Index of Chinese symbolic elements


In a Chinese painting have you ever wondered what a bee is doing in a painting together with a boy on the back of an elephant? These symbolic elements have for centuries been well understood by Chinese people. It is still important to understand them as they add a new dimension to appreciation of Chinese art.

Here are all the subjects covered in this large index of Chinese symbols and art motifs. As there are so many we have grouped them into birds, animals, colors, flowers & fruit, nature and assorted categories. This section does not include the pantheon of gods and heroes from China's history, we have a separate guide to all the important Chinese deities.

Amber Amulet Ancestral tablet Animal Ant Ao Apple Apricot Aubergine Ax Azalea Badger Ball Bamboo Basket Bat Bean Bear Beard Bee Bell Bird Black Blue Boat Book Bottle gourd Bow Box Bridge Broom Brush Butterfly Cabbage Canopy Carp Cat Centipede Cherry Children Chrysanthemum Cicada Cinnabar Cinnamon Cloud Cockerel Coin Color Crab Crane Creeper Cricket Crow Cypress Deer Dew Dog Donkey Dove Dragon Dragonfly Duck Eagle Earth Eight treasures Elephant Endless knot Fan Filial piety Finger lemon Fire Fish Flowers Flute Fox Gall bladder Gecko Ghost Ginseng Glow worm Gong Good luck gods Goose Green Hair Halberd Hare Hat Hawk Heart Heaven Hell Heron Horse Ice Immortals Imperial Insignia Iris Isles of the Blessed Jade Jujube Kingfisher Lacquer Laozi Lily Lion Longevity Lotus Luohan Lute Lychee Magnolia Magpie Maple Meander Melon Mirror Monkey Moon Mountain Mouth organ Mulberry Narcissus Numbers Onion Opium Orange Orchid Oriole Owl Ox Pagoda Pan Gu Panther Parrot Pavilion Peach Peacock Pear Pearl Peng Niao Peony Persimmon Pheasant Phoenix Pig Pine Pipa Plum Pomegranate Purple Quail Rain Rat Raven Red Rhinoceros Rose Ru Yi Saddle Scorpion Scroll Seasons Sheep Shoe Snake Spider Stone Sun Swallow Swastika Sword Tai Ji Taotie Thunder Tiger Toad Tortoise Tripod Umbrella Unicorn Vase Walnut Wave White Willow Wine Wolf Wood oil tree Yellow

If you are looking for a motif to convey a particular meaning it can be tedious to look through all the symbols. So here is a list of the symbols arranged by meaning, note that some of them can take multiple meanings so appear more than once.

Incidentally, the bee and the boy on the back of an elephant? It's a wish for happiness, good luck and a job promotion.

Arrive quickly

Often combined with other things, this set adds the meaning that ‘good fortune’, ‘exam success’, ‘children’ and so on should happen soon.

Horse Peng Niao Jujube

Beauty terms

Symbols portraying beauty usually in the form of beautiful flowers.

Apple Apricot Azalea Cherry Glow worm Jade Kingfisher Lily Magnolia Orchid Oriole Peach Pear Pearl Peony Pheasant Phoenix Iris


Symbols that express a wish for children - particularly sons.

Ball Lily Pomegranate Toad Unicorn Lychee Melon Iris

Examination success

Success in the Imperial Examinations was a passport to power and wealth and it was customary to wish candidates good luck with gifts symbolizing success.

Apricot Carp Crab Halberd Onion

Job Promotion

Wishes for someone to receive a promotion at work.

Cypress Maple Pomegranate Hat Mouth organ

Appointment to an official post

After passing the examinations the wish would be be appointed to a lucrative position in government of great prestige.

Aubergine Bee Bell Cinnamon Cockerel Crane Halberd Lute Maple Peacock Wave Brush Pipa cicada


Things that are considered harbingers of bad news.

Owl Crow Wolf

Family Values

These symbols are associated with filial piety - devotion to parents.

Crow Raven Sheep Ice

Good Luck

There are a wide range of symbols in Chinese art that all have a general wish for good luck and good fortune.

Bat Bell Cabbage Carp Cloud Cockerel Coin Deer Fish Good luck gods Lion Lute Magpie Mirror Narcissus Orange Pheasant Plum Red Ru Yi Spider Swastika Tai Ji Tripod Unicorn Amulet Hat Brush Eight treasures Pipa

Happen again

These can be added to a design to give the meaning that ‘happiness’, ‘good fortune’ and so on should be repeated year after year.

Lotus Meander Swastika Boat


All these symbols portray a wish for happiness and are often found on gifts to friends and family.

Ax Badger Bat Chrysanthemum Duck Fan Finger lemon Lion Magpie Monkey Oriole Phoenix Plum Spider Unicorn

Happy Marriage

These symbols are associated with wishing for a long and happy marriage, and children to come along soon.

Ax Crane Duck Fish Goose Lotus Peach Phoenix Pomegranate Shoe Sun Wood oil tree tiger

Long Life

Almost as many symbols are used to wish for a long life as there are to wish for good luck.

Bamboo Butterfly Cat Cicada Crane Creeper Cypress Deer Dove Dragon Endless knot Finger lemon Hare Jade Laozi Longevity Mountain Narcissus Peach Pear Pine Plum Stone Tortoise Cricket


These things symbolize being loyal in some way or another.

Dog Dove Duck Glow worm Goose Pine Quail Wood oil tree


The virtue of modesty is attributed to some plants and also the qilin.

Bamboo Lotus Orchid Pearl Peony Unicorn Willow

Path through Life

Symbols that reflect upon destiny and overall aims in life.

Heron Persimmon Bridge


Wishes for peace and contentment.

Apple Box Chrysanthemum Crab Crane Lotus Mirror Phoenix Quail Saddle Shoe Vase


These symbols in some manner offer protection from evil and strife.

Bottle gourd Jade Sword Tai Ji Taotie Tiger Willow Fire Rhinoceros


These symbols are closely associated with romance and love. There are many other symbols that relate more specifically to marriage and general good fortune.

Butterfly Mirror Ice


This set of symbols give the attribute of strength and fortitude to the meaning of a scene.

Beard Dragon Eagle Mountain Ox Pine Sword Tiger Tortoise Bear


A wish for wealth was often tied up with success in examinations as this led to a lucrative government post.

Basket Cabbage Carp Cinnamon Coin Deer Dragon Fish Magnolia Peony Toad Hat


These symbols have a general theme of good wishes and may be combined with something else to give a specific meaning for example good wishes on a marriage.

Bamboo Elephant Orange Ru Yi Unicorn
Tiananmen square, Beijing, dragon, cloud, architecture
Marble stone pillar with cloud and dragon in Tiananmen Square, Beijing

See also