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6th May 2023
As the most ancient civilisation on the planet, it’s no surprise that China’s epic history is ribboned with legend and folklore. Many of China’s traditional beliefs are built on mythological tales rife with magical beasts and speaking animals. These beloved animal symbols are iconicised everywhere in China, from artwork and architecture to the famed Chinese zodiac.
When touring the dazzling and diverse provinces of China, there are plenty of chances to spot these creatures if you know where to look. Read on to learn more about China’s most significant animals, and gain some insight into where you can find them yourself.
This bamboo-munching bear with its emblematic, two-toned face is probably the first that springs to mind when thinking of China’s wildlife. Indeed, the giant panda is an instantly recognisable Chinese icon; a source of national pride as well as a symbol of peace and prosperity. Thanks to its black and white colouring the Chinese liken it to the revered yin-yang, and as one of the world’s greatest conservation successes, it gained further respect as the logo for the WWF.
Interestingly, pandas didn’t always enjoy this level of recognition. Though fossils of pandas have been traced back to China for millions of years, they were barely mentioned in historical texts and seen as elusive creatures; probably down to their hiding among bamboo forests at relatively high elevations. In fact, the panda wasn’t officially mentioned by name until the 20th century, when it consequently became a prolific feature of Chinese art, and sadly, a choice hunting trophy for western explorers.
Today pandas are rarely seen in the wild but mostly reside in the hilly Sichuan province, as well as in the neighbouring Minshan and Shaanxi provinces. To spot them for yourself, head to Chengdu, where there are four reserves dedicated to the panda’s protection and conservation. The Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Centre offers you the best chance of admiring these captivating bears – chewing, climbing and playing.
Moving into the mythological realm, enter the Chinese dragon – a noble figure in China since the early dynasties. Contrary to the fearsome fire-breather of the western world, the typical Asian-style dragon is deemed a benevolent figure of strength, spirituality and protection. Ancient Chinese royalty deemed it the exclusive symbol of emperors; its appearance on shields, flags and royal garments a sign of nobility and power.
These days you’d be hard-pressed to avoid seeing a Chinese dragon when touring China. Its serpentine form shimmers in ancient paintings, architecture and stone murals, it’s embroidered into garments and stamped onto reams of tourist merchandise. The Forbidden Palace in Beijing is steeped in dragon culture due to its regal status, or for a more dynamic representation, visit during Chinese New Year or the Dragon Boat Festival to witness an authentic Chinese dragon be paraded through the streets.
The tortoise, or turtle (both are used interchangeably), is one of the four sacred animals of ancient Chinese tradition, and the only one that isn’t mythological (it has the phoenix, dragon and qilin for company). For the Chinese, the flat plastron and domed carapace of a turtle is parallel to ‘the flat earth and domed sky’ of the universe itself. Unsurprisingly, the wrinkled, slow-moving tortoise is also associated with longevity and tenacity, and its ‘burial mound’ form is used as a memorial symbol to signify power after death.
As a sign of respect, either a tortoise or a turtle-dragon creature called a ‘bixi’ can be seen at the base of memorial plinths all over China, particularly those of high-ranking officials.This practise was particularly common in the Sui Dynasty and Ming periods. Enormous turtles, one of which weighs up to 50 tonnes, can be found within the Ming Tombs in Beijing, supporting the memorial tablets of emperors.
As in many countries across Asia, the crane has legendary status in China. With its ability to fly long distances and a fabled lifespan of 1,000 years, the crane is a treasured omen of long life. With such stunning good looks, the red-crowned crane was a prolific feature in traditional Chinese paintings and artwork, and was embroidered into silk garments to promote beauty and longevity to those who wore them. A white heron is a similarly celestial figure in China, widely said to carry departed souls to heaven.
To spot herons and cranes in the wild, there are plenty of bird-watching sites scattered across China’s hugely diverse nature reserves. Poyang Lake in Jiangxi is the largest freshwater lake in the country, and the perfect place to take your binoculars for bird-seeking. To spot the exquisite red-crowned crane, head to Yancheng Rare Birds Nature Reserve in Jiangsu province, which is home to 377 bird species.
With the stripes on its forehead looking vastly similar to the Chinese symbol for ‘king’, the tiger is seen by the Chinese as the natural born ruler of the animal world. With god-given kingliness and strength, Chinese folklore mostly depicts them fighting off evil spirits, particularly the triple threat to households of fire, thieves and ghosts.
In centuries past, vast numbers of tigers wandered the jungles of Hunan, Fujian, Jiangxi and Guangdong provinces. Today, the South China tiger is one of the most critically endangered animals in the world, and has sadly disappeared from the wild due to intense poaching and habitat loss. For now, you can see the tiger depicted on clothing, in houses and on charm jewellery to scare away evil spirits. The respected tiger god is also worshipped during Chinese New Year festivities to ward off disasters for the year ahead.
For an obscure tiger-based activity, why not go hiking at Tiger Leaping Gorge, one of the deepest and most spectacular canyons in the world? On this same hiking tour you can also tackle Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, full of legendary stories and wildlife.
As one of the 12 symbols observed in the Chinese Zodiac, monkeys hold a special place in Chinese culture, and have done so for millennia. The Chinese word for ‘monkey’ was first found on oracle bone inscriptions from the Shang dynasty (14th-11th centuries BCE). Today the most revered traditional character is that of the Monkey King, Sun Wukong, who appears in Chinese fables fighting beasts and spirits.
Most likely to bound into view during your trip to China are macaques, who can be found everywhere from the Taihang Mountains of Shanxi in the north, down to Hainan in the south. There are also a good number of tourist attractions that are home to troops of meandering macaques.
Arguably China’s most unique primate is the snub-nosed monkey. Named after their virtually non-existent noses, four of the world’s five species exist in the elevated mountain forests of China, and three are endemic. The golden snub-nosed monkey is most famous – spot these when touring the varied terrain of Zhouzhi Nature Reserve in Shaanxi province, or the Baihe Nature Reserve in Sichuan, where pandas also roam.
A varied array of Chinese monkey life also exists in the ethereal Zhangjiajie National Forest Park, the gibbon-rich Gaoligong Mountain, or Foping Reserve in the Qinling Mountains, home of enthralling golden monkeys.
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If you’d like to create a Chinese trip full of animal spirits, you can build a tour with our local experts by sending an enquiry, or head to our China pages for more inspiration. To speak to someone in the TravelLocal office, please call +44 (0) 117 325 7898.