Mythical Bird of East Asia. One of the four sacred animals of Chinese mythology.
Variant names: Feng-huang (Chinese/Sino-Tibetan), U-feng.
Physical description: The plumage consists of the five fundamental colors of black, white, red, green, and yellow. The head is like a pheasant's or rooster's. Large beak like a parrot's. Back like a tortoise's. Body like a mandarin duck's. The male is said to have three legs. Long tufts of display feathers are like a peacock's. In more recent accounts, the creature has a snake's head, a tortoise's shell, and a fishlike tail.
Behavior: Gentle. Lands from flight very lightly. Enjoys dancing and human communal behavior. Its call encompasses the five tones of the Chinese pentatonic scale.
Distribution: Guangdong Province and Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, China.
Significant sightings: When it first appeared in the reign of the legendary emperor Huangdi around 2600 B.C., the Chinese Phoenix was a deity associated with the wind. The shape of the Chinese character feng in the twelfth century B.C. resembled both a bird of paradise and the character representing the wind, implying a close association. The Phoenix later came to represent the union of yin and yang, with the male bird (Feng) and the female bird (Huang) as symbols of cosmic harmony. The Feng is mentioned in a commentary from the fourth century B.C. as an omen of the country being ruled by a good king. Later, the Phoenix came
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to symbolize the empress, while the DRAGON stood for the emperor. Possible explanations:
(1) Based on imported feathers of Birds of paradise (Family Paradisaeidae) from New Guinea.
(2) A Bird of paradise that lived in ancient China. Tzu-Chiang Chou presents some evidence that as recently as the Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279), southern China was home to two native species of bird of paradise, now extinct. Chou claims the Feng-huang, a bird with long red plumes said to have lived in Guangdong during the Southern Song, might be the Red bird of paradise (Paradisaea rubra), the Goldie's bird of paradise (P. decora), or Count Raggi's bird of paradise (P. raggiana), though they are known only in Papua New Guinea. The crested U-feng or Black phoenix, said to be bluish-green and purple, lived in Guangxi Zhuang at the same time and might be the Black sicklebill (Epimachus fastuosus). However, there is no evidence that birds of paradise existed anywhere outside Australasia. (The only exception is the imported Greater bird of paradise [P. apoda], which lived on Little Tobago in the Caribbean from 1909 to 1963, when it failed to survive Hurricane Flora.) Live specimens brought to China from New Guinea are a more likely explanation, according to Karl Shuker.
(3) The Common peafowl (Pavo cristatus), native to India. See Phoenix.
(4) The Crested argus (Rheinartia ocellata), a large pheasant with a huge tail, is found in Vietnam and Malaysia. It has some of the longest feathers of any wild bird, often reaching 5 feet 8 inches long. Sources: M. U. Hachisuka, "The Identification of the Chinese Phoenix," Journal ofthe Royal Asiatic Society, 1924, pp. 585-589; Tzu-Chiang Chou, "Chinese Phoenix and the Bird of Paradise: A New Identification of the Ancient Chinese Phoenix," Bulletin ofthe Institute ofEthnology of Taipeh, Academia Sinica, no. 24 (Autumn 1967): 81-122; Robin W. Doughty, Feather Fashions and Bird
Preservation: A Study in Nature Protection (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975); Karl Shuker, Extraordinary Animals Worldwide (London: Robert Hale, 1991), pp. 21-27.
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