The Phoenix in Chinese Mythology

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

The Fenghuang is a mythological bird in Chinese culture which represents the six celestial bodies. It is often called the Chinese Phoenix, but has only superficial similarities with the Phoenix of Greek mythology.

Fenghuang and Phoenix

The Fenghuang is a bird in Chinese mythology that symbolizes the union of male and female, and represents the six celestial bodies. It is a sign of virtue, harmony, and prosperity, often seen in decorations for weddings and royal ceremonies.

The Fenghuang is often called the Chinese Phoenix, which makes it seem like a Chinese version of the Phoenix of Greek mythology, a bird which would repeatedly die in a burst of flames and then be reborn from the ashes, representing rebirth. This name is misleading, as the Fenghuang and Phoenix only share some surface-level similarities. However, some modern Chinese and Japanese artists, such as manga writer Osamu Tezuka, have combined the two birds in their art.

Origins and Appearance

Images of the Fenghuang go back at least 8000 years in Chinese art. Originally, the bird was represented as two figures. The feng was a male bird and the huang was a female. Later, the male and female birds were merged into one, creating the Fenghuang that we know today. The modern Fenghuang is often depicted as a composite of many birds. It has the head of a pheasant, the body of a duck, the tail of a peacock, the legs of a crane, the beak of a parrot, and the wings of a swallow.

Meaning

The Fenghuang carries many different meanings in Chinese culture. As a union of male and female birds, it is often used to symbolize the yin and yang, a core of Chinese philosophy, which represents balance and harmony in the universe. In addition, despite being a combination of male and female, the Fenghuang is usually considered to be female and is often paired with the dragon, which is male. In Imperial periods of Chinese history, the dragon represented the emperor and the Fenghuang represented the empress.

The Fenghuang also represents virtue and grace. Some stories say that it only appears in time of peace and prosperity, and goes into hiding during times of trouble. For this reason, it is often used for celebratory occasions such as weddings and royal ceremonies.

Finally, the Fenghuang's body, made up of different birds, is said to represent the six celestial bodies. Her head is the sky, eyes are the sun, back is the moon, wings are the wind, feet are the earth, and tail is the planets.

Connection to the Phoenix

Despite often being called the Chinese Phoenix, the similarities between the two mythological birds are slight. The confusion most likely comes because the birds have been similarly depicted in art as large and multicolored. However, the Phoenix of Greek mythology represents rebirth, and the cycle of time with its repeated death then reformation in fire. The Fenghuang's connection to times of 'new beginnings' like weddings and royal coronations could be seem to have some connection, but again, it is slight.

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