Fenghuang (simplified Chinese: 凤凰; traditional Chinese: 鳳凰; pinyin: fènghuáng; Wade–Giles: fêng⁴-huang²) are mythological birds found in East Asian mythology that reign over all other birds. The males were originally called feng and the females huang but such a distinction of gender is often no longer made and they are blurred into a single feminine entity so that the bird can be paired with the Chinese dragon, which is traditionally deemed male.
The fenghuang is also called the “August Rooster” (simplified Chinese: 鹍鸡; traditional Chinese: 鶤雞 or 鵾雞; pinyin: yùnjī or kūnjī; Wade–Giles: yün4-chi1 or k’un1-chi1) since it sometimes takes the place of the Rooster in the Chinese zodiac. In the Western world, it is commonly called the Chinese phoenix or simply Phoenix, although mythological similarities with the Western phoenix are superficial.
A common depiction of fenghuang was of it attacking snakes with its talons and its wings spread. According to the Erya’s chapter 17 Shiniao, fenghuang is made up of the beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow, the forehead of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag and the tail of a fish. Today, however, it is often described as a composite of many birds including the head of a golden pheasant, the body of a mandarin duck, the tail of a peacock, the legs of a crane, the mouth of a parrot, and the wings of a swallow.
The fenghuang’s body symbolizes the celestial bodies: the head is the sky, the eyes are the sun, the back is the moon, the wings are the wind, the feet are the earth, and the tail is the planets. The fenghuang is said to have originated in the sun. Its body contains the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, yellow, and green. It sometimes carries scrolls or a box with sacred books. It is sometimes depicted with a fireball. It is sometimes depicted as having three legs. It is believed that the bird only appears in areas or places that are blessed with utmost peace and prosperity or happiness.
Chinese tradition cites it as living atop the Kunlun Mountains in northern China.
Images of an ancient bird have appeared in China for over 8000 years, as earliest as the Hongshan neolithic period, on jade and pottery motifs, then appearing decorating bronze as well as jade figurines. Some believe they may have been a good-luck totem among eastern tribes of ancient China.
During the Han dynasty (2,200 years ago) two phoenixes, one a male (feng, 鳳) and the other a female (huang, 凰) were often shown together facing one other. Later, during the Yuan dynasty the two terms were merged to become fenghuang, but the “King of Birds” came to symbolize the empress when paired with a dragon representing the emperor. From the Jiajing era (1522–66) of the Ming dynasty onwards, a pair of phoenixes was differentiated by the tail feathers of the two birds, typically together forming a closed circle pattern—the male identified by five long serrated tail feathers or “filaments” (five being an odd, masculine, or yang number) and the female by what sometimes appears to be one but is in fact usually two curling or tendrilled tail feathers (two being an even, feminine, or yin number).
Also during this period, the fenghuang was used as a symbol representing the direction south. This was portrayed through a male and female facing each other. Their feathers were of the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, green, and yellow. These colors are said to represent Confucius’ five virtues:
Ren: the virtue of benevolence, charity, and humanity;
Yi: honesty and uprightness; Yì may be broken down into zhōng, doing one’s best, conscientiousness, loyalty and shù: the virtue of reciprocity, altruism, consideration for others
Xin: faithfulness and integrity;
Li: correct behavior, propriety, good manners, politeness, ceremony, worship.
The phoenix represented power sent from the heavens to the Empress. If a phoenix was used to decorate a house it symbolized that loyalty and honesty were in the people that lived there. Or alternatively, a phoenix only stays when the ruler is without darkness and corruption (政治清明).
The fenghuang has very positive connotations. It is a symbol of high virtue and grace. The fenghuang also symbolizes the union of yin and yang. The first chapter of the Classic of Mountains and Seas , the “Nanshang-jing”, records each part of fenghuang’s body symbolizes a word. The head represents virtue (德), the wing represents duty (義), the back represents propriety (禮), the abdomen says credibility (信) and the chest represents mercy (仁).
In ancient and modern Chinese culture, they can often be found in the decorations for weddings or royalty, along with dragons. This is because the Chinese considered the dragon-and-phoenix design symbolic of blissful relations between husband and wife, another common yang and yin metaphor.
In some traditions it appears in good times but hides during times of trouble, while in other traditions it appeared only to mark the beginning of a new era. In China and Japan it was a symbol of the imperial house, and it represented “fire, the sun, justice, obedience, and fidelity”.
When describing chinoiserie or authentic Asian ceramics and other artworks, English-speaking art historians and antique collectors sometimes refer to it as hoho bird, a name derived from hō-ō, with a second extraneous h added. Hō-ō is simply the Japanese pronunciation of fenghuang. The seemingly vast difference between hō-ō and fenghuang is due to Chinese vowels with ng usually being converted to ō in Go-on reading. The Japanese also use the word fushichō for this image.
Phoenix talons (simplified Chinese: 凤爪; traditional Chinese: 鳳爪) is a Chinese term for chicken claws in any Chinese dish cooked with them.
Fèng or Fènghuáng is a common element in given names of Chinese women (likewise, “Dragon” is used for men’s names).
“Dragon-and-phoenix infants” (simplified Chinese: 龙凤胎; traditional Chinese: 龍鳳胎) is an expression meaning a set of male and female fraternal twins.
Fenghuang is a common place name throughout China. The best known is Fenghuang County in western Hunan, southern China, formerly a sub-prefecture. Its name is written with the same Chinese characters as the mythological bird.
The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) uses it in its emblem to symbol nobility, beauty, loyalty and majesty.
In Korea, this bird is known as Bonghwang 봉황, the Korean pronunciation of fenghuang. An alternate term of Bulsajo 불사조 (不死鳥), or “immortal bird”, is used to refer to the type of phoenix that never dies (i.e. the Greek “phoenix”), with bong hwang being reserved for the Asian variety. Bonghwang is often seen used within the royal emblem (especially for queens – the dragon being the emblem of the king) and appears twice in the current presidential emblem. Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC uses it as its symbol.
The Vermilion Bird, (Suzaku in Japanese) one of the Four Symbols of Chinese myth, sometimes confused with the fenghuang, from which it is a distinct entity.
Phoenix Television (鳳凰衛星電視) is a Hong Kong-based media company.
Typhoon Fung-wong has been a meteorological name for three tropical cyclones. The term was contributed by Hong Kong and is the Cantonese pronunciation of fenghuang.