Saturday, September 09, 2006

Phoenix or Feng (Glossary)

The Phoenix of China is known as Feng 鳳, or, starting in Zhou times, Feng-huang 鳳凰. It is also known as the August Rooster 鶤雞 and Daoist texts describe the legendary bird as resembling a cock, especially one of cinnabar-red color.

Bird totems are found in Neolithic China although they don't necessarily resemble latter depictions of the Phoenix. Around the middle of the first millennium BCE, the bird is shown together with the taotie symbol in Chinese artwork.

The Phoenix was said to live somewhere in the South, and starting in Han dynasty times the Feng-huang became a symbol for the southern direction.

Fu Hsi's surname was Feng, possibly representing his totemic clan, and he faced his throne toward the South, a tradition that persisted throughout Chinese history. Feng-shui masters also claim that the orientation of the emperor's throne and palace was toward the Phoenix of the South.

The Feng-huang was said to live in the mountain of Cinnabar Caves (Tan-hsüeh shan) which Chuang Tzu located somewhere south of the Yueh kingdom (modern Zhejiang and Fujian).

The Phoenix was said also to reside in the "South Sea" and to fly at times to the "North Sea."

The Cinnabar Caves may be related to the Cinnabar Field far beneath Penglai's central mountain. When Xu Fu was sent by the Qin Emperor to find Penglai, he claimed to have met a "great spirit" in the ocean who led him toward the southeast to the legendary island.

Some of the Boshanlu censers, which when in use relay an image of a smoking mountain, display Penglai island supported on the beak of a Phoenix standing on a turtle, the latter possibly representing the center of the earth.

The oracle bone character for feng "wind" is a bird pictograph that has been identified with the Phoenix (feng 鳳).

Sarah Allan has suggested that the bird-wind-Phoenix link may connect with Jun "East Wind" mentioned in the Shang texts as one of the great ancestors of the Shang dynasty so closely associated with bird totems.

According to the Shanhaijing, Jun (Di Jun) married Xihe in the "Southeastern-Sea amidst the Sweet Waters, and Xihe gives birth to the "Ten Suns" which bathe in the boiling water pools near Fu-Sang, the mulberry tree under which rises the Underground World River.

Thus, this Di Jun may also have some Feng clan associations that locate geographically in the "Southeastern-Sea" where the Fu-Sang tree is located.

Fu-Sang is central to the myth of the multiple suns that are said to rest in its branches. It is associated with the East and apparently with the equatorial regions where the Sun rises above the horizon between the Tropic of Cancer and the Tropic of Capricorn.

Xihe, Jun's wife, is said to rinse and purify each Sun after its journey and place it back on the branches of the Fu-Sang tree.

Variations of Shang dynasty origin myths from Allan, he Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China, p. 35.

If the huang in the name "Feng-huang" is an epithet, as claimed by some, then it might indicate the movement of the Phoenix myth from the South towards the North, as languages in the southern region commonly placed epithets after substantives.

By Han times, the Feng-huang became two birds, one male and the other female, and later five different phoenixes arose. The modern Phoenix, like the Dragon, is a composite creation.

Feng-huang is portrayed often either cinnabar-red, or with five colors representing the five cardinal virtues. The Phoenix stands for, among other things, the Empress, conjugal union and the Yin principle.

Paul Kekai Manansala


Allan, Sarah. The Shape of the Turtle: Myth, Art, and Cosmos in Early China, SUNY Press, 1991.