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Ink Tablet in the Form of a Tortoise

This water dropper is shaped like a tortoise with a snake on its back, symbolizing the Dark Warrior.

This tortoise-shaped seal was used to stamp official documents. Because of their symbolism, tortoises were important emblems for the educated class.


key idea
The tortoise is a symbolic animal in Chinese culture.

In ancient China, the tortoise was a sacred animal. Followers of the philosopher Confucius considered it one of the Four Spiritually Endowed Creatures, along with the unicorn, phoenix, and dragon. In Taoist (DOW-ist) philosophy, the tortoise symbolizes the universe. Its domed shell represents the heavens, and its flat underside, the earth.

The tortoise is the hero of many Chinese legends. According to one of them, a giant tortoise helped the first emperor tame the flooding waters of the Yellow River. As a reward, the emperor granted the tortoise ten thousand years of life. So the tortoise became an emblem of strength and long life. Real tortoises actually live more than 150 years on average — still a very long time!

In Chinese mythology, the tortoise is one of the Four Celestial Animals that rule the four directions. Known as the Dark Warrior, the tortoise (with a snake coiled around it) rules the North, including the northern part of the sky. (The tiger rules the West, the dragon the East, and the phoenix the South.) The color black, the winter season, and water are all associated with the Dark Warrior.

During China’s Shang dynasty (1766-1122 B.C.), tortoise shells were used in ceremonies to predict the future. A question was posed (sometimes even written on the shell), and the shell was heated with fire until it cracked. Then a person known as a "diviner" found the answer by looking at the cracks in the shell.

October 2005