Most cultures contain elements of animal symbolism, but none have taken it to the extent of the Chinese, with their huge range of diverse animal symbols. Some of these symbols are extremely old and date back to China's prehistory. The variety of different animals is not surprising, as "there is virtually nothing in the whole of nature, organic or inorganic, no artifact, which the Orientalartist does not see as imbued with symbolic meaning."^ This is why the Taoists frequently use stories of animals to help teach their wisdom.
Symbols are a form of shorthand, in which a glimpse of something as simple as a butterfly can provide a wealth of information. Sometimes these meanings were deliberately hidden, but more frequently the meanings have been lost over the years. Carl Jung defined it well: "A word or an image is symbolic when it implies something more than its obvious and immediate meaning." The word symbol means something that is used to represent something else. For instance, most people would consider a dove to be a symbol of peace and gentleness. Similarly, a Hon is considered a symbol of courage. The word symbol is derived from the Greek word symballein, which means "to join together." Symbols frequently form a chain of associations that date back to antiquity, revealing the major role that symbols have played in the development of humanity. In fact, the most important symbols have always attempted to create harmony and significance in everyday life in a mysterious, and often frightening, world.
Not surprisingly, familiar objects - such as animals, plants, and stones - became symbols. The ancient Chinese watched fish struggle upstream to reach their breeding grounds, often leaping up large waterfalls in the process. Not surprisingly, fish became a symbol of upward progress. Similar examples could be seen everywhere people looked.