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Ink Tablet in the Form of a Tortoise

This trigram, made of three broken lines, symbolizes the earth. Trigrams are also associated with animals, family members, numbers, parts of the body, directions, seasons, colors, and illnesses.

Another trigram symbolizes the wind. Each trigram has a name. This one is called xun.

Combined, these three unbroken lines represent the heavens. This trigram is also associated with the northwest direction, night time, and the winter season.

key idea
The symbols on the tortoise’s back are the Eight Trigrams.

The ancient Chinese philosophy of Taoism (DOW-ism) explains the world as a combination of two forces – yin and yang. Yin (from the word for "shady") includes darkness, water, wind, and the earth. Yang (from the word for "bright") includes light, fire, rain, and the heavens. Yin is passive, while yang is active. Everything in the universe results from the interaction of yin and yang.

Carved on this tortoise's back are Taoist symbols called the Eight Trigrams. A trigram is made up of three lines, either solid (__), for yang or broken (_ _), for yin. Each trigram stands for either a yin or yang element: water, mountain, heaven, thunder, fire, lake, earth, and wind. It’s no coincidence that the Eight Trigrams appear on an ink tablet shaped like a tortoise. According to legend, a tortoise rose from the depths of the Yellow River with these markings on its back.

The Eight Trigrams are read from bottom to top. Their order can vary. Often they are arranged in a circle, to symbolize yin-yang energy. The trigrams can be paired up to form sixty-four hexagrams, showing all situations that arise in the universe. Their meanings are explained in an ancient Chinese book called the I-Ching, or Book of Changes.

This trigram, called li, represents fire.
October 2005