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Fenghuang (simplified Chinese: 凤凰; traditional Chinese: 鳳凰; pinyin: fènghuáng; Wade–Giles: fêng⁴-huang²) are mythological birds found in East Asian 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.
The fenghuang is also called the "August Rooster" (鹍鸡; 鶤雞 or 鵾雞; yùnjī or kūnjī; yün4-chi1 or k'un1-chi1) since it sometimes takes the place of the Rooster in the Chinese zodiac. In the Western world, it is commonly called the Chinese phoenix or simply Phoenix, although mythological similarities with the Western phoenix are superficial.
Images of an ancient bird have appeared in China for over 8000 years, as earliest as the Hongshan neolithic period, on jade and pottery motifs, then appearing decorating bronze as well as jade figurines. Some believe they may have been a good-luck totem among eastern tribes of ancient China.
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 fenghuang, but the "King of Birds" came to symbolize the empress when paired with a dragon representing the emperor. 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 colors are said to represent Confucius' five virtues:
- Ren: the virtue of benevolence, charity, and humanity;
- Yi: honesty and uprightness; Yì may be broken down into zhōng, doing one's best, conscientiousness, loyalty and shù: the virtue of reciprocity, altruism, consideration for others
- Zhi: knowledge
- Xin: faithfulness and integrity;
- Li: correct behavior, propriety, good manners, politeness, ceremony, worship.
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).