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March 5, 2017

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Phoenix leaves mark on culture

THE feng, or phoenix, is the legendary king of all avian species according to Chinese myth.

“A Hundred Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix” is one of the most popular themes in traditional Chinese painting. This is also the name of a traditional Chinese music piece featuring complicated suona playing skills.

According to Chinese legend, the phoenix was originally an inconspicuous bird with a plain appearance. Unlike most birds that busied themselves with playing around, he collected fruit and seeds in his den from dawn to dust. Unable to understand his behavior, other birds mocked him for being greedy.

Later, an unexpected draught left many birds without anything to eat. The phoenix opened his den, and shared his food with the other birds, saving their lives.

When the rain finally returned, bringing life back to the forest, the birds wanted to show their gratitude to the phoenix. Each bird pulled out one of their most beautiful feathers, and together they made the feathers into a dazzling garment. They presented the garment to the phoenix, and crowned him as their king.

Hence, each year, all birds will fly to the phoenix on one particular day, and pay their respects to the king. This image has inspired countless artists.

Though the phoenix is often called fenghuang today, the words feng and huang originally referred to a pair of colorful birds. Feng is a male bird and huang is female. However, just as the Chinese dragon was used as a symbol for the emperor in the royal court, the phoenix, with its beautiful appearance, was selected to symbolize the empress. The empress’s crown at formal events was usually called the “phoenix crown,” while her dress was called the “phoenix dress.” Both crowns and dresses were decorated with many phoenix images.

Thus, the phoenix and dragon became “golden partners,” and they often appear together in phrases with positive connotations. “Prosperity brought by the dragon and the phoenix” (long feng cheng xiang) is widely used as an expression of luck. “The talent of the dragon and the presence of the phoenix” (long zhang feng zi) is an expression used to describe the elegance of a person. “The dragon flies and phoenix rises” (long fei feng qi) refers to when an emperor or a saint appears. “Dragon’s heart and phoenix’s liver” (long xin feng gan) refer to a precious and rare dishes. “Climb the dragon and attach to the phoenix” (pan long fu feng) means to flatter the powerful for one’s own benefit.

And phoenix’s powers are also to some extent complimentary to the dragon’s. While the Chinese dragon can summon wind and call for rain, the phoenix is capable of manipulating fire.

However, the phoenix in Chinese myth did not have the ability of rising from the ashes until contemporary litterateur Guo Moruo used the concept of the Western phoenix in his poetry.

Editor's Note:

Chinese mythology contains a vast menagerie of sacred beasts, from which are derived a rich cultural heritage. Recorded in ancient Chinese classics such as “Huai Nan Zi” and “Shan Hai Jing” (or “The Classic of Mountains and Seas”), these breasts boast their own unique traits and powers. They can bless human beings with good fortune, cast spells or appear as omens for catastrophe. This column will offer readers insight into some of the most well-known mythical creatures and a delve into the fantasy world of ancient China. 


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