Chinese Symbols — Cultural Meanings and Aesthetic Values

Chinese symbols include a series of aspects that can represent the culture:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Besides these cultural signs, Chinese Character or Han Zi is an explicit way to convey information, such as peoples Surnames, Given Names, ancient poems, or proverbs. 

 

Same as other meaningful symbols, certain characters today are popular to be used as decorative patterns or tattoo ideas. 

 

Here list some popular Chinese character symbols that are frequently used and with rich cultural meanings:

 
 

Chinese Symbols, Phrases, and Poems for Honor:

  • 荣誉: Honor

  • 荣耀: Glory

  • 信誉: Reputation

  • 誉满天下: One's good reputation knows by the world.

  • 名扬四海: Renown is praised all over the world.

  • 载誉而归: Returning with honor and glory. 

  • 名不虚传: Great reputation fits reality. 

  • 赞不绝口: Too good to stop praising. 

  • 功勋卓著: Outstanding contributions, especially to the country and people. 

  • 独占鳌头: Achieving first place in Imperial Examinations in ancient history, today means the championship. 

  • 金榜题名: Achieving good scores in Imperial Examinations in history, today represents obtaining great success in career or good scores on important exams.  

Carved Lacquerware Writing Brush of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Carved Lacquerware Writing Brush of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Shanghai Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • 家喻户晓: Well known by every family. 

  • 名垂千古: Good reputations spread and last forever.  

  • 青史留名: One's great fame or contribution notes on important historical records. 

  • 光宗耀祖: One's great fame or contribution gloried the ancestors and clans.

  • 春风得意马蹄疾,一日看尽长安花。Meng Jiao (751 — 814)

 

(After winning Imperial Exam) galloping amid warm spring breeze proudly and pleasantly, having appreciated all beautiful sites of capital city Chang'an in one day. 

 

  • 但使龙城飞将在,不教胡马度阴山。Wang Changling (698 — 757)

 

If the great general (Wei Qing) were there guarding the country, no enemies would dare to cross the mountain on the border. 

 

Chinese Symbols, Phrases, and Poems for Prosperity:

  • 繁荣: Prosperity

  • 富强: Prosperous

  • 昌盛: Flourishing

  • 兴旺: Thriving

  • 灯火辉煌: Numerously and brilliantly illuminated lights at night.

  • 车马如龙: Countless carriages and horses come and go, like a huge moving dragon.

  • 川流不息: (Countless Pedestrians and carriages) moving on roads, like constant streams in rivers.

  • 百花齐放: Hundreds of species of flowers are blooming simultaneously, representing the diversity of art, ideology, and culture.

  • 黄金时代: Golden age and prosperous epoch.

  • 地上天宫: Heavenly palace on earth, meaning beautiful and wealthy environment.

Part of Tang Dynasty Mural "Guan Wu Liang Shou Jing Bian" in the 217th Cave of Mogao Grottoes

Part of Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) Mural in the 217th Cave of Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Photo by Dongmaiying.

  • 生机勃勃: Full of vigor and vibrant.

  • 欣欣向荣: Plants grow flourishingly, which represents a thriving career.

  • 繁荣昌盛: Thriving and wealthy, mostly used to describe a country. 

  • 方兴未艾: Something is developing flourishingly. 

  • 蒸蒸日上: Things are developing upward and progressing to better situations. 

  • 扶摇直上: Reputation, status, or career are skyrocketing.

  • 如日方升: Like the rising sun, representing a bright, promising, and vigorous future. 

Cranes on Poyang Lake

Sunrise and Cranes on Poyang Lake, Photo by Hu Yeqing.

  • 忆昔开元全盛日,小邑犹藏万家室。Du Fu (712 — 770)

 

During the Great Reign of Kaiyuan (713—741), even small towns resided with tens of thousands of wealthy families.

 

Through recalling prosperous lives in Emperor Li Longji's early great reigns, it was written to motivate current emperor Li Yu.  

  • 九天阊阖开宫殿,万国衣冠拜冕旒。Wang Wei (701 — 761)

 

Gates of the magnificent royal palace opened successively in the morning, officials and envoys entered to worship the emperor. 

  • 烟柳画桥,风帘翠幕,参差十万人家。Liu Yong (about 984 — 1053)

 

Willows envelop by mist, painted bridges stand across rivers, colorful curtains of buildings blow by the breeze, is a picturesque peaceful city with tens of thousands of families.

 

Chinese Symbols, Phrases, and Poems for Victory:

  • 胜利: Victory

  • 成功: Success

  • 成就: Accomplishment

  • 凯旋: Triumph

  • 战胜: Defeat

  • 捷报频传: Continuously receiving news of victory.

  • 大获全胜: Obtaining absolute and substantial success.

  • 百战百胜: Invincible person that wins all battle. 

  • 马到成功: Winning a battle as long as war horses arrive, meaning to obtain victory in the beginning stage.

Sculpture Stone Horses in Tang Tai Zong's Mausoleum (Zhao Ling), War Horses of His Six Important Wars.

War Horses of Emperor Li Shimin (599 — 649), Served in His Six Decisive Wars — the Forest of Stone Steles Museum of Xi'an and Penn Museum

  • 旗开得胜: Winning a battle as long as the flag unfolds, meaning to obtain victory in the beginning stage.

  • 决胜千里: One can command and win a war that takes place far away, represents exceptional insight and intelligence.  

  • 功成名就: Achieving exceptional accomplishment and obtaining great reputation. 

  • 大功告成: A great feat or project is about to complete. 

  • 名利双收: Gaining of good reputations and benefits. 

  • 丰功伟绩: Remarkable feat or contributions. 

Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Emperor Xuanzong of Tang

Inscriptions on Mount Tai, Written by Emperor Li Longji (685 — 762) to Memorize the Grand Fengshan Ceremony (the Gold Characters on the Right), Which held to Eulogize his Exceptional Accomplishments.

  • 长风破浪会有时,直挂云帆济沧海。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

A time will come to ride the wind and cleave the waves, I'll set my cloud-white sail and cross the sea which raves. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

  • 大鹏一日同风起,扶摇直上九万里。Li Bai (701 — 762)

Mythical bird Peng will take off with wind someday, soaring to tens of thousands of miles away. 

  • 山重水复疑无路,柳暗花明又一村。Lu You (1125 — 1210)

 

When reaching the end of the mountain and river and doubting if there's a way out, a beautiful village shows up at the turn near blooming flowers and willow trees. 

 

Chinese Symbols, Phrases, and Poems for Wealth:

  • 财富: Wealth

  • 富裕: Affluence

  • 富有: Rich

  • 阔绰: Extravagance

  • 金玉满堂: Gold and jade fill the hall, meaning abundant wealth or family members. 

  • 丰衣足食: Abundant food and clothes.

  • 富可敌国: As wealthy as a country. 

  • 荣华富贵: Rich and prosperity. 

  • 富贵尊荣: Honorable, respectable, and wealthy. 

  • 钟鸣鼎食: (Ancient nobles) strike bells and place food in bronze tripods at dinner, now represent big and wealthy families and extravagant lifestyles.

Gold and Silver Inlaying Bronze Tripod of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC)

Gold and Silver Inlaying Bronze Tripod of the Warring States Period (403 BC — 221 BC) — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • 家财万贯: Affluent family with a large number of properties.

  • 锦衣玉食: Wear brocade clothes and eat refined food. 

 

  • 金樽清酒斗十千,玉盘珍羞值万钱。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

Crystal wine in golden cups is pricey, fancy dishes in jade plates are lavish.

 

  • 稻米流脂粟米白,公私仓廪俱丰实。Du Fu (712 — 770)

 

Rice and maize are plump and affluent, national and private granaries all stocked and full.

 

Chinese Symbols, Phrases, and Poems for Courage:

  • 勇气: Courage

  • 勇敢: Brave

  • 魄力: Boldness

  • 勇往直前: Marching forward fearlessly. 

  • 一身是胆: Full of boldness. 

  • 身先士卒: General charge ahead of the soldiers, meaning leaders take actions and set examples first.

  • 奋不顾身: Moving forward bravely regardless of one's own safety. 

  • 冲锋陷阵: Attacking enemies and take up their positions. 

  • 履险如夷: Walking through dangerous paths easily as on the flat ground, means fearlessly overcome difficult situations.

  • 一马当先: Ride a horse and take the lead (in the army).

  • 赴汤蹈火: Walking through boiled water and fire, meaning absolute dedication and fearlessness. 

Terracotta Warriors and Horses of the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang

Terracotta Army of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC — 207 BC), Unearthed from the Mausoleum of Qin Shi Huang. (Photo by Zhao Zhen)

  • 前仆后继: Inherit the fights of the sacrificed ones, representing continuous heroic struggles.

  • 勇冠三军: The bravest in the army. 

  • 智勇双全: Intelligent and courageous.

  • 英勇善战: Heroic, brave, and skillful fighter.

  • 临危不惧: Be calm, sophisticated, and fearless in front of danger and calamity. 

  • 见义勇为: Bravely take righteous actions. 

 

  • 夜静海涛三万里,月明飞锡下天风。Wang Yangming (1472 — 1529)

 

Floating at night in the turbulent sea, flying under the moon smoothly with my magic cane. 

 

The cane represents the author's strong mind and exceptional ideology, which guided him to successfully conquered everything in life.

Boat floating in the sea
  • 道之所在,虽万千人逆之,吾往矣。Meng Ke or Mencius  (372 BC — 289 BC)

Wherever the truth is, however strong others oppose, I shall go and pursue. 

  • 千磨万击还坚劲,任尔东西南北风。Zheng Banqiao (1693 — 1766)

 

Adversities and difficulties they stay strong, strong blows of all directions they remain tough.

 

  • 马作的卢飞快,弓如霹雳弦惊。Xin Qiji (1140 — 1207)

 

Riding a warhorse that gallops as fly, shooting fast arrows as thunderstrike. 

 

  • 捐躯赴国难,视死忽如归。Cao Zhi (192 — 232)

 

The hero dedicates his life to defending the country, and considers sacrifice as rest and return home.

 

Chinese Symbols, Phrases, and Poems for Loyalty:

  • 忠诚: Loyalty

  • 忠实: Faithfulness

  • 诚信: Sincerity

  • 奉献: Devotion

  • 精忠报国: Dedicating everything to serving one's country, representing extreme loyalty. 

  • 忠心耿耿: Extremely loyal.

  • 披肝沥胆: Trust other with loyalty, sincerity and heartfelt ideas. 

  • 指天誓日: Swear loyalty by the heaven and sun.

  • 碧血丹心: Jade-pure blood and loyal heart, meaning absolute loyalty. 

  • 忠贯日月: Extreme loyalty impressed the sun and moon, firstly used to describe great general Guo Ziyi (697 — 781). 

  • 赤胆忠心: Devoted spirit and loyal heart.

  • 忠贞不渝: Eternal, unchangeable loyalty.

  • 至诚高节: Sincere, noble, and loyal.

  • 葵花向日: Sunflowers facing the sun, represents eternal loyalty and respect.

sunflowers
  • 人生自古谁无死?留取丹心照汗青。Wen Tianxiang (1236 — 1283)

 

Everyone will die, my loyalty will be noted on historical records and shine. 

  • 报君黄金台上意,提携玉龙为君死。Li He (790 — 816)

 

To repay the emperor's trust and kindness, he's willing to fight and die to defend the country. 

  • 三十功名尘与土,八千里路云和月。Yue Fei (1103 — 1142)

 

Three decades of fights and wins are insignificant like dust, more difficult and long battles are required to take back our lost lands. 

Emperor Zhao Gou's Imperial Edict Wrote to Yue Fei

Emperor Zhao Gou's Imperial Edict Wrote to Yue Fei, Appraising His Loyalty and Exceptional Achievement — Taipei Palace Museum

  • 先天下之忧而忧,后天下之乐而乐。Fang Zhongyan (989 — 1052)

 

Be insightful and concerned about potential problems before civilians, to enjoy life after everyone could live a peaceful and happy life. 

 

  • 苟利国家生死以,岂因祸福避趋之。Lin Zexu (1785 — 1850)

I dedicate my life to protecting the interests of my country; shall not do things only for personal benefit, nor escape because of danger.

 

Chinese Symbols, Phrases, and Poems for Diligence:

  • 勤奋: Diligence

  • 勤勉: Hardwork

  • 废寝忘食: Too diligent and dedicated and forget to eat and sleep.

  • 宵衣旰食: Get up before dawn and eat at dusk, used to describe emperors' hard work.

  • 夜以继日: Working or studying day and night. 

  • 手不释卷: Always hold a book in hand, meaning diligent and constant learning.

  • 夙兴夜寐: Get up very early and sleep very late, representing remarkable diligence and effort.

  • 业精于勤: Diligence is the key to improvement and refinement.

  • 孜孜不倦: Work or study without feeling tired.

  • 天道酬勤: Heaven awards and blesses those diligent ones. 

  • 笃志好学: Determined and dedicated to learning. 

  • 披星戴月: Wearing star and moonlight, representing diligent works from day till night.

moon and desert
  • 人生在勤,不索何获。Zhang Heng (78 — 139)

 

Life needs diligence, no exploration no gain.

  • 宝剑锋从磨砺出,梅花香自苦寒来。

 

Hone produces sharp swords, frigid winter grows out fragrant plum blossoms. 

  • 黑发不知勤学早,白首方悔读书迟。Yan Zhenqing (709 — 784)

 

Being young but don't study hard, being old would regret haven't read enough. 

 

  • 及时当勉励,岁月不待人。Tao Yuanming (about 365 — 427)

 

Right away we strive and encourage, as time doesn't wait for anybody.

 

  • 积土而为山,积水而为海。Xun Zi (about 313 BC — 238 BC)

 

Pile plenty of earth can make a mountain, accumulate ample water can form a sea.

Mountain Shaped Copper Writing Brush Holder (Bi Jia) of the Song Dynasty (960 — 1279) — Zhuji Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • 道阻且长,行则将至。The Classic of Poetry, or The Book of Songs, or Shijing, compiled by Confucius (551 BC  — 479 BC).

 

The road ahead is long and difficult, keep going shall we be arriving.

 

  • 书山有路勤为径,学海无涯苦作舟。Han Yu (768 — 824)

Diligence is the path to the mountain of books, and hard work is the boat to the ocean of knowledge. (Translated by Yuki Wu)

  • 少年易老学难成,一寸光阴不可轻。Zhu Xi (1130 — 1200)

Easy to grow old yet hard to achieve profound scholarship, hence no time should be wasted in vain. 

 

Chinese Symbols, Phrases, and Poems for Wisdom:

  • 智慧: Wisdom

  • 才智: Intelligence

  • 聪明: Smartness

  • 聪慧: Cleverness

  • 足智多谋: Smart and resourceful.

  • 神机妙算: Insightful, predictive, and always able to make brilliant decisions.

  • 大智大勇: Extraordinary wisdom and courage.

  • 精明强干: Smart and capable.

  • 集思广益: Gathering opinions and ideas from many, is beneficial.  

  • 深谋远虑: Foresighted considered and thoroughly planned.

  • 才华横溢: Full of exceptional talents. 

  • 运筹帷幄: In ancient times, generals would make important battlefield decisions in army tents, today means making influential strategies.  

  • 聪明绝伦: Unparalleled and extraordinary smartness.

  • 料事如神: Can predict things as correct as immortals. 

Weiqi Pieces, Board, and Jars of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1644)

Weiqi Pieces, Board, and Jars of the Qing Dynasty (1636 — 1912) — Taipei Palace Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • 冰雪聪明: Calm, rational, and smart as ice and snow, usually used to describe women. 

  • 蕙质兰心: Pure, elegant, and bright like orchids, usually used to describe women. 

 

  • 知人者智,自知者明。Lao Zi (about 571 BC — ?)

 

Those who understand others are smart, those who understand self are wise.

 

  • 笔落惊风雨,诗成泣鬼神。Du Fu (712 — 770)

 

His (Li Bai) articles impress the wind and rain, his poems move immortals and ghosts. 

  • 今人不见古时月,今月曾经照古人。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

We cannot see the moon of old times, but today's moon has lightened ancient people.

 

  • 不识庐山真面目,只缘身在此山中。Su Shi(1037 — 1101) 

 

The true view of Lushan Mountain has been unclear, for I am standing as part of there.

Mountain and Lake Views of Mount Lu, Photo from Official Site of Lushan.

Mountain and Lake Views of Lushan Mountain, Photo from Official Site of Lushan.

  • 纸上得来终觉浅,绝知此事要躬行。Lu You (1125 — 1210)

 

Cognition from paper is somewhat shallow, practice for real is the best way to know.

 

  • 欲穷千里目,更上一层楼。Wang Zhihuan (688 — 742)

 

To see grander sceneries, one should climb to a greater height; meaning bigger accomplishments require more effort. 

 

  • 人生代代无穷已,江月年年望相似。Zhang Ruoxu (about 670 — 730)

 

Generations of humans pass by as time goes by, yet the moon shining the river is eternal and alike.  

 

  • 千圣皆过影,良知乃吾师。Wang Yangming (1472 — 1529)

 

Ancient sages are elapsed shadows, conscience is my true mentor. 

 

Chinese Symbols, Phrases, and Poems for Optimistic:

  • 乐观: Optimistic

  • 积极: Positive

  • 愉快: Cheerful

  • 自信: Confident

  • 乐观向上: Optimistic and active.

  • 苦中作乐: Seek joy and happiness amid hardship. 

  • 精神抖擞: Vigorous and energetic.

  • 意气风发: High spirited and vigorous.

  • 朝气蓬勃: Enterprising, ambitious, and vigorous.

  • 泰然处之: Take everything calmly and with elegantly.

  • 积极奋进: Active, ambitious, and diligent. 

  • 明月入怀: Embrace the moon, represent broad minded, kind hearted, and optimistic.

moon
  • 踌躇满志: Proud of one's accomplishments.

  • 安贫乐道: Be cool about temporary poverty and willing to follow the moral standard, meaning strong faith and optimistic attitude in difficult situations.

  • 傲雪欺霜: Staying vigorous in snow and frost, representing being fearless in hardships. 

  • 从容不迫: Calm and unruffled. 

  • 休对故人思故国,且将新火试新茶。诗酒趁年华。Su Shi (1037 — 1101)

 

No need to longing hometown (and everything in the past) with old friends, we will light a new fire and boil nice tea. Enjoy poem and wine, when in the prime.

Lacquer Wine Cup (Er Bei) of the Han Dynasty

Lacquer Wine Cup (Er Bei) of the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) — Hunan Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

  • 莫愁前路无知己,天下谁人不识君。Gao Shi (704 — 765)

 

Long journey yet you won't lack dear friends, there's no one that would not appreciate your talent. 

  • 天生我材必有用,千金散尽还复来。Li Bai (701 — 762)

 

Heaven has made our talents, we're not made in vain; a thousand gold coins spent, more will turn up again. (Translated by Xu Yuanchong)

  • 风力掀天浪打头,只须一笑不须愁。Yang Wanli (1127 — 1206)

Strong gales and soaring waves, shall not worry but laugh away.