|In Asian artwork throughout history, sinuous dragons and soaring phoenixes figure prominently, coiling in elaborate decorations around architecture, tableware, and clothes. Together, the dragon and the phoenix symbolize immense power and harmony. As a result, they continue to be favorite motifs for Asian artwork and products; behind every depiction of a dragon or a phoenix lies a rich and fascinating history of mythology and tradition.
Although the dragon and the phoenix are also familiar characters to the Western imagination, the Chinese versions differ slightly from their Western cousins in both physical appearance and temperament. While the European dragon is popularly characterized as a large, winged, fire-breathing lizard, the Chinese dragon is much less bulky. The Chinese dragon has a body more similar to a snake than a lizard, and its movements are sinuous and graceful. Although the Chinese dragon has no visible wings, most dragons can fly through the air with the same curving motions as a snake moving across sand. Some Chinese dragons, on the other hand, live in the water, and many myths describe vast underwater palaces occupied by powerful dragons who were both kings and demi-gods.
While the European dragon usually appears as a destructive and dimwitted beast that needs to be killed by a valiant knight or hero, Chinese dragons have much more humanized temperaments and actions. Many Chinese dragons can physically assume a human form and speak human languages. According to legend, some dragons were originally humans who were transformed into dragons by great difficulty or great anger. Although they possessed extraordinary powers and could often act dangerously and destructively, the Chinese dragons were essentially human in nature: they were capable of doing both great good and great evil, and, like humans, were often compelled by complex emotions and desires. If the dragons were not angered, their powers over the natural elements could ensure the continued prosperity of human society. In early China’s agricultural society, the dragons’ control over water and weather elements determined the success of each year’s crops.
Ancient Eastern myths revolve around the dragons’ awesome powers and their interactions with human lives. Dragons are fierce creatures, with an acute sense of justice and integrity. Dragons who feel they have been wronged will seek revenge against the perpetrators, and they will also avenge wrongs done to their friends. Many myths describe dragons defending their human offspring, or of spurned lovers turning into dragons in their anger.
Eastern dragons, however, can be just as helpful as they can be harmful. Prehistoric tribes in ancient China often adopted the dragon as their symbol and guardian god. As China’s guardian gods, the dragons took care of their people, regulating the weather to ensure successful crops and adequate food.
One of China’s most ancient dragon myths explains the origin of the rivers, which brought a constant source of fresh water to the people. According to this legend, there once lived four powerful dragons in the seas. One day they heard the prayers of the Chinese people, who were suffering from a long and terrible drought. The people burned incense and made offerings, and they asked for water to make their plants grow so they could feed their children. Hearing the pleas from the people below, the four dragons went to the heavenly palace and asked the great Jade Emperor to send the people rain. The Jade Emperor, however, did not sent any rain, and the people continued to suffer. Unable to witness the people’s distress any longer, the dragons resolved to bring water to the people themselves. They scooped up fresh water from the seas in their mouths, then flew up into the sky and rained water on the people.
When the Jade Emperor heard that the dragons had sent rain to the people without his permission, the Jade Emperor became very angry with the dragons. As a punishment for the dragons, the Jade Emperor ordered the Mountain God to use four of his mountains to imprison the dragons on the land. The Mountain God used his magic to send four mountains hurtling through the air, which landed on the four dragons. Despite this punishment, the four dragons refused to regret their actions. Instead, they decided to ensure that the Chinese people would always have fresh water. Determined to always do good for the human people, the dragons transformed themselves into four great rivers, crossing the land from west to east, running through deep valleys and by high mountains, until the water finally emptied into the dragons’ old home, the sea. Because of the brave and kind actions of the four dragons, China’s four great rivers were formed: The Heilongjian (Black Dragon) to the far north, the Huanghe (Yellow River) in Central China, the Yangtze (Long River) further south, and the Zhujiang (Pearl) in the far south. As rivers, the dragons could continue to bring the people fresh water to grow crops and nourish themselves, even if the dragons were bound to the land by the Jade Emperor’s punishment.
This ancient myth about the four dragons and China’s four rivers reflects the fundamental belief in the dragons’ commitment to justice. Although Asian dragons may have a fierce temper, they have a deep sense of right and wrong, and will use their great powers to benefit the people.
Because of this combination of great power and great virtue, dragons were a favorite symbol for the Emperor and his Imperial rule. The Emperor’s divine rule ideally mirrored the dragon’s personality. The keen intelligence, virile temper, and imposing command that characterized a dragon could also be found in the Emperor, who, like the dragon demi-gods, had been chosen by heaven to wield extraordinary powers and bear extraordinary responsibilities.
Because dragons felt human emotions and could assume human forms, many dragons mated with humans and bore very powerful offspring. Rulers of Asian countries have popularly justified their reigns by claiming themselves to be the offspring of dragons. The Japanese emperor Hirohito traced his ancestry back 125 generations to the daughter of the Dragon King of the Sea. This intimate connection between the ruling emperor and dragons is reflected in the names for the emperor’s items: the throne is called the “dragon seat,” the emperor’s ceremonial dress the “dragon robes,” and his bed the “dragon bed.” In the Qing Dynasty, the national Chinese flag bore the prominent, emblazoned image of a large dragon.
While the dragon came to traditionally signify the emperor, the phoenix evolved into a symbol for his other half, the empress. Like the dragon, the phoenix also dates back to ancient Chinese myths. Images of the phoenix date back as far as 3,000 years, to the early Shang or Zhou periods. Along with the dragon, the phoenix is one of four legendary creatures that guard the four compass directions. When the dragon and the phoenix are combined, they symbolize the union of these two powerful forces, which can result in either conflict or wedded bliss.
Like the Asian dragon, the Asian phoenix also differs slightly from its European counterpart. While the Asian phoenix is also characterized by bright, red plumage and miraculous powers, the Asian phoenix is not as closely associated with fire or reincarnation. The Arabian or Egyptian phoenix, which later became the phoenix in European legends, is characterized primarily by bursting into flames and reincarnating itself from the ashes. The Asian phoenix is loosely associated with fire while the Asian dragon corresponds to water, but the Asian phoenix does not reincarnate itself from ashes. The body of the Asian phoenix is intricate, and draws from the body parts of many other animals, especially various birds. The Asian phoenix is most commonly drawn with the head of a golden pheasant, the beak of a parrot, the body of a mandarin duck, the wings of a roc, the feathers of a peacock, and the legs of a crane. As the representative of the Confucian virtues, the phoenix’s body is inscribed with the characters for loyalty, honesty, decorum, and justice. The phoenix is often drawn with two scrolls or a box in its bill; the phoenix carries and protects the sacred books of virtue.
According to Chinese legend, the phoenix appears rarely—much more rarely than the dragon. Unlike the dragon, which actively interacts with the daily affairs of humans, the phoenix appears as an omen of indication of the state of human affairs. The phoenix’s presence, then, was considered of exceptional importance, and usually signified the beginning of a new and auspicious era, such as the birth of a virtuous ruler. When present on earth, the phoenix brings peace and prosperity; in times of human conflict or disharmony, however, the phoenix will hide itself until a more promising era begins.
A gentle and peaceful bird, the phoenix represented feminine culture and refinement. According to legend, the phoenix’s song is the most beautiful of all the birds in heaven or on earth because the phoenix alone controls the five tones of Chinese music. The flight of the phoenix was a beautiful metaphor for the ability to leave the world and its problems behind, soaring through an open blue sky towards the inviting sun.
Coupled together, the phoenix and the dragon promise great power and fortune to those who bear their images. While the dragon represents a more masculine, forceful power, the phoenix symbolizes the refinement of culture and gentle feelings. Together, they embody the ancient virtues of honor and loyalty, which would ultimately guarantee prosperity and peace. In ancient times the dragon and the phoenix exclusively symbolized the Emperor and the Empress, and only royalty was allowed to use the dragon or phoenix emblems. The dragon and the phoenix were the principle decorative motifs for buildings, clothing, and articles of daily use in the imperial palace. In a symbol purposely reminiscent of the yin and the yang, a dragon curls over the top of a circle and the phoenix flutters underneath.
In this modern age, the dragon and the phoenix continue to hold a central role in the Asian imagination and in Asian artwork. Now, however, anyone can use the images of the powerful dragon and phoenix. When used to decorate a house, the phoenix indicates that those who live within possess extraordinary loyalty and honesty. Jewelry or clothing with dragon or phoenix emblems indicates great virtue or rare talent. Gifts bearing the images of either mythical creature are considered great compliments to the receiver’s exceptional virtue and loyalty.
Together, the dragon and the phoenix guard the peaceful harmony within many houses, just as they once watched over the Imperial Courts of ancient emperors and empresses. Now the dragon and phoenix joined together represent the matrimonial harmony of two great powers working together. The male dragon, or water, now sits side by side with the female phoenix, or fire. Together, they make the world complete and provide for man’s daily needs, assuring his continued prosperity and happiness.
The dragon and the phoenix are two beautiful creatures with extremely important roles in both Asian and European cultures. Many of products carried here at Mrs. Lin’s Kitchen reflect the beauty of these mythical beings. Dragons and phoenixes make exceptionally thoughtful gifts, especially as wedding or housewarming presents. Explain the special significance behind the ancient symbols of the dragon or the phoenix as you wish your friends well. We invite you to further explore the rich and diverse culture of these Asian myths and popular decorative motifs. Behind every picture and every pattern there lies a story that can be traced far back to ancient Asian civilizations. Please feel welcome to explore and share this rich culture.
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The Dimsum Experience, Part I
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MAY WE SUGGEST:
Phoenix and Dragon Yixing Tea Set (T1254)
Phoenix and Dragon Tea Mug
Phoenix & Dragon Yixing Teapot (8WT829)
Phoenix and Dragon Tea Canister (T1859)