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Chinese symbolism: The Phoenix

Rather like the dragon, the phoenix is also a mythological yang creature. Both are used more extensively in decorative work than both the tiger or tortoise which are yin.

What is the Chinese Phoenix?

The phoenix is of no particular species, rather more a culmination of birds shrouded by mystery and legend. Personally, the Chinese phoenix is most likely a combination of five birds, the peacock, pheasant, crane, eagle and the rooster. Although we as Europeans describe this creature as a phoenix, in China it is in fact two very similar if not identical birds. These being the Red Bird of the south known as zhu niao and another mythological bird known as fenghuang which is also depicted with splendid flowing plumage. As interesting as this may be, there does not seem to be any clear graphic conventions to distinguish one from another!

Arabian fable

What is also interesting is that this fanciful bird appears similarly in ancient Indian, Persian and Greek writing, illustrations and decoration. One interesting and relatively known Arabian fable suggests that the bird lived anything from 500 to 1000 years and then by its own volition would consume itself in fire only to rise youthful from the ashes. Whether there is any real connection between these is unsure.

Han dynasty

When observing objects from the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD) it is clear that the conception of the phoenix had become native to China by this stage. The usual depiction would illustrate it with a medium sized head and beak, a plume of feathers curling from its head, an arched back and a very long graceful tail usually consisting of three large feathers. Beyond this point images inevitably became more flamboyant and creative. For example the phoenix became much more colourful, claws became more prominent and it was always depicted in full flight.

Empress of China

As well as taking on various combinations of birds, the phoenix came to symbolise many things such as beauty, goodness, prosperity and peace. The image of the phoenix ended becoming so important that the Tang dynasty (618 - 906 AD) empresses of China adopted it as their personal emblem. This trend carried on through the centuries with empresses continuing to wear elaborately decorated Chinese phoenix crowns and headdresses adorned with kingfisher feathers. These articles can be seen on display in various museums and exhibitions for all to admire.

Read about Chinese dragon symbolism.

If you have any Chinese ceramics or Asian Art items in general, please contact Robin Newcombe, Asian art specialist at Grand Auctions, Folkestone, Kent.