The Black Tortoise is one of the Four Symbols of the Chinese constellations. It is sometimes called the Black Warrior of the North (北方玄武, Běi Fāng Xuán Wǔ), and is known as Xuanwu in Chinese, Genbu in Japanese, Hyeonmu in Korean and Huyền Vũ in Vietnamese. It represents the north and the winter season. Although its name in Chinese, Xuánwǔ, is often translated as Black Tortoise in English, it is usually depicted as both a tortoise and a snake, specifically with the snake coiling around the tortoise.
In the classic novel, Journey to the West, Xuánwǔ was a king of the north who had two generals serving under him, a “Tortoise General” and a “Snake General.” This king had a temple at Wudang Mountains in Hubei, thus there is a “Tortoise Mountain” and a “Snake Mountain” on the opposite sides of a river in Wuhan, the capital of Hubei.
Taoist legend has it that Xuánwǔ was the prince of a Chinese ruler but was not interested in taking the throne, opting instead to leave his parents at age 16 and study Taoism. According to the legend, he eventually achieved divine status and was worshiped as a deity of the northern sky.
Other Chinese legends also speak of how the “Tortoise General” and a “Snake General” came to be. During Xuánwǔ’s study to achieve enlightenment and god status he was told that in order to fully achieve god status, he must purge all humanly flesh from his body. Since he was born he had been eating the food of the world, humanly food, therefore his stomach and intestines were still human. Legend told of an event that a god came and changed his human stomach and intestines for a godly body so he could fully achieve god status. (It was also said that the stomach and intestines that were tossed out became the “Tortoise Mountain” and “Snake Mountain”.) The stomach and intestines taken out by the god who did the surgery on Xuánwǔ were said to have taken on the shape of a tortoise (stomach) and a snake (intestines). As many Chinese legends speak of certain animals becoming demons over time as they gain knowledge, that’s what the tortoise and snake became, and terrorized people. As Xuánwǔ, now in his god status, heard of this, he came and slayed the demons from his past. However, he did not kill them, as the snake and tortoise demons showed remorse. He let them train under him and atone for their wrongdoings, and they became the “Tortoise General” and “Snake General”, and they assisted Xuánwǔ with his quests.
According to another source, once Xuánwǔ’s had begun study of the way, he discovered that he must purge himself of all his past sins to become a god. He learned to achieve this by washing his stomach and bowels (intestines) in the river. In the washing of his internal organs, his sins melted from them and into the river in a dark, black form. These then formed into a black tortoise and snake who terrorized the people. Once Xuánwǔ learned of this, he returned to conquer the forms of this past sins and subdue them under himself and they became his servants.
A characteristic “turtle-back tomb” in Quanzhou, Fujian
North gates of Chinese palaces were often named Xuanmu Gate after the mythological creature. The place Li Shimin set to kill his brothers Li Jiancheng and Li Yuanji is the gate named Xuanwumen, i.e. the north gate of the Tang palace.