Our journey into the culture and traditions of the Chinese people continues, while they are still struggling with this plague that doesn’t seem to attenuate its lethal force. A way to be close to them and a wish for a future of rebirth.
We were thinking about the emblem of the Phoenix rising from its ashes, and we’ve discovered how important and different, in Chinese culture, is the image of this bird.
The great questions of wonder around the globe are: what are the origins of the world?
To this question, every people, every culture, gives its own answers, transmits its own myths, and tells its own legends. For example, in the Western World, there are the Book of the Genesis and the Epic Poems of Homer.
Also, the Chinese have their own legends. In these stories of ancient folklore and mythology, the Oriental Phoenix or Fèng Huáng (鳳凰) plays an important role.
Here in the Western World, the Phoenix symbolizes renewal, the possibility of having a second chance: an ancient bird that ignites with its own fire and disintegrates, becoming ash. And then, when everything seems immobile, a small beak emerges from under the dusty layer, and the Phoenix is reborn.
Flying to the other side of the world, in the Oriental grove of thin bamboo and wutong trees, another type of Phoenix dominates the skies. Legends in China honor this bird for its ability to judge people’s character and bestow blessings upon the honest and kind.
Some stories claim that she only lands on the ground when she has to find something valuable. Others tell of her ability to transform into celestial maidens.
The world’s creation
In China, the Oriental Phoenix is one of the critical characters of cosmology. In fact, according to the Chinese myth, after “Pangu”, the first living being and the creator of all things, came out of the gigantic “egg” of chaos, four other beings came to life: the Dragon, the Qilin (a horned creature with hooves), the Turtle and the Fèng Huáng, namely the Phoenix. These four fantastic creatures, called the “Four Spirits”, joined forces with Pangu and created the world.
The Four Spirits used their powers to form the five elements (metal, wood, water, fire, and Earth) gave life to the five seasons (spring, autumn, winter, summer, and late summer), and divided the world into five regions (North, South, East, West, and Center). Then, each one of them took responsibility for a part of the creations: the Phoenix took control of fire, summer, and the South.
Certain legends describe the Phoenix as the celestial bodies’ set: the head is equivalent to the sky, the eyes to the sun, the back to the moon, the legs to the Earth, and the tail to the planets. For this reason, it has been considered a connection between our world and the heavenly sky.
The Oriental Phoenix in History
In ancient times, the Fèng Huáng was not referred to a single bird, but two. “Fèng” was the male bird, while “Huàng” was the female, together they represented the metaphor of “yin” and “yang”, and of the relationship between man and woman.
Later Fèng and Huáng became the Phoenix and often is placed side by side to a male Dragon. This is the Oriental Phoenix, the one most commonly known, which has inspired generations of Chinese and particularly women.
Humble, loyal, kind, and correct, the Phoenix embodies the characteristics that have defined the traditional ideal of a “lady”. With her shy attitude and wise benevolence, she draws back during turmoils and reappears to start peace. She bestows blessings upon those fortunate enough to meet her and announces exceptional events.
The sightings of the Fèng Huáng at the birth of an emperor, for example, meant that the child would become a virtuous ruler, the best blessing for the country. In history, the Oriental Phoenix has also announced the arrival of great sages, indicating the coming of morality and stability.
Furthermore, she symbolizes the connection between the real world and the divine. Therefore, it is also the perfect emblem for the empress, that is, the ideal partner for the Dragon that symbolized the “Son of Heaven”, namely the emperor.
The Oriental Phoenix, together with the Dragon, is a trendy image among the Chinese. Considered among the most fortunate creatures, when they are portrayed together, they have the meaning of pleasing relationships, good luck, and persistent strength.
Idioms on the two creatures abound and usually connote luck or skill. For example, lóng fèng chéng xiáng (龍鳳 呈祥) means “great prosperity, brought by a Dragon and a Phoenix”, while rén zhōng lóng fèng (人中 龍鳳) means “a person with a lot of talent who stands out like a Dragon or a Phoenix among humans “.
The Oriental Phoenix in art
Chinese artworks abound with Oriental Phoenix’s images: they can be found perched on the houses’ roofs in paintings, posing on china, or hovering in flight on silk drapes. Artists usually portray them as beautiful female birds similar to peacocks or golden pheasants.
The splendid plumage of the Phoenix is always depicted with the five primary colors of Chinese philosophy: yellow, white, red, black, and green. These colors represent the five moral values of Confucianism: benevolence, duty, respect, wisdom, and faith.
Therefore, the Phoenix’s representation in artworks is intended to honor traditional values and to characterize the artist and the owner of the artwork as people endowed with values such as integrity and refinement.
The next time we will travel to China, we will look for the Oriental Phoenix and observe its representations with different eyes!