For those who live in the Midwest, you might have been to Chicago’s Chinatown before. Hop off the Red Line station and you’ll come across the Nine Dragon Wall, a gift from China to Chicago.
Fun fact: There are 4 Nine Dragon Walls in China (Beijing’s Forbidden City, Beijing’s Beihai Park, Shanxi province’s Datong city, and Shanxi province’s Pingyao city), and Chicago is home to one of the four replicas in the world.
Turn around the corner and you will venture into Chinatown Square—an outdoor mall of boutiques, bakeries, restaurants, etc. in which the architectural design is a tribute to the Chinese Imperial Court. Its notable landmarks are the twelve bronze zodiac figures, the four imposing bronze gates at each end of the square that depict the Four Great Inventions of China (papermaking, printing, gunpowder, and the compass), and the giant Chinatown Mural that is made up of 100,000 individually cut pieces of hand-painted glass from China which highlights the history of Chinese immigration to the U.S.
However, there’s more to Chinatown Square than meets the eye. If you look carefully as you walk through the square, you will notice glazed tiles with strange creatures on the walls. What exactly are they?
Meet the four mythological creatures (also known as the Four Symbols) that guard the world!
In ancient Chinese astronomy, the sky was divided into four sections. Each section contained seven mansions, thus forming 28 mansions. This enabled the Chinese to track the movement of the moon and determine the seasons and time, with each season being assigned to a mythological creature. According to archaeological evidence, the cosmological concept of the Four Symbols may have existed as early as 6,000 years ago, based on bone artifacts from Henan province.
1 Azure Dragon 青龙
Cardinal Direction: East
Mansions: Horn, Neck, Root, Room, Heart, Tail, and Winnowing Basket
Corresponding Season: Spring
Corresponding Element: Wood
2 White Tiger 白虎
Cardinal Direction: West
Mansions: Legs, Bond, Stomach, Hairy Head, Net, Turtle Beak, and Three Stars
Corresponding Season: Autumn
Corresponding Element: Metal
3 Vermilion Bird 朱雀
Cardinal Direction: South
Mansions: Well, Ghosts, Willow, Star, Extended Net, Wings, and Chariot
Corresponding Season: Summer
Corresponding Element: Fire
Note: The Vermillion Bird is not the same as the Fenghuang (凤凰).
4 Black Tortoise 玄武
Cardinal Direction: North
Mansions: Dipper, Ox, Girl, Emptiness, Rooftop, Encampment, and Wall
Corresponding Season: Winter
Corresponding Element: Water
If you want to know more about why these colors and elements are attributed to these creatures, be sure to check out the Five Elements diagram. It is a guide to understanding the way the Chinese interact and interpret relationships between phenomena which include feng shui, astrology, TCM, martial arts, and more.
Now that you know, when you visit Chicago’s Chinatown or even The Forbidden City, don't forget to “I Spy” these symbols!
P.S. You may have noticed that I left out the Yellow Dragon who represents the element Earth and the center of the universe. This dragon is a special presence because he is the embodiment of the Yellow Emperor, Xuānyuán (轩辕). It is said that all (Han) Chinese are descendants of his.