Fenghuang – Origins, Meaning and Symbolism

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Sometimes called the Chinese Phoenix, the fenghuang is a mythological bird that represents peace and prosperity, as well as Confucian virtues. It’s similar to the phoenix of the West, the simurgh of Persia or the firebird of Russia – all bird-like creatures of great import in each of their cultures. Here’s a closer look at the origins and symbolic meaning of the fenghuang.

History of the Fenghuang

In ancient times, the bird was represented as two figures. The male was known as “feng” and the female was “huang.” Later, these two separate beings gradually merged into one, becoming the “fenghuang” we know today. In Chinese mythology, the fenghuang is considered female and is often paired with the dragon, which is male. Unlike the phoenix, the fenghuang is immortal and lives forever.

According to Chinese Confucian literature Li Chi, the fenghuang is one of the four sacred creatures that govern the quadrants of the heavens. Also referred to as the “The Vermilion Bird of the South,” the fenghuang rules the southern quadrant, and is associated with the sun, the element fire, and the summer.

The Erh Ya, an ancient Chinese phrase, describes the fenghuang as having the head of a cock, the beak of a swallow, the neck of a snake, the back of a tortoise, and the tail of a fish – essentially a Frankenstein of sorts. In Chinese culture, the fenghuang represents the celestial bodies, where its head symbolizes the sky, its eyes the sun, its back the moon, its wings the wind, its feet the earth, and its tail the planets.

During the Zhou dynasty, the fenghuang gained an association with peace, political prosperity and harmony. According to The Phoenix: An Unnatural Biography of a Mythical Beast, the ancient kings established ceremonies that represented the virtue and health of their kingdoms, and the fenghuang made appearances as a sign of heaven’s pleasure.

Chinese tradition recounts the appearance of the fenghuang before the death of the “Yellow Emperor” Huangdi, whose reign was a golden age. In the late Qing dynasty (1644-1912), the fenghuang became a part of the design on empress-dowager robes and ceremonial crowns. Eventually, the fenghuang became a representation of the empress, while the dragon symbolized the emperor.

By the beginning of the 20th century, the imperial symbolism of the dragon and the fenghuang had spread throughout society. Chinese artwork featured these images on household decorations, denoting that the people who lived there were loyal and honest. In jewelry, the fenghuang was often carved in jade and worn as good luck charms.

Meaning and Symbolism of the Fenghuang

The fenghuang carries many different meanings in Chinese culture. Here are some of them:

  • Peace and Prosperity – In Chinese culture, the appearance of the fenghuang is considered a very good omen, signifying the beginning of a new era filled with peace, prosperity, and happiness. Sightings at the birth of an emperor meant that the child would grow up to become a great ruler.
  • Balance and Harmony – It is often considered to signify both male and female elements, the yin and yang, which represents balance and harmony in the universe.
  • The Representation of Confucian Virtues – In a Chinese classic text Shanhaijing, the fenghuang appears to be a symbol of Confucian virtues. Its colorful feathers in black, white, red, green, and yellow are said to represent the virtues of loyalty, honesty, decorum, and justice.
Fenghuang symbolism

The Fenghuang in Jewelry and Fashion

Nowadays, the fenghuang remains a symbol of peace and prosperity, which is why the motif is often seen in decorations for weddings, religious ceremonies, as well as on Chinese artwork. In fashion, it is commonly found on traditional clothing and hair accessories but has also made its way into designs of embroidered tops, dresses, graphic tees and tote bags.

In jewelry designs, various depictions of the phoenix can be seen on earrings, bracelets, rings, and necklaces such as medallions and lockets. Some gold and silver pieces feature realistic designs of the bird, while others look fancier with gemstones and colorful enamels.

In Brief                      

Over the years, the fenghuang has been seen as a symbol of good luck, peace, and prosperity. It continues to hold great significance in Chinese culture and tradition.