"Double Happiness": symbol of Confucianism as a religion

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An image composed of a circle of fourteen symbols of major world religions has been circulating on the web:

The example pictured here is from this site.

Most of the symbols are readily identifiable and commonly agreed upon as standing for a particular religion.  But one of them strikes me as odd, namely, 囍.

It is instantly recognizable to all Chinese, even those who are illiterate, despite the fact that it is a very special and rather complex character.  Among the fourteen symbols of the circle, only one other is part of a writing system, viz., ॐ / ओं / औं / ओ३म्, the sacred Hindu syllable "om".

So what is this 囍, and does it make a good symbol for Confucianism?

囍 is the reduplicated form of xǐ 喜 ("happy; joyful").  Sometimes 囍 is pronounced xǐ, but usually it is referred to and pronounced as shuāngxǐ 雙喜 ("Double Happiness"), making it a polysyllabic character.

Presumably, 囍 was chosen as the symbol for Confucianism because of the high value placed upon the marriage ceremony in the orthodox ritual classics, but it's also used in connection with the lunar New Year celebrations, on packages of cigarettes and matches, bottles of soy sauce, cans of evaporated milk, jewelry, fashionable clothing, and so forth.  Mostly, though, it is used to invoke conjugal bliss and love.

zhízhī dànnǎi 植脂淡奶
(lit., "vegetable fat evaporated milk", i.e., "evaporated filled milk")

Until I saw this photograph, I had never heard of "filled milk" and had no idea what it was.  Wikipedia tells us: "Filled milk is any milk, cream, or skim milk that has been reconstituted with fats, usually vegetable oils, from sources other than dairy cows."

If you want to come up with a better symbol than 囍 for Confucianism, it won't be that easy.  Take a gander at these.

None of them leaps of the page as an obvious symbol for Confucianism as a religion.  On the other hand, I was surprised to see how often shuǐ 水 ("water") is suggested among these images.  Considering what we learned about water in the following post, it might not be a bad idea for representing Confucianism after all: "Water control " (5/30/15).

It is simple, has a nice balance of strokes, and potentially recognizable even by those who are not Chinese.  It seems to me that, with its 4 strokes, it would be a much better choice than 囍 with its 24 strokes all jammed into a tiny square.  Meaning-wise, it is also more suitable, I should think, than 囍, which borders on vulgarity.  But if you're looking for a simple character that truly encapsulates the core of Confucian values, nothing can beat xiào 孝 ("filial piety"), and it only has 7 strokes.  Of course, it's not absolutely necessary to pick a Chinese character, but what is a better choice?

[Thanks to Lai Ka Yau]



43 Comments

  1. Matt said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 8:06 pm

    How about "仁"? Even easier to write, decomposes into two parts suitable for weighty rumination on the importance of relationships etc…

  2. Chad Nilep said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 8:36 pm

    The Hindu symbol is also somewhat curious, from what I understand. Although the pronunciation of [õː] is indeed an important part of Hindu practice, the written form as a sign of that tradition is a more recent innovation (mid-twentieth century, if I recall correctly).

  3. Chad Nilep said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    Hmm, the Devanagari disappeared from my comment. I used less-than greater-than symbols to indicate that I was referring to orthography; presumably those were parsed as html mark-up. Oops.

  4. Mara K said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 8:38 pm

    What about 仁, which has four strokes and also represents a concept central to Confucianism? (Even though I've never been sure how to translate it; I've seen it rendered as "benevolence", "wisdom", "virtue," "humanity," and "humaneness.")

  5. julie lee said,

    June 8, 2015 @ 10:05 pm

    What about the character 孔(kong), which is the name "Confucius"? The Confucian religion or teaching is also called "孔教" (kong jiao "Confucius teaching"), 孔 is also four strokes. The Christian religion in Chinese is also called "耶教" (ye jiao "Ye teaching", Ye standing for Latin "Jesu").

  6. Steve B said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 12:12 am

    The game Civilization IV used yet another symbol (吉): http://civilization.wikia.com/wiki/Religion_(Civ4)

    (Civilization V used 水)

  7. Rubrick said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 1:16 am

    This raises the important question: Is there any use crying over filled milk?

  8. Jeff W said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 3:54 am

    This raises the important question: Is there any use crying over filled milk?

    Ha, I wish I had said that!

    Why isn't 儒 just the default symbol? Or even the predominant one? (That's what Wikipedia uses here.) Or does that not represent Confucianism "as a religion"?

  9. John Swindle said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 4:01 am

    Wouldn't the double-happiness character be better to represent traditional Chinese religion than to represent Confucianism?

    That said, if the Confucians decide their beliefs are a religion and want to hold a public contest to choose a symbol for it, they'll know where to come. My suggestions: either 孔孟 for Confucius and Mencius, 儒 for Confucian, or a stylized image of Confucius.

    I couldn't guess what religion was represented by three sticks and three points of light, just to the left of the top of the circle.

  10. John Swindle said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 4:04 am

    Jeff W, sorry – our comments crossed in the lag-o-sphere.

  11. Rodger C said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 9:13 am

    @John Swindle: That's Neo-Druidism. It's one of Iolo Morgannwg (Edward Williams)'s inventions, I think.

  12. The Tumbleweed Farm said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 9:38 am

    A few years ago, there was a discussion on Wikipedia about choosing a suitable single-character symbol for the "Chinese folk religion". My suggestion was to go for something based on the character 壽/寿 ("shou", 'longevity') :
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia_talk:WikiProject_China/Archive_21#Religious_symbol_for_Chinese_folk_religion

    One thing going for this character was that it (or, rather, designs based on it) *do* sometimes appear on top of temples, much like a cross can be seen on top of a Christian church:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:LonggangZhen-YongGongCi-0023.jpg

    If I were asked to pick a single character to refer to Confucianism, I probably would pick 礼 ("li", 'rites'), but of course I could not argue against 孝、 仁 or 儒 either.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 11:26 am

    I agree that 礼 would make a good choice as a symbol for Confucianism, bearing in mind that the traditional form of the character is lǐ 禮 ("rites; ritual; civility; etiquette; ceremony; courtesy; manners; propriety").

    The UC Santa Barbara philosopher Herbert Fingarette wrote a highly influential little book entitled Confucius-The Secular as Sacred (New York: Harper. & Row, 1972) that was popular In the early 70s, Squarely in the center of the cover was the character 禮, which I thought was appropriate as a symbol for the core social value espoused by Confucius.

  14. julie lee said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 11:37 am

    @John Swindle suggests: "Or a stylized image of Confucius".

    Not another kitschy portrait of Confucius please. Though I liked the images of Jesus by Raphael, as well as the Raphael based pictures of Jesus' face, that I grew up on. (We had no idea they were from Raphael.)

  15. K. Chang said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 12:23 pm

    Who came up with these symbols anyway? Some of them are pretty obvious (heck, they were in Civ 4/5) but some of these are like "wha?"

    Nine pointed star, okay. That's Bahaism, but Bahaism has its own symbol. Hmmm…

    Navigator wheel… I can see the dharmachakra as representing Buddhism, but only people who have studied Buddhism a little. And it needs to be a little more stylized than a simple navigator wheel.

    Cross for Christianity, okay. Some have suggested the "fish symbol" if it's too religious. I… "kinda" get it. :)

    Double happiness is Confucianism? WTF?! That symbol is exclusive to Chinese weddings in a non-religious way. Doesn't a religious symbol means it can't really be mistaken for anything else?

    The Hinduism symbol, got that.

    Islam, got that.

    The "hand" is Jainism, but there are alternate symbols too.

    Star of David is Judaism

    Shintoism is the "gate"

    Never knew Sikhism had a symbol. Looks so… sci-fi-ish. :)

    Taoism is the yingyang. Though I've seen people use it for Confucianism too.

    What is the circled 5-point star? Was that supposed to be paganism?

    The "eagle" was Zoroastrianism. Didn't realize it had a symbol. But why is it sideways?

    So that's that 3 dots and 3 rays of light? "General spirituality", i.e. "everybody else"?

  16. K. Chang said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 12:26 pm

    @Rodger C: So was that 3 rays of light supposed to be neo-Druidism / Druidry? Looks like it's got 3 extra stars on top, as least per Wikipedia.

  17. K. Chang said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 12:37 pm

    @Rodger C: uh, bad linking in Wikipedia. They have BOTH with dots and without dots linked. Under Neo-druidism they have without dots. You search for Awen and you get the one with dots. ARGH!

    @Julie Lee / Victor Mair — indeed, 孔 would make much more sense as symbol for Confucianism. People who know Confucianism would recognize 孔子/ 孔夫子 and the reference. And it can't be mistaken for anything else (that I can think of).

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

    For veterans interested in being buried in a U.S. military cemetery, the government has a quite extensive list of approved religious (or in a few cases secular-alternative) symbols that can be used on gravestones here. http://www.cem.va.gov/hmm/emblems.asp There appears not (yet) to be one that is specifically Confucian, so the field perhaps remains open for the first activist group claiming to represent Confucian veterans that can decide what it wants. Taoists and Jains are among the other groups that seem to be unrepresented by the current set of options (although there's an explanation at the bottom of the process for getting a new symbol approved), and Hindus and Buddhists are, perhaps understandably, offered only non-swastika options.

  19. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

    This for some reason also reminds me by free association of a recent story about how the Communist authorities in Zhejiang (Chekiang) province are allegedly taking a bizarrely specific interest in the details of Christian symbols. https://foreignpolicy.com/2015/05/08/china-christianity-crosses-regulation-protestant-catholic/. Perhaps the attempts by the PRC regime to rehabilitate Confucianism will lead to officially approved or mandated symbols, although the fact that Confucianism seems to have muddled along for quite a long time now without an immediately-identifiable consensus symbol (which is exactly why the choice that got this thread started was necessarily arbitrary), must mean something.

  20. Eidolon said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 4:59 pm

    Confucius is considered the seminal scholar of Confucianism – hence the name – but I have to agree with Jeff W. that I'd prefer 儒 over 孔. Confucius, according to his own school's tradition, described himself as a transmitter – not a creator – of the 'sagely ways,' itself a codification of the moral and ritualistic practices of the elites of his time, and which is thus best described with a less individualistic 儒.

  21. Jeff W said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 5:03 pm

    @ julie lee

    Not another kitschy portrait of Confucius please.

    Yeah, really.

    That comment actually reminded me of a question: why does 囍 "border on vulgarity"? I assume it's because of something in the character itself rather than because of ultra-cute representations of the character.

    (I actually like 囍 design-wise—it has a nice y-symmetry and works in some interesting design ways. But its ubiquity in other settings might work against it as symbol of Confucianism.)

    @ John Swindle

    Jeff W, sorry…

    Thanks—no reason at all to apologize.

  22. Jongseong Park said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 5:15 pm

    Like Matt and Mara K, I immediately thought of 仁 rén "benevolence" as well as a symbol for Confucianism if we were choosing a Chinese character. My second thought was 儒 "Confucian", which is used to describe anything Confucian at least in Sino-Korean. I've never heard 孔教 used to describe Confucianism in Korean (it does appear in the dictionary, but only as a synonym of 儒敎), so 孔 doesn't immediately evoke Confucianism for me, even as I'm aware that in English the very name Confucianism comes from Confucius.

    As Jeff W says, the English-language Wikipedia already uses 儒 for Confucianism. But the Korean-language Wikipedia uses 囍 "double happiness", funnily enough.

    If I do an image search for Confucian symbols in Korean, the first few results are also of the character 水 shuǐ "water". I was mystified by this, but when I checked the results, they turned out to be from Western stock photo or clip art sites—not the most reliable sources for Confucian symbolism. I wouldn't read much into this. It's almost as if someone took a basic Chinese character at random to represent Confucianism, although it's not the worst choice since Mencius does talk about 水 a lot.

    So we agree that Confucianism lacks an easy, identifiable symbol. The yin-yang symbol and the trigrams and hexagrams are more familiar as generic symbols of Eastern philosophy, and of Daoism in particular to Western audiences. A branding project just waiting to be taken on by an aspiring logo designer? I would go with a stylized logo of 仁, which has the simplest shape to work from.

    I am not familiar with the Dharmachakra or eight-spoked wheel as a symbol for Buddhism. I think I speak for most Koreans when the first symbol for Buddhism I can think of is the swastika 卍, which you can see commonly decorating Buddhist temples in Korea. But of course for the international audience, the unfortunate association with Nazism (which uses a mirror-image swastika) means that you'll never see it used as a symbol for Buddhism.

  23. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 7:05 pm

    I was first habituated to 卍=Buddhist from Japanese street maps, which commonly use (I assume they still do . . .) that symbol to indicate "Buddhist temple here," as contrasted with a stylized torii gate that indicates "Shinto shrine here." I'm thinking street maps of e.g. Taipei might have some standard symbolic code for identifying Buddhist and Taoist places of worship and distinguishing them from each other, but the general lack of specifically Confucian "temples" or equivalent means no similar symbol would be needed.

    There are still some places in the US where a swastika-for-Buddhism is part of a larger group of symbols representing various world religions, e.g. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Western_use_of_the_swastika_in_the_early_20th_century#Displayed_with_Christian_and_Jewish_symbols.

    I correctly deduced that the eight-spoked wheel was supposed to be Buddhism, but in part by process of elimination. From the examples shown at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dharmachakra, it is perhaps commonly used in the Theravada parts of Asia but not the Mahayana parts? Which would thus make it a lousy symbol for Buddhism-as-a-whole on its own terms, but perfectly adequate for Westerners who are interested in appearing multi-cultural without getting too hung up on fine points of detail.

  24. julie lee said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 7:47 pm

    @Rodger C.

    Thanks for identifying the three dots and three shafts or rays as the Neo-Druidism symbol. I wonder if the symbol stands for the ancient Indo-European trinity, Heaven, Earth, Man. I read of this in James P. Mallory's , _In Search of the Indo-Europeans: Language, Archaeology and Myth_. It reminds me of the trinity Heaven, Earth, Man (san ji 三極 "Three Ultimates"), in ancient Chinese philosophy. I wonder if the two trinities are related, that is, had a common origin, or whether they developed independently. In both trinities, there is Heaven the Father, Earth the Mother, and Mankind the Child.

  25. julie lee said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 7:51 pm

    @K. Chang,

    Thanks for identifying so many of the symbols. I knew fewer than half.

  26. Matt said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 7:57 pm

    I haven't actually researched it properly but my impression is that the eight-spoked wheel is less commonly seen in "post-Chinese" Buddhist countries than in, say, SE Asia. This is presumably because the most influential Chinese sutras and treatises de-emphasize or even completely ignore the "noble eightfold path" in favor of trippier concerns (for want of a better phrase).

  27. K Chang said,

    June 9, 2015 @ 11:00 pm

    FWIW, the symbol for "Paganism" is actually a "Pentacle", which really stands for Wicca the religion, rather than general paganism.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wicca

  28. Observation said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 7:48 am

    I also support the use of the 仁 character. It is the core of the Analects, and Mencius also stressed it – it was the first of 仁義禮智. Although 孝 is important in Confucianism, I don't think its position is as high as 仁. 孝 is the most important manifestation of 仁, so to speak, so 仁 already encompasses 孝. I agree with Eidolon's post on 孔. 孔孟 would be even less representative of Confucianism in my opinion, since Mencius did not gain a central position in mainstream Confucianism until the past millenia or so. 禮 has too many strokes for a logo in my opinion, and its position is secondary to 仁義 according to Mencius, e.g. Mencius 7.27: 仁之實,事親是也;義之實,從兄是也。智之實,知斯二者弗去是也;禮之實,節文斯二者是也. It would be a better symbol for Xunzi's branch of Confucianism, rather than Confucianism as a whole.

  29. Observation said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 7:58 am

    As for 水, I think it is also not the perfect symbol for Confucianism. Firstly, Daoism is most famous for embracing water – the 上善若水 passage should be well known to most – so I think it's more representative of Daoism than Confucianism. Secondly, although I agree with Prof. Mair that dealing with rivers was an important part of ruling in Ancient China, I think that is a result of China's geographical situation, but not the nature of Confucianism or its doctrines, and therefore not too representative. Confucianism as a philosophy can apply even to areas without fluvial hazards.

    Thirdly, although Mencius used water as a metaphor for human nature, that is not really symbolic of Confucianism as a whole – Xunzi certainly did not believe in that. Fourthly, although Confucius praised water in 逝者如斯夫,不捨晝夜, he was praising water that flew from a spring, which Mencius explained: 原泉混混,不舍晝夜。盈科而後進,放乎四海,有本者如是,是之取爾。苟為無本,七八月之閒雨集,溝澮皆盈;其涸也,可立而待也。故聲聞過情,君子恥之。Therefore, it seems that Confucius was praising a certain type of water rather than water in general.

  30. Rodger C said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 9:42 am

    @Julie Lee, here's how Iolo explained it:

    http://www.sacred-texts.com/neu/celt/bim1/bim1025.htm

  31. julie lee said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 1:51 pm

    Rodger C:

    Thank you for the link explaining the Neo-Druidism symbol, which I have just read.

  32. Michael Watts said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 3:56 pm

    I'm only familiar with the double 喜 as a wedding-themed decoration. In that vein, why interpret 双喜 as a polysyllabic character at all? Would you say the same of 福倒?

  33. K. Chang said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 4:07 pm

    While 儒 indeed seem to be the logical choice, it requires some Chinese history to understand how that term is linked to Confucianism.

    仁 is a find substitute, but there's a LOT of places where it's commonly used and may be too generic to be used as religious symbol.

    Definitely NOT the doublehappiness though.

  34. Victor Mair said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 4:34 pm

    @Michael Watts

    It occupies exactly the same space as a single character (福倒 do not).

    People look at 囍 and pronounce it shuāngxǐ 雙喜.

    It's listed as a character in quite a few dictionaries.

    Shuāngxǐ is the pronunciation for 囍 given in the Wikipedia article that I linked to in the OP.

    It has a Unicode #: U+56CD.

    etc.

  35. Michael Watts said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 6:00 pm

    福倒 occupies a single character square (it is the upside-down 福 you see on people's doorways). I named it because I can't type it. It's true that 双喜 has more dictionary entries than 福倒 does, although it's certainly not a required entry in mainstream dictionaries. For example, ABC doesn't list it. The only dictionary accessible to me that lists it is CC-CEDICT, which gives its reading as xǐ. I asked a friend of mine "你觉得囍字的拼音应该是什么?" and got the response "Xi, 同喜".

    But more importantly, in my view, the 双喜, like the 福倒, can only appear solo; it can't be used in communicative text. It's an art object — an art object intended for literate art consumers, but still an art object. 双喜 isn't the pronunciation of 囍, it's the name.

    囍 may have a unicode point, but so does ♚ (U+265A). You don't see me saying ♚ is actually a Chinese character with the multisyllabic pronunciation 黑王.

  36. K. Chang said,

    June 10, 2015 @ 10:25 pm

    @Michael Watts — 囍 just an alternate way to write Xi 喜, but so is 僖,and 憙...

  37. Michael Watts said,

    June 11, 2015 @ 1:51 am

    So it wouldn't raise any eyebrows to write 我囍欢唱歌?

  38. K. Chang said,

    June 12, 2015 @ 1:38 pm

    @Michael Watts — it would, actually, because it's almost exclusively reserved for weddings. You could use it, but it'd be much like speaking in "Ye Old 'nglish" as if you just escaped from RenFaire kinda "raised eyebrow" rather than "WTF did you just say" eyebrow.

  39. Michael Watts said,

    June 12, 2015 @ 7:52 pm

    Victor Mair is correct that the wikipedia article he linked states that 囍 is read "双喜" and that 囍 is therefore a multisyllabic character, but it might be worth noting the beginning of the Chinese version of the same article (here), which says the opposite:

    囍是一個漢字,读音同喜,又名"双喜" [囍 is a chinese character, pronounced the same as 喜, also called "双喜"]

    (mixture of simplified and traditional characters original to wikipedia).

    To me, it seems difficult to justify taking the word of English wikipedia over Chinese wikipedia, CC-CEDICT, baidu baike (here – '囍 这个字符读"xǐ"'), K. Chang, and every Chinese person I know.

    What it's referred to as, and how it's pronounced, are completely separate questions — and this should be fairly apparent to anyone whose native language uses an alphabet (think of W!).

  40. Michael Watts said,

    June 12, 2015 @ 8:01 pm

    K. Chang:

    I'd have to admit I don't have much experience or knowledge of Chinese weddings, but my impression has been that the 囍 always stands alone — that even in a wedding context it would be vanishingly rare to see it as part of a sentence, or really in any context where its pronunciation would matter at all. Could a wedding invitation replace ordinary 喜 characters with 囍s? Is there a context where 囍 normally appears among other characters?

    I like to use 龍 instead of 龙 in textual communications, because it looks better. That's an affectation on my part, but I like to think it's a fairly minor one. My (rough) sense is that using 囍 for 喜 would be a much weirder habit…?

  41. Victor Mair said,

    June 15, 2015 @ 1:28 am

    @Michael Watt

    (I wasn't able to reply earlier because I've been involved with a conference on multilingualism in China being held at Göttingen University during the past week.)

    I don't know where you live and what sort of internet connection you have, but zdic and Wiktionary — to name just two well-known, easily accessible dictionaries that have 囍 as an entry — should be available to you.

    If you're interested in learning more about polysyllabic characters, you can follow the link in the OP.

    Because I've accumulated a great deal of additional material about polysyllabic characters since writing this post on shuāngxǐ 囍 ("Double Happiness"), I'll write another post on the subject when I get a chance after returning to Philadelphia.

    Meanwhile, I just wanted to note a few things:

    "福倒" 68,700 ghits

    "倒福" 150,000 ghits

    Not just you ("You don't see me saying…"): I don't think anybody would say that ♚ is a Chinese character. There are lots of symbols that have unicode points but are not Chinese characters. 囍 and ♚ are not the same kettle of fish.

    I'm not the only person who refers to shuāngxǐ 囍 as a polysyllabic character. In fact, it's only because I saw it referred to that way in the Wikipedia article about it and on other websites (not to mention that's how my wife, in-laws, and their friends pronounced it) that I mentioned the pronunciation shuāngxǐ in the post.

  42. Michael Watts said,

    June 15, 2015 @ 12:27 pm

    Yes, zdic (which I didn't know about — my fault) and wiktionary (which I overlooked) both have entries for 囍. They both give xi as the only pronunciation. (Actually, wiktionary only has a cantonese pronunciation, but it supports the reading xi.)

    福倒 has 4.1 million reported hits on baidu compared to 倒福's 3.9 million. The top hits for me are both baidu baike pages — for 福倒, a page titled "福倒", and for 倒福, one titled "倒贴福". There is no baike page for 倒福. Calling it 倒福 kind of misses the point of the practice, which is to sound the same as 福到.

    Perhaps you can answer the question I asked K. Chang — in what context did your wife and her friends encounter a 囍 such that you could distinguish between them reading it and them naming it? An English speaker looking at a W and saying [ˈdʌbl̩ˌju] isn't pronouncing the character.

  43. Victor Mair said,

    June 17, 2015 @ 8:03 pm

    @Michael Watts

    "…in what context did your wife and her friends encounter a 囍 such that you could distinguish between them reading it and them naming it?"

    See the forthcoming post on polysyllabic characters.

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