die.

Utility. Also suggests a peaceful hamlet. Its wood is used in the making of bows and the kind of temple-drums called mo yü—wooden fish. Its leaves feed the silk-worms.

Sadness and grief. It is symbolical of a heart which is not “flat” or “level,” as the Chinese say, not open or care-free, but of one which is “tightly rolled.” The sound of rain on its leaves is very mournful, therefore an allusion to the plantain always means sorrow. Planted outside windows already glazed with silk, its heavy green leaves soften the glaring light of Summer, and it is often used for this purpose.


Nothing has been more of a stumbling-block to translators than the fact that the Chinese year—which is strictly lunar, with an intercalary month added at certain intervals—begins a month later than ours; or, to be more exact, it is calculated from the first new moon after the sun enters Aquarius, which brings the New Year at varying times from the end of January to the middle of February. For translation purposes, however, it is safe to count the Chinese months as always one later by our calendar than the number given would seem to imply. By this calculation the “First Month” is February, and so on throughout the year.

The day is divided into twelve periods of two hours each beginning at eleven p.m. and each of these periods is called by the name of an animal—horse, deer, snake, bat, etc. As these names are not duplicated, the use of them tells at once whether the hour is day or night. Ancient China’s method of telling time was by means of slow and evenly burning sticks made of a composition of clay and sawdust, or by the clepsydra, or water-clock. Water-clocks are mentioned several times in these poems.

The clepsydra, or water-clock, has been used by the Chinese for many centuries, one can still be seen in the North Worshipping Tower in Canton, and another in the “Forbidden” portion of the Peking Palace, where the dethroned Manchu Emperor lives. The following account of the one in Canton is taken from the “Chinese Repository,” Volume XX, Page 430: “The clepsydra is called the ‘copper-jar water-dropper.’ There are four covered jars standing on a brickwork stairway, the top of each of which is level with the bottom of the one above it. The largest measures twenty-three inches high and broad and contains seventy catties or ninety-seven and a half pints of water; the second is twenty-two inches high and twenty-one inches broad; the third, twenty-one inches high and twenty broad; and the lowest, twenty-three inches high and nineteen inches broad. Each is connected with the other by an open trough along which the water trickles. The wooden index in the lowest jar is set every morning and afternoon at five o’clock, by placing the mark on it for these hours even with the cover through which it rises and indicates the time. The water is dipped out and poured back into the top jar when the index shows the completion of the half day, and the water is renewed every quarter.”


The points of the compass are governed by colours, elements, mythological beasts, and seasons, thus:

East: Green. Wood. The Blue-green Dragon. Spring.
South: Red. Fire. The Vermilion Bird. Summer.
West: White. Metal. The White Tiger. Autumn.
North: Black. Water. The Black Warrior. Winter.
Centre: Yellow. Earth.

Panel with immortals