More than just a circle and square: Shapes in Chinese Culture

We previously wrote about the use of colors in Chinese culture, and now is as good a time as any to extend this topic on Chinese symbolism. We’ll be discussing the use of shapes today. It’s natural that colors are followed by shapes as they are the fundamental elements of visual art.

Out of all geometric shapes, two are especially profound in China. One of them is the circle, and the other is the square. This is in no way unique to China, since many other civilizations are also more drawn towards those two shapes than others. And just like most of those civilizations, our ancestors also used to believe that the sky is round and the earth square.

A perfect circle (圆,[yinpin]yuan2[/pinyin]) is almost impossible to produce by unaided human hands, and is why I think the shape was valued so much. In Chinese culture, the circle stands for “fulfilled”, “oneness”, “perfection”, “unity”. More specifically, it’s the process of something coming full circle that bears the most importance. Family members get together to celebrate the day that the moon is at its fullest (Mid-Autumn day). Two halves of a broken round mirror symbolizes the reunion of spouses who were separated. Yin and Yang forms a perfect circle divided by a sinuous line (taichi symbol), and stands for the oneness of conflicting forces inside everything.

The square, on the other hand, with its straight lines and sharp corners, represent laws and regulations. It’s worth mentioning that the concept of a “square” in China is quite different from that in other countries. In English (and I suspect it’s the same case in other Latin-based languages) a “square” is a shape with all four sides of the same length, and similar shapes with sides of varied lengths are called “rectangles”. In Chinese, all of those shapes are part of the same family, “方” (fāng). Under that, squares are “正方” (zhèng fāng, “perfect square”) and rectangles “长方” (cháng fāng “stretched square”). Therefore, when talking about “squares” in the context of Chinese culture, I mean all four-sided shapes with four right angles, regardless of height-length ratios.

More than just visual design, these two shapes have became overloaded with so many meanings during the course of history, that they don’t require much to trigger responses in people’s minds . With people picking up more complex patterns for decorations, the simple circle and square gradually faded out of the mainstream of visual design. Instead, they became the cornerstones of Chinese language and mindset. The following are some sample sentences:

Chinese: 没有规矩,不成方圆 méi yǒu guī jǔ, bù chéng fāng yuán
English: You can’t get a perfect square or circle without the use of compasses and rulers. (One can’t achieve greatness without following rules and laws.)
Usage: “方圆” ( fāng yuán), square and circle, are used together as a noun, indicating “proper achievements”. This is also how the term “规矩” ( guī jǔ, compasses and rulers) became the noun for rules, regulations and laws in modern Chinese.

Chinese: 方圆几百里,朔光的创意是最强的 fāng yuán jǐ bǎi lǐ, shuò guāng de chuàng yì shì zuì qiáng de
English:  Illuminant’s work is by and large the most creative in a hundred mile radius.
Usage: “方圆” (fāng yuán, the same term, is used as an adjective, meaning “by and large”, and is usually deployed before the size of an area.

Chinese: 他可算是圆了当年的梦想 tā kě suàn shì yuán lè dāng nián de mèng xiǎng
English: He’s finally made his lifelong dream a reality.
Usage: “圆” ([pinyin] yuán, circle, is used as a verb, meaning “to fulfill”, “to  perfect”.

Chinese: 现在你可算是功德圆满了 xiàn zài nǐ kě suàn shì gōng dé yuán mǎn le
English: Now you can say that you’ve achieved all goals.
Usage: “圆满” (yuán mǎn), round and full, is an adjective and means “the ultimate completeness”. Originally used by Buddhists, to mean that one has completed all religious requirements.

Chinese: 这不失为一种好的方法 zhè bù shī wéi yì zhǒng hǎo de fāng fǎ
English: This is a good method.
Usage: “方法” (fāng fǎ), “way of the square”, noun. It originally meant the way to measure the size of a square or a rectangle. In modern Chinese, it’s been extended to mean “ways of doing things”.

Chinese: 这个问题包含几个方面 zhè gè wèn tí bāo hán jǐ gè fāng miàn
English: This problem has several aspects.
Usage: “方面” (fāng miàn), “sides of the square”, noun. Originally, it did mean sides of square. Later its meaning was extended to “all four directions”, then “aspects or facets of a subject”.

Chinese: 做人应当品行方正 zòu rén yīng dāng pǐn xíng fāng zhèng
English: One should live with flawless morality.
Usage: “方正” (fāng zhèng), “square and straight”, adjective. It took on the meaning that “someone’s morality is like a square, with perfect straight lines and right angles”.

In a nutshell, both the square and circle could figuratively mean perfection of some sort. You could also say that the two shapes combined define the outline of the Chinese mindset. It may seem like a good idea to use them in plays of words. However, since these two shapes are so basic, so old, so commonly seen and loaded with so many meanings, they have melted into the binary code of Chinese culture. They have achieved almost ominous presence in the culture. They are beyond visual, beyond verbal, beyond geometric, beyond those “lucky” or “unlucky” tags applied to most other symbols. They just are. It is however worth playing with them in your design work and be guided by their simplicity. For example, try creating a feeling of harmony with a big, perfect, shiny ring; or delivering the message of “absolute boundaries” or “iron discipline” with a series of right angles or squares.

If you’re stuck, get in touch with us for inspiration, or if you’d like more information on symbolism in China.

Article by Kane Gao, Illuminant’s head of research.

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