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Myth Madness: Feng Huang

Today’s creature comes from Chinese Mythology, and is neither a trickster or a villain. Indeed, this week’s beast is a real beauty – the Fenghuang, commonly known in Western folklore as the phoenix; however, this lucky creature is a far cry from our firebird.

The Fenghuang is considered a central figure in Chinese mythology. It is one of the most highly revered of the fantastical creatures, and is one of the four celestial creatures believed to have created the world (the other three being the dragon, the tortoise, and the qilin {a shapeshifter similar to the chimera}). When the four created the universe, they divided it up into four quadrants, each to rule over one. The Fenghuang was assigned the southern quadrant of the heavens, and so came to stand for summer and warmth.

Originally, the Fenghuang consisted of two birds – the male Feng and the female Huang – but in more recent times, the two were combined into one creature, as there was no visible or moral difference between the two. Some have thought the two were considered to be symbolic of Yin and Yang, and that their coming together signified the union and harmony the Fenghuang can bring with its presence. The great bird is only seen during times of peace, prosperity, and good humor amongst mankind; otherwise, it roosts upon its perch in the K’unlun mountains, in wu t’ung trees.

The creature itself is reportedly very oddly assembled, with such features as the head of a swallow, the beak of a rooster, the neck of a serpent, the breast of a pheasant, the back of a tortoise, the hindlegs of a stag, and the tail of a fish, with each part representing one of the six celebrated 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 feathers of which contain the five sacred colors in vivid detail: red, yellow, blue, white, and black. Each feather is also meant to stand for the five Confucian virtues of benevolence (ren), honesty and altruism (yi), knowledge (zhi), loyalty and integrity (xin), and good manners (li). Its appearance is meant to stand for the dawning of a new age of prosperity and good will, a great event occurring, or the rise of a worthy, honest emperor.

Most people in Western society equate the Fenghuang with the phoenix; however, the two have key differences. While the phoenix must grow old, die, and be born again in an endless cycle, the Fenghuang is the true immortal bird that never ages and never dies. It also never kills, eating only plants and bamboo seeds instead of insects.

The impact of the Fenghuang was enormous in China. The great bird came to stand for the empress (and indeed, the sacred female) as a symbol of integrity, morality, and beauty, while the dragon was attested to the emperor. Only those of renowned honesty and moral value were allowed to wear the Fenghuang on their jewelry or clothing, and for the creature to be depicted on your tombstone in death, a person must have been extremely virtuous.

Today, there is a county in western Hunan (southern China) named after the Fenghuang, and whose name is written with the same Chinese characters used for this mythological creature.



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This entry was posted on 10/02/2014 by in Myth Madness and tagged , , , , , .
October 2014
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