Black Tortoise
Black Turtle
Black Warrior
The Black Tortoise depicted on a Chinese tile
Chinese name
Literal meaningDark Warrior
Mysterious Warrior
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabetHuyền Vũ
Chữ Hán玄武
Korean name
Japanese name
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)

The Black Tortoise (Chinese: 玄武; pinyin: Xuánwǔ) is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. Despite its English name, it is usually depicted as a tortoise entwined together with a snake. The name 玄武 used in East Asian languages does not mention either animal; the alternative name "Black Warrior" is a more faithful translation. It is known as Xuanwu in Chinese.

It represents the north and the winter season, thus it is sometimes called Xuanwu (Black Tortoise, lit. Black Warrior) of the North (Chinese: 北方玄武; pinyin: Běifāng Xuánwǔ).

In Japan, it is named Genbu. It is said to protect Kyoto on the north side, being one of the four guardian spirits that protect the city. It is represented by the Kenkun Shrine, which is located on top of Mt Funaoka in Kyoto.

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


This section does not cite any sources. Please help improve this section by adding citations to reliable sources. Unsourced material may be challenged and removed. (July 2018) (Learn how and when to remove this template message)

During the Han dynasty, people often wore jade pendants that were in the shape of turtles. Because of the 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.


Black Tortoise with Snake. Southern Dynasties Brick Relief 11.
Black Tortoise with Snake. Southern Dynasties Brick Relief 11.

In ancient China, the tortoise and the serpent were thought to be spiritual creatures symbolizing longevity. The min people 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.[1][2]


Xuanwu subduing the tortoise. Wudang Palace, Yangzhou.
Xuanwu subduing the tortoise. Wudang Palace, Yangzhou.

Main article: Xuanwu (god)

See also: Chinese alchemy

In the classic novel Journey to the West, Xuanwu 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 Xuanwu 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 Xuanwu'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, Xuanwu 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 Xuanwu 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 Xuanwu 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 Xuanwu learned of this, he returned to subdue them as in the other story.

Seven Mansions of the Black Tortoise

As with the other three Symbols, there are seven astrological "Mansions" (positions of the Moon) within the Black Tortoise. The names and determinative stars are:[3][4]

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
A characteristic "turtle-back tomb" in Quanzhou, Fujian

See also


  1. ^ de Groot, Jan Jakob Maria (1892), The Religious System of China, vol. III, Brill Archive, pp. 1082–1083
  2. ^ 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
  3. ^ "The Chinese Sky". International Dunhuang Project. Archived from the original on 2015-11-04. Retrieved 2011-06-25.
  4. ^ 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.
  5. ^ National Museum of Korea, 2007, Black Tortoise and Serpent, the Guardian Deity of the North
  6. ^ Nancy Thomson de Grummond, 2006, Etruscan Myth, Sacred History, and Legend, The Journey to the Afterlife, p.212, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology