Tuesday, June 2, 2009
A Feng Huang Tale
The Feng Huang is the legendary Chinese version of the phoenix. Like the Western phoenix, the Feng Huang is immortal, but unlike the phoenix which goes through a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth to attain its immortality the Feng Huang just lives forever, or so they say. Also, unlike the Western phoenix which exists in isolation, only one ever encountered at a time, the Feng Huang mates and has offspring. Originally, the Feng Huang was actually two birds, the male Feng symbolizing Yang and the female Huang symbolizing Yin, who were eternally united in harmony, a great symbol of marital bliss.
Perhaps the most important feature of the Feng Huang though is that it is a symbol of peace and prosperity, only coming from its home far away from human society in peaceful times. Linked to the emperor, who was the most important figure in Chinese history in determining whether or not the period would be one of peace and prosperity, legend has it that the Feng Huang would appear and nest in or near the palace when a good future emperor was born.
So there is a similarity with the Western phoenix, but also a bunch of differences, which is about right for a mythical creature that features in both Oriental and Western cultures. Like the dragon, which is predominantly dangerous and fearsome in Western culture, needing to be killed by brave knights, and the Chinese dragon which is a bringer of good fortune. Anyway, this is the understanding I had of the Feng Huang, it's immortal like the Western phoenix and it's a good omen.
Then, recently, I read a story about the Feng Huang that doesn't quite fit. But it's nice anyway! The story goes like this. There was a young man traveling along the road. He met another man who was a successful merchant. This man had a bird in a cage, and he was planning to sell it to make money. The bird was actually a golden pheasant but while the man was walking along he was talking about the Feng Huang, and the young man overheard him and though he was talking about the bird in the cage. So the young man was all excited and asked if it was really a Feng Huang. The merchant was smart enough and said it certainly was, and of course it was rare and very lucky. The young man immediately offered to buy it, even though he thought it looked like a golden pheasant, and the merchant happily sold it to him and went back home.
The young man was very happy with his bird, and decided he should give it to the emperor as a special gift. No doubt he was thinking that would bring a time of peace and great prosperity. In any case, he arrived near the palace and found a room to stay in for the night. He told everyone that he had a Feng Huang as a gift for the emperor. Unfortunately, though, before the young man could present the gift, the bird died. Well, gosh, it was only a golden pheasant not an immortal Feng Huang! But somehow the story doesn't notice this, and goes on to tell how the emperor was so moved when he heard (no doubt through the busy grapevine) that the young man wanted to give him the Feng Huang, that he called the young man to the palace and rewarded him handsomely. So everyone was happy, I guess!
I just wonder why it wasn't noticed that the immortal Feng Huang shouldn't have keeled over dead in the cage before being presented to the emperor. Oh well, not everything makes sense in these tales! But I guess the moral of the story is that good intentions toward the emperor get well rewarded even if they don't quite come through in practice - remember this is a Chinese legendary creature so the moral of the story fits Chinese culture!
This is where I get to write about all those fantastic legendary creatures, also known as mythical or mythological creatures, even imaginary creatures. That's so exciting! There are just so many kinds, and they all have such amazing stories, not to mention fascinating shapes and forms and abilities. They really reflect great imagination and creativity!
I know some people are skeptical, and just reject all these legendary creatures as just that, imaginary, made up through the ages by story tellers usually with some ulterior motive like "encouraging" children to be good. And then there are the artists who put their imagination into visual form, creating chimeras of various beasts to produce new, maybe improved, versions like a flying horse, the pegasus, or intriguing and beautiful sphinxes, or the half-human half-horse centaur. Yes, you can be skeptical that any of these amazing creatures are or ever have been "real" in having a physical existience. But, to rule them out as nonexistent and just "fairytales" seems to be missing the point, losing sight of their purpose, and maybe denying the existence of very real creatures.
Some mythical creatures like mermaids and unicorns seem to transcend cultures, appearing in narratives around the world, while others like the Irish Leprechaun and the Yeti of the Himalayas and Nessie from Loch Ness are specific to a particular location and culture. While scientists or cryptozoologists search high and low for evidence of such creatures, it is often the casual passer-by or the humble local person who has the encounter. Are these people "special," chosen in some way, lucky, or just foolish?
Whatever the answers, and there may be different ones for different mythical creatures, I'm excited to go on a journey to find out more about them. Feel free to join me!