In Japan, as earlier in China, the mythical Phoenix was adopted as a symbol of the imperial household, particularly the empress. This mythical bird represents fire, the sun, justice, obedience, fidelity, and the southern star constellations.
According to legend (mostly from China), the Hō-ō appears very rarely, and only to mark the beginning of a new era -- the birth of a virtuous ruler, for example. In other traditions, the Hō-ō appears only in peaceful and prosperous times (nesting, it is said, in paulownia trees), and hides itself when there is trouble. As the herald of a new age, the Hō-ō descends from heaven to earth to do good deeds, and then it returns to its celestial abode to await a new era. It is both a symbol of peace (when the bird appears) and a symbol of disharmony (when the bird disappears). In China, early artifacts show the Phoenix (female) as intimately associated with the Dragon (male) -- the two are portrayed either as mortal enemies or as blissful lovers. When shown together, the two symbolize both conflict and wedded bliss, and are a common design motif even today in many parts of Asia.
鳳 = Fèng, Male Phoenix' '凰 = Huáng, Female Phoenix
The Chinese compound term Fèng Huáng means Phoenix. The Feng Huang was believed to control the five tones of traditional Chinese music and to represent the Confucian virtues of loyalty, honesty, decorum and justice. Its image first appears on Shang artifacts of China’s Western Zhou Period (11th century BC to 771 BC).
The symbolism of the Chinese Phoenix (Fèng Huáng) is strikingly similar to the symbolism of the mythological Red Bird (Chn. = Zhū Qiǎo 朱雀 or Zhū Niǎo 朱鳥), also of Chinese lore. In Japan, the Red Bird is pronounced Suzaku (same Chinese characters). I believe the Red Bird is the same creature as the Phoenix, although I may be wrong. The Red Bird is one of four legendary Chinese creatures guarding the four cosmic directions (Red Bird - S, Dragon - E, Tortoise - N, and the Tiger - W). The four appear during China’s Warring States period (476 BC - 221 BC), and were frequently painted on the walls of early Chinese and Korean tombs to ward off evil spirits. For more details on Phoenix lore in China, please click here.The Asian Phoenix should not be confused with the Phoenix found in Egypt and Greece -- that is a bird of completely different feathers and traditions. The Arabian-Western Phoenix, if you recall, is a solidarity creature -- only one of its kind. When it dies, it dies in flames, and from the ashes is born the next phoenix. Click here for background on the Egyptian and Greek phoenix.
Historical EncountersBelow text courtesy JAANUS: A mythical Chinese bird, thought to have been introduced to Japan in the Asuka period (mid 6th to mid 7th century AD). The phoenix has a bird's beak, a swallow's jaw, and a snake's neck; the front half of its body is thought to resemble a giraffe, the back half a deer. Its back resembles a tortoise, and its tail is like a fish. It is often shown in a paulownia tree (Chinese parasol tree, Jp. = Aogiri 梧桐), with bamboo in the background, or surrounded by Chinese arabesque foliage (Jp. = Karakusa 唐草). It became a popular decorative motif in the Nara period (late 7-8c), and was used on a wide variety of items including textiles, mirrors, chests, and lacquerware. Outstanding early examples of phoenix designs can be seen on the ceiling of Hōryūji Kondō Nishi-no-ma 法隆寺金堂西の間 (late 7c). Hō-ō depicted on the back of mirrors were popular in the Heian period (9-12c). Some of these used a Chinese style, but others Japanized the Hō-ō motif, replacing arabesque foliage with Japanese wild grasses, and changing the bird to resemble a blue magpie (Jp. = Onagadori 尾長鳥), or a crane (Jp. = Tsuru 鶴). A famous pair of Hō-ō statues, made of copper and measuring one metre in height, can be seen on the roof of Byōdō-in Hō-ō-do (photo here) 平等院鳳凰堂 , Kyoto (10c). Throughout the 13-19c the Hō-ō remained a popular design, particularly on gold and silver lacquered boxes (Jp. = Makie 蒔絵) and for Noh 能 costumes. The original Chinese background of paulownia and bamboo was gradually replaced by combinations of peonies, cherry blossoms, crysanthemums, and seasonal Japanese wild flowers. The phoenix appears on three crests (Jp. = Monshou 紋章), known as hō-ō-maru 鳳凰円, lit. phoenix circle, tachi hō-ō 立ち鳳凰 lit. standing phoenix, and tobi hō-ō 飛び鳳凰 lit. flying phoenix. <end quote JAANUS>
In Popular Media
- The legendary Pokémon Ho-Oh from Pokémon is completely inspired from Hō-ō in both physical design and naming.