The feng-huang, also known as the 'feng' or the 'scarlet bird', is the term for the Chinese phoenix. Rarely is more than one feng-huang seen at a time, and it only shows itself during times of peace and prosperity, usually when a benign emperor ascends the throne. The feng-huang shares many similarities with the phoenix as we Westerners view it, though there are a few differences as well.
Described as having all the most desirable parts of Earth's creatures, the feng-huang had the head and comb of the pheasant; the forehead of the crane; the tiger's stripes; the tortoise's back; the swallow's throat; the snake's neck; the fowl's bill; and the peacock's tail. An interesting fact about the feng-huang is that it has three legs--though it is usually depicted with two. The feng-huang was said to have the most beautiful song of any animal, bird or otherwise, which it sang using the five harmonic notes. The feng-huang's song is said to be the basis for the Chinese harmonic scale. Also, the Five Virtues were inscribed on its body--gravity, generosity of soul, sincerity, earnestness and kindness; and its colors were the five sacred colors--red, blue, yellow, black, and white. The feng-huang is believed to live forever.
The six major parts of the feng-huang's body represent the six celestial bodies. The head symbolizes the sky; the eyes represent the sun; the back portrays the moon; the wings represent the wind; the feet symbolize the earth; and the tail portrays the planets.
The feng-huang is often depicted with a fiery ball, which represents its association with the sun. Also, many pictures show the feng-huang with either two scrolls or a box which contain the sacred books.
The name of the feng-huang, like many Chinese names for creatures, is a meshing of the male name and the female name. The feng is the male phoenix; he represents yang, and also the solar cycle. He was the protector of the emperor. As his polar half, the huang, or female phoenix, represents yin and the lunar cycle. The huang was also a symbol of the Chinese empress.
Between its rare appearances in China, the feng-huang lived in the Kingdom of the Wise, rumored to be somewhere to the East of China. It ate bamboo seeds solely, and drank only the purest water. When this creature was sighted, it would land only on the wu t'ung trees. The marrow of the feng-huang's bones was considered to be the most heavenly food.
Described as the bringer of good fortune, the feng-huang was also associated with the primordial forces of heaven. A feng and a huang are often depicted together to symbolize wedded bliss. However, the female huang and the male counterpart lung, or dragon, also symbolize a happy union. The feng-huang is associated with resurrection, immortality, and rising above adversity. At a human baby's conception, the feng-huang would deliver the soul of the baby to the mother's womb. The feng-huang was also called the 'Emperor of Birds', because every bird would fly behind the feng-huang in homage.
The feng-huang is not precisely a phoenix in the traditional sense of the word. It differs from the phoenixes in other cultures in two major ways. Firstly, many cultures believed the phoenix lived for a thousand years, at which time it would build a funeral pyre and burn itself--which produces the next phoenix. The feng-huang never dies; nor does it physically age. Secondly, the phoenix is known as being a solitary creature, there being only one on Earth at any given time, and only able to procreate at death. At the very least, there is always a feng and a huang in existence. The feng-huang procreate several times during their existence, producing more feng-huang.
The feng-huang was first sighted sometime in 2697 B.C., during the reign of Huang-Ti. It was also sighted during the next reign. Also, two phoenixes were rumored to have nested in the Yao palace around 2350 B.C. However, it wasn't until the Han dynasty that the feng-huang received worship. The last written appearance of the feng-huang was at Anhui. During its appearance, the feng-huang scratched at the tomb of Hung Wu's father, and thusly Hung Wu ascended the throne.
As part of the si ling, the four spiritual animals, the feng-huang is held in high esteem. The others are the qilin, or unicorn; the long, or dragon; and the gui xian, or tortoise. When the Earth was created, the heavens were split into four quadrants--East, South, West, and North--and each was protected by one of the si ling. That particular si ling also represented the corresponding compass point. The feng-huang protected the South; it also corresponded to the season Summer, the color red, and the element fire.