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Fenghuang Painting by Xiaoqian Li-Columeau

Fenghuang 鳳凰/凤凰 Fènghuáng; are Chinese mythology|mythological China|Chinese birds that reign over all other birds. The males are called Feng and the females Huang. In modern times, however, such a distinction of gender is often no longer made and the Feng and Huang are blurred into a single feminine entity so that the bird can be paired with the Chinese dragon, which has male connotations. The Fenghuang is also called the "August Rooster" (鶤雞 kūnjī) since it sometimes takes the place of the Rooster in the Chinese Zodiac. In the Western world|West, it is commonly referred to as the Chinese Phoenix (mythology)|phoenix.



A common depiction was of it attacking snakes with its talons and its wings spread. According to scripture Erya - chapter 17 Shiniao, Fenghuang is said to be made up of the beak of a rooster, the face of a hirundinidae|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.[1] 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.


Images of an ancient bird have appeared in China for over 7,000 years, the earliest as Shang Dynasty pottery motifs, then appearing decorating bronzes, as well as jade figurines (many of the most beautiful from the Liao Period). Some believe they may have been a good-luck totem, believing that it is a totem of eastern tribes in ancient China. Current theoriesTemplate:Fact suggest that it is likely based in part - for example the snake-like neck - on folk memory of the Asian Ostrich which was common in prehistoric China but became extinct several thousand years ago. That this bird was well-known to the early modern humans in Asia, noted for its peculiarity, and hunted for food, is attested by numerous archaeological finds, such as pottery decorated with what appear to be painted ostriches, and bones by early campsites.

Fenghuang seems to have no connection with the phoenix of the Western world, which derives from Egyptian mythology. Peculiarly, the "Western" (actually: Ancient Egyptian) phoenix (mythology)|phoenix may also in part reference a prehistoric bird, the Bennu Heron. Unlike the Fenghuang, which is a chimera not very much like any actual bird (though elements of a cock and a cursorial groundbird probably best interpreted as an ostrich are recognizable), the Egyptian phoenix was a rather conventional animal most often considered similar to a heron or eagle which "merely" had a supernatural lifestyle.

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 the generally translated "phoenix", but the "King of Birds" came to symbolize the Empress when paired with a dragon as a dragon represented the Emperor. From the period of the Emperor Jiajing (1522-66) on, 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 serrated tail feathers (five being an odd, or yang number) and the female by what appears to be one, but is in fact, two (two being an even, or yin number) curling or tendriled tail feathers. It was also in the Ming Dynasty that phoenixes first began to appear with combs, hence comb-less phoenixes are pre-Ming, and phoenixes depicted with combs, Ming or post-Ming[2].

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, 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. It appears in peaceful and prosperous times but hides when trouble is near. Shan Hai Jing - chapter 1 Nanshan 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 belief (信) and the chest represents mercy (仁).[3]

In ancient China, they can often be found in the decorations for weddings or royal family|royalty, along with Chinese dragon|dragons. This is because the Chinese considered the Chinese dragon|dragon and phoenix symbolic of blissful relations between husband and wife, another common yin and yang metaphor.

Modern usage

  • "Fèng talon" (鳳爪) is a Chinese cuisine|Chinese dish of chicken feet cooked in a black bean sauce.
  • "Fènghuáng" is a common element in the names of Chinese girls (likewise, "dragon" for boys' names).
  • "Dragon and Fèng infants" (龍鳳胎) is an expression meaning a set of boy and girl fraternal twins.
  • Fenghuang is also a county in western Hunan province of China, formerly a sub-prefecture. Its name is written with the same Chinese characters as the mythological bird.
  • In Korea, it has been used for the royal emblem of Canada or the presidential emblem.
  • The Vermilion Bird of the South, one of the Four Symbols (Chinese constellation)|Four Symbols (Ssu Ling) of Chinese myth, is sometimes mistaken for the Fenghuang, when in reality, they are two separate entities.

Fenghuang in Tattoos