Free Content

The Importance of Symbolism in the Chinese Internal Martial Arts – Part 1

Overview: Symbolism is an important and often misunderstood aspect of the Chinese internal martial arts. This, the first installment of a three-part article, discusses the importance and relevance of the symbols of heaven and earth, yin and yang, the five elements, and the dragon and the tiger.

Symbolism in the Chinese Internal Martial Arts

Symbolism is an important and often misunderstood aspect of the Chinese internal martial arts. The symbols connected with the internal martial arts are often dismissed in the West as superstitious cultural baggage that has little value in the practical apprehension and application of these arts. This attitude has increasingly been directed at the Chinese internal arts (nei jia), largely because the confusing nature of the culturally specific images used by Chinese martial arts practitioners makes it difficult for students in the West to engage with this aspect of Chinese internal arts.

As a result, many Western teachers and students attempt to update and transform traditional imagery, recasting the symbols to form scientific, bio-mechanical explanations with regard to training and application. Similarly, there is a tendency in the West to re-work the circular, more organic learning process and curriculum of Chinese internal martial arts into a logical, step-by-step process that smoothly carries one through a series of levels, from beginner to expert practitioner. This approach is characterized by attempting to parse out the movements, training methods and principles so they can be broken into their component parts.

This more “modern” and “scientific” approach creates as many problems as it attempts to solve – ultimately diminishing these arts and leading students to look elsewhere to fill in perceived gaps. Because each aspect of an internal art interpenetrates with each other aspect, breaking things down into their component parts can actually make learning harder, or even impossible. The Chinese internal arts have an fractal-like nature. Each aspect, each part of an art like Ba Gua Zhang – from the most “basic” aspects to the most “advanced” – is a hologram that contains, interconnects and interacts with every other part of the system to form a complete, organic whole. This makes it impossible to isolate individual components without losing the essence of the internal arts.

The common argument put forward by the modernist camp goes something like: “the real fighters were not intellectuals; they did not know this stuff. They just trained hard and kicked ass.” Actually, they did know “this stuff.” Symbolism is so embedded in every aspect of Chinese life, culture and customs that they could not avoid knowing it. The Chinese written language itself is a collection of ideograms based on pictographs and symbols. The ”real fighters” not only knew the stories, metaphors and symbols, but for them, the mere mention of a story, metaphor or symbol triggered a cascade of other associated stories, metaphors and symbols. Even the most casual statements, by the most down-to-earth fighters that I have met in China are steeped in the language of the Yi Jing, traditional Chinese medicine, Daoist metaphysics, and classic books like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Outlaws of the Marsh.

One necessary by-product of the “scientific” approach is the discarding of the rich symbolism inherent in the internal arts. This is the very aspect of these arts that expresses and communicates their holism to the practitioner. Symbols are the very tools necessary to express the highly complex organic entity, with its many manifold and culturally embedded layers of reality and understanding, that is Chinese internal martial arts. Symbols are like a code, a code that serves to express aspects of reality which are obscured by the limitations of language and other modes of expression. In this way, symbols communicate and crystallize an aspect of direct experience, or truth, that is beyond words – and beyond the symbol itself. Symbols in this context also provide a platform for self-discovery, experimentation and transcendence.

Nei jia symbolism is a vast and complex subject, so for purposes of this article we will focus on five manifestations of symbolism commonly found in the internal martial arts. Many of these symbols and concepts have overlaps with Daoist meditation, Nei gong and Chinese medicine. The five manifestations of symbolism covered in this article include:

  1. Animal Symbolism and Imagery
  2. Cosmological Symbols: Yin and Yang and The Five Forces (Wu Xing; Wu De)
  3. Yi Jing Symbolism
  4. Movement Names in Chinese Forms
  5. Chinese Ideograms/Pictographs

Heaven and Earth & Yin and Yang

In Chinese thought, Heaven and Earth are considered to be the two fundamental operating forces. Heaven is yang and earth is yin. Heaven is said to come before (xian) and Earth, after (hou). In Chinese cosmogony, Heaven and Earth develop from the Wu Ji, an undivided potential without limit. Wu Ji (literally “no polarity”) is sometimes referred to as emptiness, or the void – essentially it is matter undifferentiated, undivided, non-polarized. Movement occurs within the emptiness, within the void. The movement is like wind, like a breath. It is  an inhalation and an exhalation, or an opening and a closing. This movement is the Breath-Energy or the Qi/Breath.

This movement, this polarity created by the Qi/Breath is the Tai Ji, the “great pole”, or “extreme polarity.” With the Tai Ji , the lighter, transparent Qi/Breath rises, and the heavier, opaque Qi/Breath sinks down. The light and yang aspect produces Heaven, and the yin and heavy aspect produces Earth. The yang diffuses and the yin receives. The strong unbroken lines of the Heaven Trigram flow downward to be received by earth’s softer “receptive lines.” Earth in turn responds, actualizing Heaven’s potential into form and sending the Qi/Breath back upward. This is expressed as follows:

Heaven & Earth

From the interaction of Heaven-yang and Earth-yin, the world that we know as human beings, with its cyclical seasonal changes, rhythms and patterns, develops.

An alternative Tai Ji Diagram, attributed to Chen Tuan of the Song dynasty, visually conveys the spiraling, circular movement of Qi/Breath in the center initiating the movement which creates polarities of light and heavy; clear and turbid; movement and stillness; yang and yin.

Yin and Yang

In Tai Ji Quan, Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang, these concepts manifest in the importance placed on understanding, at an instinctive level, the power inherent in balanced, yet oppositional forces, as well as the interplay of movement and stillness, emptiness and fullness, firmness and gentleness, the hidden and the obvious

The Five Elements or Five Powers

The Wu Xing (Five Elements) are also sometimes referred to as the Wu De (Five Powers). The Five Powers are intimately connected with the life of human beings on Earth. The interaction of Heaven and Earth, is a fixed unchanging polarity. It is timeless, and immutable. In human beings and the natural world, the breaths of heaven and earth are experienced through the five powers, because it is through the them that life takes on material form and shape. Our senses, tastes, sounds, our ability to discriminate, even our internal organs, are all considered to be expressions of the Five Powers. There is also the concept of time and cyclical movement and change. The Five Powers operate within us in the same way that they operate in the world around us, reflected in the seasons, the weather, and the movements of the planets. The cyclical movement inherent in the Five Powers can be seen in the diagram below:

Five Powers

The Five Elements can also be understood as five fundamental forces, that have inherent movements and powers. For example, water moves downward and moistens while fire flares upward, clinging and warming. This is particularly evident in the Five Fists or forms as they are expressed in Xing Yi Quan. Each of these core movements creates a very different internal manifestation of jin 劲 (strength, energy, spirit) in the body. This is diagrammed in very basic way below.

The Five Powers are sometimes obliquely referred to by using the names of the mythological or emblematic animals. The Black Tortoise/Snake is also known as Xuan Wu: Dark Warrior of the North. The diagram below shows the seal forms of the four emblematic animals. In the center is the ideogram for Earth.

5 mythics animals

The Dragon and The Tiger

Prior to the creation of the Tai Ji diagram (in the 8th century), yin and yang were symbolized by the Tiger and the Dragon. The Dragon was also associated with Heaven, and the Tiger with Earth. The post-heaven manifestations of Heaven (yang) and Earth (yin) are Fire and Water, two of the Wu Xing (Five Elements). Fire is associated with the South and Water with the North. The most prevalent manifestations of the Dragon and Tiger are The Green Dragon, which is related to Wood in the East, and the White Tiger, related to Metal in the West. The Green Dragon and White Tiger are also considered to be manifestations of the Pre-Heaven Trigram arrangement within the post-heaven arrangement of the trigrams. Therefore the Green Dragon is associated with Li-Fire and the White Tiger is associated with Kan-Water. Together they symbolize movement and change:

  • Wood becoming Fire – The Dragon Leaping Upward
  • Metal becoming Water – The Tiger Pouncing on Its Prey

The Dragon is yang. It symbolizes the movement of life growing upward and outward, like a plant growing from a seed. The Green Dragon represents the spring thunder and rains that nourish living things. In the Spring, the Dragon is said to come out of its hiding place under the earth and rise up into the sky creating thunder and rain. Hence the Dragon also represents the incitement of life and movement.

The Tiger is yin. The White Tiger represents autumn, when growing thing begin to withdraw into the earth, when the first frost comes to kill living things. Hence the Tiger can represent death, but also the quiet and stillness of late autumn as it moves into winter. The Tiger is therefore associated with the still lake whose depths cannot be seen. In this context, the Dragon and Tiger together represent the natural cycle of life and death that moves through us and all living things. 

Dragon and Tiger

The Dragon is associated with the trigram Zhen-Thunder – excitation and movement. The Tiger is associated with the Dui-Lake trigram representing joyousness, sensibility and feeling. These qualities are conveyed in the Chinese saying: When the tiger roars the valley wind comes. When the dragon arises great clouds appear.[1]

The Dragon has both yin and yang associations. It can be yang in that it soars through the clouds, and yin in that it hides under the earth – as in the Qi Gong movement, “the Black Dragon Enters the Cave.” As it moves through the sky, the dragon appears and disappears into the clouds. The Dragon does not have wings but flies through a yin-yang oscillation, literally “swimming through the clouds”:

The dragon now lurks in watery depth, now streaks aloft to the highest heavens, and its very gait is a continuous undulation. It presents an image of energy constantly recharged through oscillation from one pole to the other. The dragon is a constantly evolving creature with no fixed form; it can never be immobilized or penned in, never grasped. It symbolizes a dynamism never visible in concrete form and thus unfathomable. Finally, merging with the clouds and the mists, the dragon’s impetus makes the surrounding world vibrate: it is the very image of an energy that diffuses itself through space, intensifying its environment its environment and enriching itself by that aura.[2]

Although the Tiger is associated with metal, it also has an association with Wind which is related to the Wood element. The Tiger is connected with both the “unbridled wood energy of spring and the refined metal energy of fall.”[3] The Tiger’s roar produces Wind, which is associated with Wood. It is also a reference to “nature’s breath, as well as to the tiger’s naturalness and unrestrained manner.” Like the wind, the Tiger “comes and goes as it pleases, showing up suddenly and unexpectedly, sometimes with devastating force.”[4] The Tiger is sometimes viewed as a yang animal, yet it draws its power from the Earth (yin) by crouching in order to spring  – therefore, like the Dragon, the Tiger has both yin and yang aspects.

In Xing Yi Quan, the Dragon is the first animal form one learns, and the Tiger form the second. The Dragon form rises and falls as its body coils and uncoils. The bones and tendons of the whole body extend outward and contract inward. This rising and falling movement of the Dragon opens the Ren (Conception) Channel and the Chong (Thrusting) Channel. Ren Mai, Du Mai (Governing Channel) and Chong Mai are thought to be one meridian (the “Central Channel”). The Central Channel must circulate freely for the other meridians to also circulate freely. If the Central Channel opens, it is said that the ”hundred meridians can open” and power and force will emanate without obstruction. The Tiger uses its back to generate power in crouching or springing, thus, if practiced correctly, the Tiger form is said to open the Du (Governing) Channel which runs up the center of the spine. If the Governing vessel is opened, clear Yang-Qi can ascend to the head and brain, and Ren Mai and Chong Mai will also open. When the Tiger “sits in its cave,” crouching and gathering its power, the qi gathers at Cheng Qiang acu-point (DU 1). When the Tiger ‘Pounces on its prey,” The Mingmen point in the back opens and qi moves upward along the Du Channel.

In Ba Gua Zhang, the movements of the body in walking and circling are often likened to the Dragon (long).  Many styles of Ba Gua contain a sequence known as You Shen Long Xing Ba Gua Zhang or Swimming Body Dragon Shape Eight Diagram Palm. Wang Xiang Zhai, one of the great internal boxers of the 20th century, described Cheng Ting Hua’s performance of Ba Gua as “like a divine dragon roaming-winding and twisting in the sky.”[5] While moving like a swimming dragon, the Ba Gua practitioner is simultaneously advised to “Sit like a Tiger” – by squatting  down and “sitting the kua,” the fold in the front of the hip. In this way one is rooted in the earth, ready to spring and pounce with power and ferocity like a Tiger.

In the west, we have tendency to look for one-to-one correspondences between things. The symbols of the Dragon and Tiger serve as good examples of the many overlapping correspondences and relationships (some of which at first appear contradictory), that are common in Chinese martial symbolism.


[1] History of Chinese Philosophy (Routledge History of World Philosophies vol. 3), Edited by Bob Mou. London and New York: Routledge 2009, p. 285.

[2]The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China, Francois Julien. New York: Zone Books, 1999. p151.

[3] The Lung and the Tiger Image: An Example of Decoding the Symbolic Record of Chinese Medicine. by Heiner Fruehauf, PhD. 2008, p. 5

[4] Ibid, p. 3.

[5] Da Cheng Chuan,  by Wang Xuanjie. Hong Kong: Hai Feng Publishing Co. Ltd., 1988. p.40.