Tomb Door With Symbols Of The Four Cardinal Directions

Eastern Han Dynasty
Beilin Museum, Xi'an

The four Chinese directional animals (siling, or "four spirits,") are: the Green Dragon of the East, the White Tiger of the West, the Red Bird of the South, and the Dark Warrior of the North. The bird appears in duplicate at the top of the panels; the tiger and dragon are inscribed at the bottom of the left and right doors respectively, while the Dark Warrior is repeated on the two bottom corners of the doorframe.

The directional scheme is consistent from the point of view of the tomb occupant (behind the doors, thus reversing right and left). The duplicated figure in the middle of the doors represents a mask that has been assembled from pieces of jade and that includes a circular bi.

Directional animals are associated with the Five Phases thought of Han, as in the table below (source: Michael Loewe, Faith, Myth, and Reason In Han China, Hackett Publishing 2005, pp. 41-42. See also Kelley L. Ross, The Greek, Indian, and Chinese Elements.)

element symbol direction planet season phase color
wood green dragon east Jupiter spring declining yin, rising yang green
fire scarlet bird south Mars summer full yang red
earth (none) center Saturn (none) equilibrium yellow
metal white tiger west Venus autumn rising yin, declining yang white
water dark warrior north Mercury winter full yin black

Note: Emperors past and present have characterized their dynasties according to this scheme. For example, when Mao declared that "The East is Red," he was explicitly associating his reign with the element of Fire and the phase of Full Yang; this would, presumably, have been understood by any literate Chinese of the time.