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Fenghuang sculpture, Nanning city, Guangxi, China
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese鳳凰
Simplified Chinese凤凰
Hanyu Pinyinfènghuáng
Korean name
Japanese name

Fenghuang (Chinese: 鳳凰, Mandarin pronunciation: [fə̂ŋ.xwǎŋ]) are mythological birds found in Sinospheric 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.

It is known under similar names in various other languages (Japanese: hōō; Vietnamese: phượng hoàng or phụng hoàng; Korean: bonghwang). In the Western world, it is commonly called the Chinese phoenix or simply phoenix, although mythological similarities with the Western phoenix are superficial.


Image of the fenghuang opposite the dragon on the Twelve Symbols national emblem, which was the state emblem of China from 1913 to 1928

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.[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.[citation needed]

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.[2] The fenghuang is said to have originated in the sun.[2] Its body contains the five fundamental colors: black, white, red, yellow, and green.[2] It sometimes carries scrolls or a box with sacred books.[2] It is sometimes depicted with a fireball.[2] 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.[citation needed]


Jade phoenix, unearthed from the tomb of Fu Hao, c. 1200 BC, Shang dynasty.

Images of an ancient bird have appeared in China for over 8000 years, as earliest as the Hongshan neolithic period,[citation needed] on jade and pottery motifs, then appearing decorating bronze as well as jade figurines.[citation needed] Some believe they may have been a good-luck totem among eastern tribes of ancient China.[citation needed]

The earliest known ancient phoenix design dates back to about 7000–8000 years ago and was discovered in Hongjiang, Hunan Province, at the Gaomiao Archeological Site.[3] The earliest known form of dragon-phoenix design, on the other hand, dates back to the Yangshao culture (c. 5000 – c. 3000 BC) and was found at an archeological site near Xi'an in Shaanxi Province.[3] This ancient usage of phoenix and dragon designs are all evidence of an ancient form of totemism in China.[3]

During the Shang dynasty, phoenix and dragon images appear to have become popular as burial objects.[3] Several archeological artifacts of jade phoenix and jade dragons were unearthed in tombs dating from the Shang dynasty period.[3]

A phoenix (top) and dragon (left), Silk Painting of a Human Figure with Phoenix and Dragon, Silk painting unearthed from a Chu tomb.

During the Spring and Autumn period (c. 771 BC – c. 476 BC) and the Warring States period, common form of unearthed artifacts are the combination of dragon-phoenix designs together.[3] One of such artifact is the Silk Painting of Human Figure with Dragon and Phoenix, which shows such combination of dragon and phoenix images.[3][4]

In Qin dynasty (221–206 BC), phoenix hairpins (i.e. hairpins with fenghuang decorations) and shoes which were also decorated with phoenix designs were supposed to be worn by the Imperial concubines of the Qin Emperor.[3]

During the Han dynasty (2,200 years ago) two phoenixes, one a male (feng, ) and the other a female (huang, ) were often shown together facing one other.[citation needed] In the Han dynasty, an imperial edict decreed that the phoenix hairpins had to become the formal headpiece for the empress dowager and the imperial grandmother.[5]

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.

A vase with a phoenix-headed spout, gray sandstone with celadon coating, Song Dynasty, last half of 10th century.

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 colours are said to represent Confucius' five virtues:

  1. Ren: the virtue of benevolence, charity, and humanity;
  2. Yi: honesty and uprightness; may be broken down into zhōng, doing one's best, conscientiousness, loyalty and shù: the virtue of reciprocity, altruism, consideration for others
  3. Zhi: knowledge
  4. Xin: faithfulness and integrity;
  5. Li: correct behavior, propriety, good manners, politeness, ceremony, worship.[6]

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).


A fenghuang on the roof of Longshan Temple in Taipei
Drawing of a Fum Hoam (fenghuang) by a Dutch man, circa 1664.

The fenghuang has positive connotations. It is a symbol of virtue and grace. The fenghuang also symbolizes the union of yin and yang.[citation needed] The first chapter of the Classic of Mountains and Seas , the "Nanshang-jing", states that each part of fenghuang's body symbolizes a word. The head represents virtue (), the wing represents duty (), the back represents propriety (), the abdomen represents credibility () and the chest represents mercy ().[7]

Portrait of an empress, possibly Empress Xiaoxianchun, (wife of the Qianlong Emperor) sitting on a chair decorated with phoenixes

The fenghuang originally consisted of a separate male feng and a female huang as symbols of yin and yang.[3][8] The male feng represented the yang aspect while the huang represented the yin aspect; and together, the feng and huang image was symbolic of love between husband and wife.[8] However, since the Qin dynasty, the fenghuang progressively went through a feminization process as the dragon became a symbol of masculinity.[3] Eventually the feng and the huang merged into a single female entity.[8]

In ancient and modern Chinese culture, fenghuang 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.

Classic of Mountains and Seas illustration of a nine-headed phoenix (colored Qing Dynasty edition)

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.[9] In China and Japan it was a symbol of the imperial house, and it represented "fire, the sun, justice, obedience, and fidelity".[9]

Modern usage[edit]

  • When describing chinoiserie or authentic Asian ceramics and other artworks, English-speaking art historians and antique collectors sometimes refer to it as hoho bird,[10] a name derived from hōō, with a second extraneous h added. Hōō ([hoːoꜜː]) is simply the Japanese pronunciation of fenghuang. The seemingly vast difference between hōō 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 (凤爪; 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" (龙凤胎; 龍鳳胎) is an expression meaning a set of male and female fraternal twins in China.
  • Phoenix sculpture in Fenghuang mountain, Fengcheng.

  • Dragon & Phoenix Arch in China

  • 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.[11]
  • The Vermilion Bird, (Suzaku in Japanese) one of the Four Symbols of Chinese myth, sometimes equated with the fenghuang.[12]
  • 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.
  • 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.[citation needed] Jeonbuk Hyundai Motors FC uses it as its symbol.
Sculpture by the Blue House.
Sculpture by the Blue House.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ 《尔雅·释鸟》郭璞注,鳳凰特徵是:"雞頭、燕頷、蛇頸、龜背、魚尾、五彩色,高六尺许"。
  2. ^ a b c d e Nozedar, Adele (2006). The secret language of birds: A treasury of myths, folklore & inspirational true stories. London: HarperElement. p. 37. ISBN 978-0007219049.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Hu, Jiaxiang (2019). Study on Chinese traditional theory of artistic style. New Jersey. pp. 34–36. ISBN 978-981-327-943-8. OCLC 1222224249.
  4. ^ "Silk painting with female figure, dragon and phoenix patterns | 湖南省博物館". www.hnmuseum.com. Retrieved 2021-06-18.
  5. ^ Cheng, Hui-Mei (2001). "Research on the Form and Symbolism of the Chinese Wedding Phoenix Crown". Proceedings of the Korea Society of Costume Conference: 59–61.
  6. ^ "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 2011-07-07. Retrieved 2011-06-12.CS1 maint: archived copy as title (link)
  7. ^ Shan Hai Jing - chapter 1. "Nanshang Jing" - Nan Ci San Jing: 有鳥焉,其狀如雞,五采而文,名曰鳳凰,首文曰德,翼文曰義,背文曰禮,膺文曰仁,腹文曰信。是鳥也,飲食自然,自歌自舞,見則天下安寧。
  8. ^ a b c Rosen, Brenda (2009). The mythical creatures bible : the definitive guide to legendary beings. New York: Sterling. p. 151. ISBN 978-1-4027-6536-0. OCLC 244063992.
  9. ^ a b Sources:
  10. ^ Examples (retrieved 3 July 2013): Cosgrove, Maynard Giles (1974). The Enamels of China and Japan: Champlevé and Cloisonné. Hale. p. 75. ISBN 978-0-7091-4383-3. Catherine Pagani (2001). Eastern Magnificence and European Ingenuity: Clocks of Late Imperial China. University of Michigan Press. p. 131. ISBN 978-0-472-11208-1. Van Goidsenhoven, J. P. (1936). La Céramique chinoise sous les Tsing: 1644–1851. R. Simonson. p. 215.
  11. ^ "Mission & Vision, Motto & Emblem | About CUHK". www.cuhk.edu.hk. Retrieved 2019-02-08.
  12. ^ Definitions of Chinese Phoenix and Chinese Vermillion Bird

External links[edit]

  • Media related to Fenghuang at Wikimedia Commons