Ho-oo (Phoenix) -- Japanese pronunciation
Origin: China

Feng Huang (Chinese)
Hou-ou (Japanese)
Feng (Hou) represents male phoenix, yang, solar
Huang (Ou) represents female phoenix, yin, lunar

Often depicted together with the Dragon,
either as mortal enemies or as blissful lovers.
Considered equivalent to Red Bird | Big Bird (Suzaku)
One of the guardians of the Four Directions (Shishin)


Phoenix, Image from Imari Porcelain ware, photo courtsesy Nihon Toji Taikei, Vol. 19 (Imari Ware)
Phoenix, Image from Imari Porcelain ware
Photo courtesy Nihon Toji Taikei, Vol. 19 (Imari Ware)

Phoenix Drum, found in the Engaku-ji Bell Tower
Phoenix Drum, Engaku-ji Temple Bell Tower, Kita-Kamakura

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modern cartoon image of Asian PhoenixIn Japan, as earlier in China, the mythical Phoenix was adopted as a symbol of the imperial household, particularily the empress. This mythical bird represents fire, the sun, justice, obedience, and fidelity.

According to legend (mostly from China), the Ho-oo 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 Ho-oo 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 Ho-Oo decends 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 it appears) and a symbol of disharmony (when it 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 (see below).

The Chinese compound term Feng Huang 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 (Feng Huang) is strikingly similar to the symbolism of the mythological Red Bird (Zhuque), 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.

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 solidary creature -- only one of its kind. When it dies, it dies in flames, and from the ashes is born the next phoenix.

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Below courtesy www.aisf.or.jp/~jaanus/deta/h/houou2.htm
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, aogiri ), with bamboo in the background, or surrounded by Chinese arabesque foliage karakusa ??. 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 the phoenix designs can be seen on the ceiling of Houryuuji Kondou Nishi-no-ma (late 7c). Houou 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 houou motif, replacing arabesque foliage with Japanese wild grasses, and changing the bird to resemble a blue magpie, onagadori , or a crane, tsuru . A famous pair of houou statues, made of copper and measuring 1 metre in height, can be seen on the roof of Byoudouin Hououdo , Kyoto (10c). Throughout the 13-19c the houou remained a popular design, particularly on gold and silver lacquered boxes (see makie ) and for noh 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, monshou, known as hououmaru, lit. phoenix circle, tachi houou lit. standing phoenix, and tobi houou lit. flying phoenix. <end quote from JAANUS>

Wood carving on entrance hall to Nikko Toushogu in Tochigi Prefecture

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Phoenix Design on Edo Era bowl -- bowl from online store of blueandwhiteamerica
Above: Design on Edo-Period bowl
(at the online store of blueandwhiteamerica.com)
The phoenix is typically shown with spread wings,
in the act of attacking "naga" with its strong claws.
 Skt. "NAGA" means all serpentines, snakes, and dragons.

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Heain Era, 11 century, Atop Amida Hall, Byodo-in Temple

Above & Below
Heian Era, 11c, Atop Amida Hall, Byodo-in, Kyoto
From early times (by at least China's Han Period),
 the Hou-ou was depicted as a male-female pair facing each other.

CLOSEUP. Heian Era, 11 century, Amida Hall, Byodo-in Temple

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In China, the phoenix is ofter paired with the dragon
as well -- the pair represent both conflict and wedded bliss.
Above Photo: Hall of Heavenly and Terrestrial Union (China)
Ornamental door design of Phoenix (Empress) and Dragon (Emperor)
 Courtesy www.kiku.com/electric_samurai/virtual_china/beijing.html

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Modern cartoon image of Asian PhoenixCHINESE LORE

Feng, the Chinese phoenix, had the head of a pheasant, the tail of a peacock, the Five Cardinal Virtues inscribed on its body, and the most enchanting song of any bird. Feng was associated with the primordial forces of the heavens and was also the bringer of good fortunes, and visions of the phoenix god were were omens of great luck in the near future. Long (Dragon, East, Water) and Feng (Phoenix, South, Fire) are most often depicted as enemies because of their opposing elements (water and fire). Several Chinese folktales center around the clash between the phoenix and the dragon. However, they're also depicted as partners. Long is the male counterpart to the female Feng, and together they can symbolize both conflict and wedded bliss.

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Mandarin Ivory Phoenix Design - piece available online at http://store.yahoo.com/greatorientalgifts/elanphonscul.htmlSouth - the Red Bird
"Phoenix" is used as a translation for Feng, or Feng Huang, the sacred bird of Chinese mythology. It has many miraculous attributes, but not self-rejuvenation, and does not posess the Arabian phoenix's propensity for self-immolation. It is usually portrayed as a beautiful bird, virtually identical to an ornamental pheasant. Few illustrations match its verbal description, as it is said to have the front of a swan, the hinder parts of a unicorn, the throat of a swallow, the bill of a chicken, the neck of a snake, the stripes of a dragon, and the arched back of a tortoise.

Its plumage is of the five mystical colours - black, white, red, green and yellow, and it has twelve tail feathers, execept in years when there is an extra month, when there are thirteen. It feeds on bamboo seeds, lives in the branches of the dryandera tree, and drinks from fountains of fresh water.

It is one of the four emblems of royalty, usually associated with the Empress. The expression "Dragon and Phoenix" signifies wedded bliss. In many respects its symbolism has been confused and merged with that of the Red Bird, one of the four Celestial Emblems (Walters)."

Above exerpts from Derek Walters "An Encyclopedia of Myth and Legend: Chinese Mythology" and Donald A. Mackenzie "Myths of China and Japan."

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Unconfirmed Research
The Asian phoenix is said to descend from the clouds only when a virtuous ruler is born. It then alights only on the paulownia tree (though it feeds on bamboo seeds). The paulownia is a real tree that bears fragrant purple flowers, often depicted as white.

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Ho-oo Egg Cup (from grammytique.com online store)PHOENIX HISTORY, CHINA

If we look at the Shang ritual cups and bronze decorations of the Western Zou period (around 3,000 years old) we find the images of five animals often repeated: the lion, the fish, the deer, the dragon and the phoenix.

The lion and the fish have origins in Buddhist icons, while the other three are often found together, such as on the inside of the coffin of the wife of the Marquis of Dai (2,200 years old). The four animals dragon, tiger, unicorn (or deer) and phoenix are called "si ling" in Chinese, and with the passage of time other animals such as the snake and the turtle were added to this group of animals to be worshipped.

Right from the earliest representations the phoenix has been shown with spread wings, often in the act of attacking snakes with its strong claws. During the Han period, 2,200 years ago, the Phoenix was used as a symbol to indicate the direction south, and was often shown in a pair of facing male and female birds. It may also be found paired with the dragon, in which case the dragon represents the Emperor and the phoenix the Empress.

An interesting difference between the way the dragon and the phoenix are shown in decorations is that the dragon is used to fill all the space available on a vase for example, while the phoenix is used to fill specific space in the decoration such as around trees, rocks, and flowers.

Phoenix Porcelain Plate - Ruby Lane Item A500 (from web online store)The symbol of the Fenice has been used on objects in China, often in jade, for over 7,000 years, originally on good-luck totems, and then, from around 2,000 years ago to represent power sent from the heavens to the Empress.

A phoenix used to decorate a house showed loyalty and honesty in the people who lived there. The phoenix was believed to control the 5 tones of Chinese music and to represent the Confucian virtues of loyalty, honesty, decorum and justice.

Considering the importance of this mythical bird, it was inevitable that it would also be used to decorate tombs and graves. The right to wear jewellery showing the phoenix was reserved for important people, and showed that the wearer was a person of high moral values. 

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