Symbolism in The King of Trees

By Harshini Muppidi and Nisreen Hasanie

Student engagement activity


  • Symbolism: the use of symbols to represent ideas or qualities.

  • General Symbols that are used in literature:

    • dove symbolizes peace (和平)

    • black symbolizes death or evil

    • Fog represents confusion and mystery

    • Rain represents Cleansing and birth.

    • Broken mirror represents separation

  • Why Use Symbolism?
  • "Themes alone can sound preachy, and stories alone can sound shallow. Symbolism weaves the two together."
  • "Cannot be reduced to stand for only one thing. it must have a range of possible meaning & interpretation."

Quote #1 & #2

  • “To live for the sake of chess is to nourish your essential being, but to live for the sake of earning a living is to damage your essential being, and therefore you must not become preoccupied with your livelihood.” (Cheng 76)
  • ‘Softness isn’t weakness - it is taking in, gathering in, holding in’ he said. ‘To hold and assimilate is to bring your opponent within your strategy. This strategy is up to you to create; you must do all by doing nothing. To do nothing is the Way, and it is also the invariant principle of chess’” (Cheng 75)

    • Chess (棋) (Qí) as a metaphor for life

    • Honor spiritual element of the human existence for our lives to have meaning

Quote #3 & #4

  • “During our rest periods, we’d often gaze into the distance but inevitably out eyes would fall on King of trees” (Cheng 21)

  • “We concluded that King of Trees must be counterrevolutionary. It is considered rather inadvisable to talk about such people in cities too” (Cheng 15)

      • These 2 quotes show breaking of tradition and superstition. It also protrays that there is a different life in cities; change in traditions and values.

Quote #5

  • “The growth cycle of plants means that the new supersedes the old, it’s the law of nature.”

    • Trees (樹) (Shù) are used as symbolism in the book because they are used to show that something they are nature given.

Quote #6

  • "Occasionally my doubts resurfaced: was I harming my students? Was this really the right way to teach? And was this really the right way to study? From the beginning I had taken teaching very seriously, and now I had made studying so rigid. What were my responsibilities as a teacher?...I felt that I should continue teaching the children to be conscientious and honest"(Cheng 169)

Literary Criticism

The Social Life of Trees: Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism.

By: Kelly D. Alley
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Contemporary Reference

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Take away

  • Authors often use symbolism to communicate a deeper idea than they actually write. Symbolism is an object used by an author to open doors of meaning. They use objects, actions, and characters to give more meaning to the thing itself. In literature, characters can symbolize something of a deeper meaning. Symbolism helps readers connect the story to other main ideas.

Discussion Questions

  1. What best symbolizes your life? Objects around you or something more specific?

  2. What do you think of when you see a chess board?

  3. Do you think the chess board in the book symbolizes life? Why?

  4. What other symbols have you seen in the book?
  5. Why are symbols important in life?
  6. Why did the author use symbols to represent certain things, rather than just explain the concept behind the symbol in a different/easier manner?


  • Rival, Laura. "The Social Life of Trees Anthropological Perspectives on Tree Symbolism." Jstor. American Ethnologist, 1 Aug. 2001. Web. 25 Oct. 2014. <>.