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Turtles in Folklore – Chinese Mythology

by Zach Gasior

Like many animals that have existed in their current form for thousands of years, the turtle has become a symbol in many different world cultures.  In Japan, the spiritual turtle was a water creature called the kappa.  But not all groups felt the turtle to be a trickster, or an embodiment of both good and bad in this way.  Many felt that the turtle was a creature that offered a great deal of strength, and held a significant place in society.  The Chinese were one such group, and the turtle and tortoise are given a great deal of respect at the very core of their existence.

In Chinese culture, the tortoise is a symbol of longevity, power, and tenacity.  The reason why is because this particular animal played a crucial role in the very creation of the world.  When Gong Gong destroyed the mountain that held up the world, Nuwa cut off the legs of a tortoise and used them to prevent the sky from falling.  So the animal is essentially still keeping the entire world from collapsing on itself.  Likewise, the tortoise shell was a mirror for the view of the world as a whole.  Chinese culture believed the world to be flat underneath a domed shell (sky).  The constellations and other astral bodies were just etched on the inside of the shell.  This interpretation was even associated with the balancing forces of Yin and Yan.


The tortoise is also one of the four symbols of the mythological animals in the Chinese constellations.  Together these four are the tortoise, the dragon, the phoenix, and the tiger.  The Black Tortoise rules the northern point on the compass, and stands for endurance, strength, and longevity.  Even though the tortoise is a real animal, this symbolic tortoise is given dragon ears, tentacles of fire on its shoulders, and a hairy tail of seaweed (showing its connection to plant and sea life).  The Black Tortoise represents the element of water and the season winter.  Together with the other three sacred animals, the Black Tortoise protects and shapes the world.  It was believed that tortoises hibernate in the winter and changes its shell every spring, thus why they had such long lives.

Because the turtle and tortoise were so important in the creation of the world, the Chinese Imperial Army would carry flags depicting the powerful tortoise and dragon.  The tortoise cannot attack the dragon, but the dragon cannot break the tortoise’s defense; in other words, offense and defense were used together as the symbols of the entire nation.  Also, the tortoise is often placed near burial monuments, and the columns of the Temple of Heaven were said to made of tortoise shell (because it was supposed to infuse them with the longevity of the creature, and keep them from rotting away).

The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles draw on a lot of different cultures in their own daily lives.  Between the Renaissance in Italy, American cuisine, and East Asian martial arts, the boys are immersed in several different cultures.  Given the importance granted to them (and their tortoise cousins) in that particular area, it’s no wonder that the most prominent part of their identities comes from East Asia, and the Japanese martial arts that they seek to master.  But Japan was directly influenced by China throughout history, and so certainly some of their identity draws from there as well.

The turtle and its cousin, the tortoise, are crucial to many different world cultures.  Their power and stability have provided a strong focal point to many different peoples, and their importance cannot be overstressed.  Whether in myth and legend or in real life circumstances, the turtle and tortoise have provided China with a motivational force that has spurred action and reinforced beliefs for thousands of years.  The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have a long and storied history to live up to, but they are certainly succeeding with every day that they remain heroes in a half shell.

TMNT Ninja Turtles

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