In Chinese mythology, an immortal bird whose auspicious rare appearances portend world harmony, particularly upon the ascent to the throne of a new ruler. Considered to embody both male and female elements, the fenghuang in later descriptions is often considered the female counterpart of the male dragon and, as such, symbolizes the female portion of the yin-yang principle, notably with respect to marital harmony. Legend tells of its appearance before the death of the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi) in the 3rd millennium BC.
Learn more about fenghuang with a free trial on Britannica.com.
Fenghuang are mythological Chinese birds that reign over all other birds. The males are called Feng and the females Huang. In modern times, however, such a distinction of gender is often no longer made and the Feng and Huang are blurred into a single feminine entity so that the bird can be paired with the Chinese dragon, which has male connotations. The Fenghuang is also called the "August Rooster" since it sometimes takes the place of the Rooster in the Chinese Zodiac. In the West, it is commonly referred to as the Chinese phoenix.
Images of an ancient bird have appeared in China for over 7,000 years, the earliest as Shang Dynasty pottery motifs, then appearing decorating bronzes, as well as jade figurines (many of the most beautiful from the Liao Period). Some believe they may have been a good-luck totem, believing that it is a totem of eastern tribes in ancient China. Current theories suggest that it is likely based in part - for example the snake-like neck - on folk memory of the Asian Ostrich which was common in prehistoric China but became extinct several thousand years ago. That this bird was well-known to the early modern humans in Asia, noted for its peculiarity, and hunted for food, is attested by numerous archaeological finds, such as pottery decorated with what appear to be painted ostriches, and bones by early campsites.
Fenghuang seems to have no connection with the phoenix of the Western world, which derives from Egyptian mythology. Peculiarly, the "Western" (actually: Ancient Egyptian) phoenix may also in part reference a prehistoric bird, the Bennu Heron. Unlike the Fenghuang, which is a chimera not very much like any actual bird (though elements of a cock and a cursorial groundbird probably best interpreted as an ostrich are recognizable), the Egyptian phoenix was a rather conventional animal most often considered similar to a heron or eagle which "merely" had a supernatural lifestyle.
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 the generally translated "phoenix", but the "King of Birds" came to symbolize the Empress when paired with a dragon as a dragon represented the Emperor. From the period of the Emperor Jiajing (1522-66) on, 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 serrated tail feathers (five being an odd, or yang number) and the female by what appears to be one, but is in fact, two (two being an even, or yin number) curling or tendriled tail feathers. It was also in the Ming Dynasty that phoenixes first began to appear with combs, hence comb-less phoenixes are pre-Ming, and phoenixes depicted with combs, Ming or post-Ming.
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, phoenix only stays when the ruler is without darkness and corruption (政治清明).
In ancient China, they can often be found in the decorations for weddings or royalty, along with dragons. This is because the Chinese considered the dragon and phoenix symbolic of blissful relations between husband and wife, another common yin and yang metaphor.