Taoist Symbols and Their Meanings

Affiliate Disclosures

Taoism or Daoism is one of the oldest and most significant religions, as well as spiritual and philosophical traditions in Chinese culture. Originating from a rich tradition that’s been developed by multiple different schools, Taoism is also full of various symbols, many of which have been preserved to this day.

As is the case with other religions and philosophical traditions from the Far East, most Taoist symbols are clean-cut and simple in their meanings. They say what they represent, and they represent what they say without too many convoluted and hidden meanings.

Like other philosophies in Chinese culture, Taoism focuses much more on its written texts, thoughts, and parables than on just symbols.

Even so, there are quite a few fascinating symbols of Taoism that we can explore.

The Core Taoist Teachings

Taoism or Daoism is a teaching of the importance of living in harmony with Tao (or Dao), i.e. The Way.

This Tao is the source, the core pattern of the Universe which we all must learn to feel, recognize, and follow. Only through The Way, in Taoism, are people ever going to be able to achieve peace and harmony in their lives.

Unlike Confucianism, which also seeks to achieve harmony but through the following of tradition and a rigid ancestral hierarchy, in Taoism harmony is said to be achieved by focusing on the simplicity, spontaneity, and “naturalness” of life. This is the Wu Wei teaching in Taoism which literally translates as action without intention.

As a result of that, most Taoist symbols are centered around the idea of achieving balance with nature and being at peace with one’s surroundings.

The Most Popular Taoist Symbols

Taoist symbols are unlike most symbols in other religions. While this teaching has a couple of “standard” symbols similar to what most of us understand as symbols, most other symbols in Taoism are charts and diagrams that represent the teachings of Taoism. Taoists would fly triangular and rectangular flags with these diagrams over their temples and houses.

Instead of each Taoist school coming up with a different symbol for its denomination (like the different Christian crosses, for example) each school just flew a flag with the key diagram that the school followed. That way, whenever a traveler approached a particular Taoist temple, they always knew exactly what the people in it believed.

1. Taijitu (Yin Yang)

Yin yang symbolic meaning

The Taijitu symbol, commonly known as the Yin Yang symbol, is probably the most popular Taoist symbol and Chinese symbol in general. It’s also often used in Confucianism which also focuses on achieving balance and harmony. The Yin Yang symbolizes the harmony between opposite forces and the duality of all things.

The symbol’s white and black shapes are often interpreted as “good” and “bad” as well as with a range of other dual concepts, such as femininity and masculinity, light and dark, and so on.

Although painted as a stationary object, the Yin Yang symbol is believed to be in constant motion, an ever-shifting fluid dance between the two opposites.

2. Dragons and Phoenixes

Both of these mythological creatures have strong symbolism in Taoism. We are listing them together because they are usually spoken of in the same sentence. In fact, they are often viewed as a variation of the Yin and Yang symbol, as the dragon symbolizes masculinity, and the phoenix represents femininity.

These two creatures have also long been viewed as the symbols of the Chinese emperors and empresses.

Of these two symbols, the phoenix is the more recent addition. In the past, masculinity and femininity was represented by a dragon and a tiger/tigress.

3. Ba-Gua

The Ba-Gua, or the Eight Triagrams, symbol is a complex diagram that directly showcases a large part of the Taoist teachings. In this respect, the Ba-Gua is different to most other religious or spiritual symbols, which tend to be simpler in design.

The Ba-Gua consists of the symbols for the Supreme Yang, the Lesser Yang, the Supreme Yin, and the Lesser Yin. Around the Yin Yang system, there are eight circles and corresponding complex triagrams, each representing a different virtue:

  1. Family/Past, represented by wood, foot, east, and the color green
  2. Knowledge/Spirituality, represented by a hand or the colors black, blue, and green
  3. Career, represented by water, ear, north, and the color black
  4. Helpful People/Traveler/Father, represented by a head or the colors gray, white, and black
  5. Children/Creativity/Future, represented by metal, mouth, west, and the color white
  6. Relationships/Marriage/Mother, represented by organs, and the colors red, pink, and white
  7. Fame, represented by fire, eye, south, and the color red
  8. Wealth, represented by hip, and the colors green, purple, and red

Each of these eight circles and values is accompanied by three lines (which is why it is called the Eight Triagrams), some of which are broken (the Yin lines), while the rest are solid (the Yang lines).

This complex symbol is one of the core components of the Taoist teachings and what this religion represents.

4. Luo Pan Compass

Feng shui compass
Feng Shui compass by Merles Vintage. See it here.

A key tool in Feng Shui, the Luo Pan Compass is a complex device that helps Taoists to evaluate the spiritual energies of a particular place and figure out how to arrange or rearrange their homes according to it.

There are several different variants of the Luo Pan Compass, but each is shaped like a circular disk with a magnetic center with multiple numbered rings around it, each containing a complex symbol or a Taoist orientation system.

5. The Five Element Chart

Similar to the Ba-Gua, the Five Element Chart is a complex teaching tool that showcases Taoist Cycles of Generation and Control as well as the Five Elements of Nature, according to Taoism. These included:

  • Wood (green)
  • Fire (red)
  • Earth (yellow)
  • Metal (white)
  • Water (blue)

The Five Element Chart also expressed the complex relationships between the five elements – the Sheng Creation Cycle, the Cheng Overacting Cycle, the Cycles of Imbalance, and much more.

6. Taijito Shuo

As we mentioned above, Taijito is the original name of the Yin Yang symbol. Taijito Shuo, however, is the name of a complex diagram that represents the Supreme Polarity in Taoism. Simply put, this diagram shows the entire Taoist Cosmology as it was understood back then.

The symbol comprises of five main components:

  • An empty circle at the top that stands for Wuji or the undifferentiated timelessness of the Cosmos
  • Below is an early version of the Yin yang or Taijito symbol – the balance and harmony all Taoists strive for
  • In the middle is a simpler version of the Five Element Chart, representing the building blocks of the Universe
  • Below the Five Element Chart are two other empty circles – these represent the “myriad things” of the world

Wrapping Up

Toaist symbols are complex and multi-layered in meaning. They require analysis and an understanding of the principles, philosophies, and values of Taoism in order to be understood. While some of these symbols/diagrams are relatively unknown outside of Taoism, others, like the Yin and Yang, have become popular around the world due to the universality and applicability of their symbolism.  

Tags: