At the heart of symbolism

Kien-Mu or Jian-Mu, the Chinese World Tree

(Detailed page)


The Erect or Builder Tree

The Erect Tree (Kien Mu), also called Builder Tree (Jian-Mu), rises at the World Centre, the place of the establishment of the Emperor's residence. It is said "that at noon nothing of what is held perfectly straight next to it gives shadow 1 or echo". It has a purple trunk, green leaves, black flowers and yellow fruit:

  • The purple colour combines red and blue, two “higher” and “lower” colours of the rainbow spectrum. It symbolizes the link between the world beyond and the world below, Heaven and Earth;
  • Green characterizes the revival of nature and being. It symbolizes the regeneration that gives birth to the new man after the death of the old man, the awakening to the spiritual Knowledge beyond the profane one;
  • Just as the transformation of the flower into fruit is linked to fertilization, the transformation of beings and things is linked to the hidden, obscure character of gestation symbolized by black;
  • Yellow, the warmest colour of the visible light spectrum, is associated with the sun, the symbol of spiritual radiance par excellence. Tasting the fruit of the tree means tasting the spiritual food, the Knowledge giving access to immortality, to eternal life.

Let us note that yellow often emerges from black in the Chinese tradition. Situated half-way between blue and red within the rainbow spectrum, yellow represents the path of the union of extremes, the “Middle Path”. Yellow represents the unified reflection, in the manifested world, of the indistinct state proper to the non manifested world symbolized by black.

The trunk of the tree has branches up to a height of a thousand feet, where nine big intertwined branches protrude. At the base of the trunk, nine big intertwined roots plunge into the ground. Its branches support the nine Heavens and its roots draw from the nine Sources.

The Supreme Sovereign reigns over the nine Heavens. Each of them is only accessible through a gate kept by a porter assisted by wild animals. The nine Sources constitute the stay of the dead before their possible elevation towards the Heavens.

The number 9 symbolizes the culmination of a ten days cycle of manifestation preceding the beginning of a new one. It characterizes the achievement of a development phase. Therefore, it is not astonishing that the Tree, representing the World in its totality, has nine branches and nine roots. Besides, the Emperor's residence, the Ming Tang or Temple of Light, equally consisted of nine rooms, one, of which was central. All the same, the Chinese Empire was also divided into nine provinces, one of which occupied the centre.

The nine branches and nine Heavens are linked to the nine roots and nine Sources by the trunk of the tree. The central branch and root constitute an extension of the trunk and together symbolize the World Axis, the communication channel between Earth and Heaven, between ascending terrestrial influences and descending celestial influences.

The branches or roots, which are symmetric in relation to the trunk, correspond to complementary aspects unified along the Axis.

The voyage in the beyond

An exceptional painting on silk was discovered in 1972 in the grave of a noble lady who died during the Han dynasty, around 168 before our era. The site is situated at Mawangdui in the province of Hunan. The work, shaped as a T, depicts the voyage of the late, Lady Dai (Xin Chui), from the terrestrial world and her funeral to the celestial world and the access to eternal life. Such a representation can be compared to the erection of a tree from the terrestrial depths up to the celestial heights.

At the top of the painting, the supreme goddess, endowed with a serpentine tail, reigns on the cosmos divided into three (or four) worlds:

  • At the top, the celestial world is extended laterally and made in the image of the tree foliage;
  • In the middle, the terrestrial and human world wraps the dead following the example of a trunk;
  • At the bottom, the underground (and water) world corresponds to the roots (and sources) of the tree.

The celestial world

The celestial world includes two lateral stripes related on the one hand to sun, light, day and yang and on the other hand to moon, obscurity, night and yin.

On the yang side, a tree supports nine of the ten daily suns drying under the breath of the Goddess of the Sun, Mixed Breath (Xi He). The picture evokes the Leaning Mulberry Tree (Fu Sang) that grows in the east (yang). The sun of the day has been raised by a crow up to the summit of the tree from which it will undertake its daily cycle. The crow represents the spirit of the revived sun.

On the west (yin) side, the (waxing) moon crescent matches the hare and toad associated with the Goddess of the Moon, Always Sublimate (Chang E). The hare and the toad are linked to the night and dark water and both of them to the moon. The hare often holds a pestle and a mortar to prepare the immortality elixir giving access to eternal life. The toad usually spits gold and silver respectively associated with the sun (yang) and the moon (yin). In other words, there is no yin without yang or yang without yin.

In the middle and under the supreme goddess, it is likely that the Queen Mother of the West (Xi Wang Mu) stands keeping a watchful eye on the stay of the dead in the mountains of the west.

At the base of the celestial world, two characters, assisted by two ferocious dragons, forbid the access of the celestial gates to the unworthy beings.

The terrestrial world

Under the oil lamp lighting the gates of the celestial world where yang and yin are intimately linked, a bat spreads its wings opening onto the world of the night, of obscurity and yin.

Under the bird, the deceased moves forward while leaning on a stick. The stick held vertically is a symbol of the World Axis that she will have to travel up and down. She turns her back on the daylight world symbolized by three characters and faces the world of the night, west represented by two other people. In fact, the number three characterizes Heaven (yang) and the number two Earth (yin). No ambiguity on the path to be undertaken that must bring the noble lady from the depths to the clouds enveloping the moon crescent. The dead must cross the obscure world before attaining the light one, at least the one of the waxing moon.

The underground (and water) world

The two dragons of the terrestrial world have tails that are interlaced in the world of the depths. They remind us how much our roots are tangled and made of inextricably linked yang and yin.

The world of the depths is populated with water animals. At the deepest part of this world, two intertwined fish respectively turn towards west and east, obscurity and light. In other words, the water world where the tree draws from the source already sketches the image of the celestial world.

The painting is rich in characters, animals and objects, the study of which surpasses the general idea given here. This richness is mostly due to the fact that the painting was started long before the death of the noble lady and decorated with numerous mythical narratives that had marked her life.


  • Marcel Granet:
  • “The Chinese Thought”, Albin Michel Publisher, 1988.
  • In particular, chapter 3 on “Numbers”.
  • Anne Birrell:
  • “Chinese Myths”. University of Texas Press, 2000.

1 back Let us mention, from the anecdotal point of view, that the sun can exactly be at the zenith and give no shadow at noon (solar time) in the part of China situated south of the Cancer tropic (for more details, see the position on the celestial sphere).