Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: In English, being referred to as pig-headed or a one-trick pony isn’t exactly the nicest thing someone can say about you.
Mandarin also has its own share of animal idioms to describe human characteristics.
For example, a woman referred to as 虎背熊腰 (hǔbèixióngyāo) — with a back like a tiger and a waist like a bear is implying that she has an impressively strong and masculine figure.
To an English-speaking woman, this might not be taken as a compliment, but the opposite is true to a Chinese woman. This is in part due to the significance of animal symbolism in Chinese.
There’s more to animals in Chinese than just simple word for word translations, as you’re about to find out!
Not only are you about to learn the Mandarin words for 50 real and mythical animals, but you’ll also learn their fascinating cultural significance and symbolism.
Why You Should Study Animals in Chinese
To expand your animal vocabulary
If you’re reading Chinese texts or watching Chinese animated movies for language practice, you’ll definitely benefit from having a substantial repertoire of animal vocabulary. This is because there’s a good chance your film and literature choices will include animals.
Plus, knowing animals in Chinese is such a simple way to build your vocabulary in general, as you eventually work your way up to more advanced nature vocabulary.
To understand animal symbolism in Chinese art and literature
For those with minimal knowledge on the subject, you might guess that animals featured in Chinese artwork and literature signify things like longevity, luck or prosperity. While those are safe assumptions, there’s a lot more to animal symbolism in Chinese culture, such as love, nobility and protection.
Knowing the differences between different animals’ symbolic characteristics will help you determine the underlying messages or meanings in Chinese art and literature.
To understand their significance in everyday life
Ever wonder why some elderly Chinese men and women keep cicadas as pets, or why Chinese aunties hang paintings of goldfish in their living rooms?
The symbolism behind these animals plays a huge role in many Chinese people’s daily lives. Getting the right pet, as well as decorating one’s home and office with a certain animal motif is believed to help achieve what one desires in life, such as love, success and longevity.
Beyond the Farm: 50 Symbolic Animals in Chinese
Chances are you’ve already encountered the common animals in previous vocabulary lessons. Instead of repeating what you already know, I’m going to share with you a whole list of animals that bear great significance in Chinese culture.
The Ancient Zodiac Animals in Chinese
You might know all 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac, but do you know what each of them represents? To understand a little more about Chinese New Year’s customs, here are all the Chinese zodiac animals in their correct order, accompanied by brief explanations of their characteristics and symbolism.
鼠 (shǔ) — Rat
According to legend, the rat was the first to cross the finish line of a race organized by the Jade Emperor, or 玉皇 (yù huáng). Before the finish line, there was a huge river, which the exhausted rat cunningly crossed by convincing the ox to let it sit on its head.
Instead of expressing any gratitude for the ox’s generosity, the rat dashed to the finish line.
Evidently, the rat can be cruel, manipulative, selfish and scheming; though it has just as many good characteristics, such as charisma, discipline, forthrightness and sociability.
牛 (niú) — Ox
The ox came in second in the race, shortly after the rat. Its dependability and calm nature can be considered both strengths and weaknesses.
More positive characteristics of the ox include being modest, logical and tenacious, while negative traits can include being materialistic, narrow-minded and stubborn.
虎 (hǔ) — Tiger
The tiger kept a good pace throughout the race but was thrown off by the river. Coming in third, the tiger can be reckless, quick-tempered, impatient and fearful, as well as affectionate, sincere, humanitarian and powerful.
兔 (tù) — Rabbit
Also thrown off-course was the rabbit, but a floating log helped it cross the finish line after the tiger. The rabbit is known to be artistic, cautious, compassionate and self-assured, but also can be detached, superficial, moody and lazy.
龙 (lóng) — Dragon
Unbeknownst to the rabbit, the dragon came to its aid by blowing the rabbit across the river as it was struggling. Prior to that, the dragon also extinguished a fire to save a nearby village.
The Chinese consider themselves to be descendants of dragons. This fire-breathing creature is also a national emblem that has inspired many idioms.
The dragon is generous, loyal, magnanimous and zealous. It’s also arrogant, brash, demanding and impetuous.
蛇 (shé) — Snake
To conserve energy, the snake wrapped itself around the leg of the horse before crossing the river to steal sixth place. Characteristics include wise, sensual, enigmatic and deep thinking. The snake can also be possessive, distrustful and hedonistic.
马 (mǎ) — Horse
Frightened by the snake attached to its leg, the horse fell back into seventh place. The horse is popular, perceptive, intelligent and open-minded. Negative traits include being gullible, anxious and lacking perseverance and stability.
羊 (yáng) — Ram
Working together with the monkey and the rooster, these three traveled across the river on a raft. Once they reached the other side, it was everyone for themselves. The ram is sympathetic, peaceful, gentle and determined. It can also be indecisive, overly passive, sensitive and pessimistic.
猴 (hóu) — Monkey
The ram was followed by the monkey. It’s known to be quick-witted, innovative, inquisitive and capable of solving problems. Its weaknesses include being egotistical, vain, jealous and suspicious.
鸡 (jī) — Rooster
The rooster came in 10th place. Its positive traits include being organized, practical and alert. The rooster is also a perfectionist. Alternatively, the rooster can be overly critical, zealous, opinionated and abrasive.
狗 (gǒu) — Dog
Unsurprisingly, the dog was distracted by the river and just splashed about as the other 10 animals passed it. The dog is honest, obedient, idealistic and loyal, but it also can be stubborn, lazy, cold and worrisome.
猪 (zhū) — Pig
The pig did as pigs do—it stopped to eat in the middle of the race and then fell asleep. It eventually finished the race right before the Emperor was about to give up on him. The pig is a sociable, peace-loving creature that’s patient and thoughtful, but it can also be naive, gullible, materialist and over-reliant.
Lucky Feng Shui Animals in Chinese
Feng shui is a huge part of Chinese culture. Feng shui involves energy flow and how we can live in harmony with our human-made environments.
Here are some noteworthy feng shui animals.
鲤鱼 (lǐyú) — Carp
Because 鲤 (lǐ) sounds a lot like 利 (lì), which means favorable, and 力 (lì), which means strength and power, the carp can symbolize a favorable advantage. It could represent an advantage in terms of fertility or successful completion of an exam.
麒麟 (qílín) — Chi Lin, Dragon Horse or Chinese Unicorn
With the head of a dragon, body of a horse and scales of a carp, the chimerical creature Chi Lin is the guardian of the home and a protector from evil spirits. It also represents goodwill and wisdom.
鹤 (hè) — Crane
Known for their long lifespans, cranes are bringers of longevity and peace. According to some ancient legends, cranes carry the spirits of the departed to the heavens.
龙龟 (lóng guī) — Dragon Turtle
The dragon turtle has a dragon head and turtle’s body, which makes this mystical creature a bringer of luck and courage, in addition to stability and protection in the home.
象 (xiàng) — Elephant
In feng shui, the energies associated with the elephant include good luck, wisdom, protection and fertility. Figurines often have the trunk up to represent the showering of good luck.
狮 (shī) — Imperial Guardian Lions or Fu/Foo Dogs
Often seen outside of temples, palaces, government offices and even homes, the Imperial Guardian Lions are protectors and symbolize strength and bravery. They come in pairs where the male protects the structure and the female protects the interior and the inhabitants.
凤凰 (fènghuáng) — Chinese Phoenix or Firebird
This mythological phoenix is believed to have risen from ashes. It exemplifies power, strength and grace. It’s one of the greatest symbols of good luck in feng shui.
金鱼 (jīnyú) — Goldfish
Usually depicted with a lotus, the goldfish stands for the wish of an abundance of gold or wealth.
蟾蜍 (chánchú) — Three-legged Money Frog
Another mythical creature is the Money Frog, which is meant to protect against misfortune, in addition to bringing more riches into the home.
龟 (guī) — Turtle
Tied to the ancient energy connected to the wisdom of the earth, turtles are protectors and generators of stability and longevity.
鸳鸯 (yuānyāng) — Mandarin Ducks
Mandarin ducks come in male and female pairs that are popularly used in feng shui as a cure for lack of love. They’re meant to enhance the love and passion between couples and also attract new love for individuals who are single.
Beautiful Bird Symbolism in Chinese
There are many bird species in China that symbolize love, longevity and grace.
鸽 (gē) — Dove
A dove, especially when seen in pairs, is associated with fidelity and longevity. Doves are known to mate for life and maintain monogamy.
鹰 (yīng) — Eagle
An eagle symbolizes strength. When depicted on a rock by the sea, it’s symbolic of a hero.
鹅 (é) — Goose
Much like the mandarin ducks, a pair of geese represent marital fidelity. In ancient tradition, the bride’s family was often gifted a goose.
翡 (fěi) — Kingfisher
The kingfisher is a symbol of peace and prosperity.
鹊 (què) — Magpie
A symbol for joy 鹊 is sometimes shown upside down during celebrations and special occasions, much like 福 (fú), which means good fortune, but when it’s the right side up, it means happiness is coming.
孔雀 (kǒngquè) — Peacock
A peacock is an emblem of dignity and beauty. It can sometimes represent fame.
雉 (zhì) — Pheasant
Another symbol of beauty and good fortune is the pheasant.
鹑 (chún) — Quail
Quail fighting was once quite popular in China. Because of their fighting spirit, quails signify courage.
Interesting Insect Symbolism in Chinese
Insects have medicinal and nutritional uses in China but don’t necessarily signify health in art and literature.
蜜蜂 (mìfēng) — Bee
Much like in the West, a bee represents hard work and an industrious spirit. However, when shown with peonies, the image represents a man seeking love.
蝴蝶 (húdié) — Butterfly
A common subject in Chinese paintings, the butterfly represents beauty, elegance and longevity. A pair of butterflies demonstrates the energy exuded from young love.
蝉 (chán) — Cicada
A cicada is an emblem of eternal youth and happiness, and life after death. Its association with immortality is why many keep cicadas as pets.
蟋蟀 (xīshuài) — Cricket
Crickets signify the summer season, as well as a fighting spirit.
蚱蜢 (zhàměng) — Grasshopper
Another popular pet in China is the grasshopper, which is associated with nobility and wisdom.
螳螂 (tángláng) — Praying Mantis
A praying mantis represents mystery.
Under the Sea Animal Symbolism in Chinese
Because 鱼 (yú) is a homophone for 余 (yú), which means surplus, fish and underwater creatures generally represent abundance and affluence.
螃蟹 (pángxiè) — Crab
A crab is said to represent an advantage in business, as well as prosperity and social status.
鳗鱼 (mányú) — Eel
An eel can symbolize either fertility or elusiveness.
锦鲤 (jǐn lǐ) — Koi Fish
Koi fish, red or black, signify success and wealth.
龙虾 (lóngxiā) — Lobster
Because lobsters can regenerate claws, legs and antennae, they represent regrowth.
虾 (xiā) — Shrimp
A shrimp is symbolic of a long life.
Other Culturally Significant Mammals in Chinese
獾 (huān) — Badger
As a homophone for 欢 (huān) meaning joyous, the presence of a badger is a wish for great happiness.
蝙蝠 (biānfú) — Bat
Because 蝠 sounds and looks like 福, a bat represents good luck, longevity and happiness. In a pair, it means double the good fortune, while five bats represent the Five Blessings (longevity, prosperity, good health, good morality and a natural death).
熊 (xióng) — Bear
A bear symbolizes masculinity, bravery and strength, and is believed to be a good talisman against robbers.
猫 (māo) — Cat
Because of its ability to see in the dark, a cat is said to ward off evil spirits.
鹿 (lù) — Deer
A homophone for 禄 (lù), which means good fortune and official salary, the graceful and beautiful deer is indicative of wealth.
豹 (bào) — Leopard
The leopard is associated with bravery and martial ferocity.
招财猫 (zhāo cái māo) — Maneki-neko or Lucky Cat
Often mistaken as the Chinese Lucky Cat, the figurine with one paw up is actually of Japanese origin but is very popular in Chinese culture. It’s a talisman for good luck.
水牛 (shuǐniú) — Water Buffalo
A water buffalo signifies that spring is approaching.
Your animals in Chinese vocabulary has just increased 50-fold and your understanding of Chinese Culture has now grown too!