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Black Tortoise
Black Turtle
The Black Tortoise depicted on a Chinese tile
Chinese name
Chinese 玄武
Literal meaning Dark Warrior
Mysterious Warrior
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet Huyền Vũ
Korean name
Hangul 현무
Hanja 玄武
Japanese name
Kanji 玄武
Hiragana げんぶ
Black Warrior of the North
Gilded copper, early 15th century. Hubei Provincial Museum.
A copper Black Tortoise from the Yongle era of the Ming dynasty (early 15th century)
Chinese 北方玄武

The Black Tortoise or Black Turtle is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. Despite its English name, it is usually depicted as a turtle entwined together with a snake. Further, in East Asia, it is not called after either animal but is instead known as the "Black Warrior" under various local pronunciations. It is known as Xuan Wu in Chinese, Hyeonmu in Korean, Genbu in Japanese and Huyền Vũ in Vietnamese[1] . It represents the north and the winter season.

In Japan, it is one of the four guardian spirits that protect Kyoto and it is said that it protect the city on the north. Represented by the Genbu Shrine,[2] which is located to the north of Kyoto Imperial Palace.

The creature's name is identical to that of the important Taoist god Xuan Wu, who is sometimes (as in Journey to the West) portrayed in the company of a turtle and snake.


In ancient China, the tortoise and the serpent were thought to be spiritual creatures symbolizing longevity. The Fujianese custom of building turtle-shaped tombs may have had to do with the desire to place the grave under the influence of the Black Tortoise.[3][4] During the Han dynasty, people often wore jade pendants that were in the shape of turtles. Because of ancient Chinese influence on Japan, honorific titles and badges in Japan also often referred to the turtle or tortoise.

The northern gates of Chinese palaces were often named after the Xuanwu. Most famously, the Incident at Xuanwu Gate, where Li Shimin killed his brothers Jiancheng and Yuanji and seized power in a coup, took place at the north gate of the Taiji Palace, in the north of Chang'an.


Xuan Wu[edit]

Xuan Wu subduing the tortoise. Wudang Palace, Yangzhou.
Main article: Xuan Wu (god)
See also: Chinese alchemy

In the classic novel Journey to the West, Xuan Wu was a king of the north who had two generals serving under him, a "Tortoise General" and a "Snake General". This god had a temple in the Wudang Mountains of Hubei and there are now a "Tortoise Mountain" and a "Snake Mountain" on opposite sides of a river near Wuhan, Hubei's capital. Taoist legend has it that Xuan Wu was the prince of a Chinese ruler but was not interested in taking the throne, opting instead to leave his parents at age 16 and study Taoism. According to the legend, he eventually achieved divine status and was worshiped as a deity of the northern sky.

Other Chinese legends[citation needed] also speak of how the "Tortoise General" and a "Snake General" came to be. During Xuan Wu's study to achieve enlightenment and divine status, he was told that, in order to fully achieve divinity, he must purge all human flesh from his body. Since he had always eaten the food of the world, despite all his efforts, his stomach and intestines were still human. A god[which?] then came and changed his organs with divine ones. Once removed, the original stomach and intestines were said to have become a tortoise and a snake, respectively. The tortoise and snake became demons[citation needed] and terrorized people. Now divine, Xuan Wu heard of this and returned to slay the monsters he had unleashed on the countryside. However, as the snake and tortoise showed remorse, he did not kill them but instead let them train under him to atone for their wrongdoings. They then became the Tortoise and Snake generals and assisted Xuan Wu with his quests. (Another legend held that the mortal organs were tossed out to become Wuhan's Tortoise and Snake mountains.)

According to another source,[citation needed] once Xuan Wu had begun his study of the Way, he discovered that he must purge himself of all of his past sins to become a god. He learned to achieve this by washing his stomach and intestines in the river. Washing his internal organs, his sins dissolved into the water in a dark, black form. These then formed into a black tortoise and a snake who terrorized the country. Once Xuan Wu learned of this, he returned to subdue them as in the other story.


As with the other three Symbols, there are seven "mansions" (positions of the moon) within Black Tortoise. The names and determinative stars are:[5][6]

Mansion no. Name Pinyin Translation Determinative star
8 Dǒu (Southern) Dipper φ Sgr
9 Niú Ox β Cap
10 Girl ε Aqr
11 Emptiness β Aqr
12 Wēi Rooftop α Aqr
13 Shì Encampment α Peg
14 Wall γ Peg
A characteristic "turtle-back tomb" in Quanzhou, Fujian

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Huyền Vũ Ngô Gia Tự Hà Nội Việt Nam thiet ke cua hang thiet bi ve sinh
  2. ^ http://ojisanjake.blogspot.com/2011/07/genbu-shrine.html#.VCmSCL5_elI
  3. ^ de Groot, Jan Jakob Maria (1892), The Religious System of China III, Brill Archive, pp. 1082–1083 
  4. ^ 李永球 (Li Yongqiu) (2010-03-07), 各籍貫墳墓造型 (In every land, its own kind of graves), Sin Chew Daily 
  5. ^ "The Chinese Sky". International Dunhuang Project. Retrieved 2011-06-25. 
  6. ^ Sun, Xiaochun (1997). Helaine Selin, ed. Encyclopaedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Kluwer Academic Publishers. p. 517. ISBN 0-7923-4066-3. Retrieved 2011-06-25. 

External links[edit]

Original courtesy of Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Tortoise — Please support Wikipedia.
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