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Chinese Phoenix Myths

Afterword  to Ling-Li & the Phoenix Fairy, a Chinese Folktale retold by Ellin Greene, illustrated by Zong Zhou Wang

The Chinese phoenix, feng huang, is entirety different from the fabled bird in Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks believed that only one phoenix, always male, existed at a time. That mythological bird lived for five hundred years, then burned itself on a funeral pyre. From its ashes there rose a young phoenix, symbolizing immortality.

In Chinese mythology, there is not one phoenix, but two--the male feng and the female huang. Together they symbolize union. Later, the phoenix came to symbolize the female or yin principle, and the dragon, the male or yang principle. The phoenix is mentioned in texts dating back to the end of the second millennium B.C.E. Its presence was a sign that the reigning ruler was honorable and just. When the Chinese philosopher Confucius (551?-478? B.C.E.) complained that "the phoenix appears no more, he meant that the government was corrupt and there was no prospect for improvement.

The feng huang is described in Chinese literature as a creature six feet high, with a cock's head, a snake's neck, a swallow's beak, and a tortoise's back. However, when ancient Chinese artists depicted the bird, they chose not to follow this description, but to create a magnificent creature that was part peacock, part pheasant, and part bird of paradise. Its feathers were a blending of five colors, red, white, yellow, azure, and black, representing the qualities of virtue, duty, correct behavior, humanity, and reliability. The tail feathers were adorned with "peacock eyes, just as Zong-Zhou Wang has painted them. The two longer middle feathers were especially beautiful, and Zong-Zhou Wang has pictured the phoenix fairy holding them in her hands when she meets Ling-Li. The Chinese phoenix is ruler of the birds and is said to love music. A pair of Chinese phoenixes is a symbol of happiness and good fortune.

The Chinese call the flower that reminded Ling-Li of the phoenix bird in its flight to the sun Feng Xian Hua (pronounced like "Fung-Shien Hwah") or "phoenix fairy flower: It is related to a common wildflower in the United States, known as jewelweed.

My main printed sources about the feng hang were Chinese Mythology by Anthony Christie (Hamlyn, 1968), A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols by Wolfram Eberhard (Routledge, 1988), and, for children, Classical Calliope, Volume V Number III (Summer 1985), published by Cobblestone Publishing Inc.

Ellin Greene