The most important myths have, over time, all been transformed into icons. These icons are symbols that tell stories without words. As such, they may contain many layers of meaning. Most of the time, the symbols and their deeper meanings remain hidden from our conscious mind. We may unconsciously understand the veiled meanings of the symbols, or we may not. In either case, they most certainly exert a powerful influence on us.
Imagine, for example, a group of people entering a very large cathedral. First they see the windows, stained glass that has darkened with age, depicting dramatic biblical scenes. There may be statues here and there and other religious artifacts. Even the architecture of the cathedral itself has been designed to evoke a religious feeling. Whether or not individuals in the group are conscious of this, the effect will be the same. Upon entering the cathedral, they will likely all fall silent. Some will become emotional. Everyone will experience a change in mood. Such is the power of symbol.
Taoist Symbols and their Messages
What makes a symbol powerful is the body of knowledge behind it. Taken out of context, a symbol is essentially without meaning. This can be seen even today in our modern world. Each year, patent offices worldwide process countless requests to patent particular symbols. Once society recognizes a symbol, it becomes a powerful tool in the world of marketing and advertising.
Graphic artists are highly paid to conceive of symbols that will resonate with people and gain the attention of the buying public. This only happens because that symbol brings to mind the whole idea of the product -- what it can do for us, how it tastes, or why we need it. Around this symbol, a product or line of products is marketed.
In the past, though, symbols were created for another reason. They were used as a means of encoding information in a way that could be conveniently remembered and recorded. In fact, this is exactly how both spoken and written language developed. Words represent objects as well as ideas. At first words were only spoken. Later, pictorial images were used to represent these words. In some cases, such as the English language, the images have become so abstracted from their original meaning that it is no longer possible to see the relationship. This is not true of the Chinese language. Its symbols can still be traced to original meanings.
The Chinese have proven themselves adept at creating highly abstract systems of symbols that encompass large bodies of knowledge. History also attests to their remarkable ability to integrate new symbols and new ideas into an existing system of thought. The Chinese system of traditional medicine, for example, is based not only on concepts and techniques arising from within their own culture, but also on ideas from many foreign lands, including India and Tibet.
The long-term effect of this tendency is the formation of a worldview that is comprehensive, systematic, and rigorous. This progressive development is apparent in many Chinese disciplines including acupuncture, herbal lore, philosophy, literature, painting, calligraphy, and the martial arts. Many of the fundamental ideas supporting this worldview are described in the book known as the I Ching. Learn more about the I Ching in the next section.