Specific birds give hidden meanings in Chinese paintings, please refer to individual entries in this section for magpies, quails, swallows, cranes, ravens and eagles. Chinese Birds may visit and help the virtuous but there are also birds of ill omens including owls. The character for bird neatly represents a perched bird 鸟, an ancient pictograph. The Chinese phoenix is considered the representative of all feathered creatures. Care must be however be taken as the character niao is a commonly used expletive.
Here are some birds that are noted for their symbolism in Chinese art:
The cockerel or rooster is an honored creature in China. It is one of the twelve animals forming the Chinese zodiac. Out of reverence, the cockerel in contrast to hens, was not killed for meat. Cockerels are valued for working hard to eat up insect pests. They are seen as fierce-some, wise, courageous, benevolent and loyal. It is lucky because it sounds the same as 吉 jí ‘auspicious, lucky’. A figure of a red cockerel is often seen as a figure on the ridge of roofs in the belief that because it is a ‘fire’ creature it will keep fire under control (as well as demons). It is associated with yang, the sun and summer. A picture of a cock crowing (公鸡鸣 gōng jī míng) symbolizes achievement. The cock's comb 冠 guān uses the same character as for the hat of an official and and so symbolizes a wish for an appointment as an official.
Cock fighting ➚ was once a very common sight in China as it was elsewhere in the world. Cockerels were also trained to herd ducks in olden days.
A chicken 鸡 jī is given the character of a ‘bird’ in a ‘hand’ showing its long domestication, however the old form of jī 雞 used as phonetic a combination of adult working with silk signifying a woman in another form of domestication.
The graceful crane is a common emblem in paintings. The name 鹳 guàn is used for both storks and cranes and the same symbolism applies to both. Storks tend to live in wetlands while cranes prefer drier lands. The crane symbolizes longevity like pine trees and stones and it also symbolizes wisdom. It is fabled that when a crane reaches 600 years old it no longer needs to eat. It stands as a homophone for 合 hé ‘peace, harmony’. An embroidery of a crane formed part of the regalia of the top rank of Imperial officials. ‘Guan’ sounds the same as 官 guān ‘official’ and 冠 guān ‘hat, first place’ so can symbolize the wish for promotion to a high official position. A crane is often portrated with a tortoise (longevity) or a deer (longevity and riches). There are said to be four types of crane: white, black, white and blue.
The five birds: crane, phoenix, mandarin duck, heron and wagtail represent the five Confucian relationships; in this case the crane stands for the key deference of son to father. Two cranes flying towards the sun represent ambition. A crane among clouds represent nobility; a pair of cranes represent a wish for long married life while a crane in pine trees a wish for power and wealth.
The character for flight 飞 fēi is said to be based on a picture of a crane flying, the traditional form of this character 飛 shows its two ‘wings’ and a long neck.
A Daoist priest was said to be able to transform into a crane. A figure of a crane was sometimes included in a funeral procession to represent the ascension of the soul carried by a crane. In Imperial insignia a white crane was embroidered in the insignia of an official of the fourth Imperial grade. In mythology, the ‘boy of the white crane’ is a messenger of the gods who helped heroes.
The Chinese name of the crow comes from its raucous call, which was considered an ill omen, particularly if heard when a deal is being negotiated. It is commended for its social behavior, young crows help their parents bring up the next generation. The Chinese, long before bird ringing came along, were able to accurately observe that crows helped their parents in this way; and so the crow is used as an example of filial piety in nature.
The character for crow 乌 wū is very similar to the one for bird 鸟 niǎo , all that is different is a missing stroke to represent the eye, which is because a crow has a black eye that is not seen against its black plumage. The crow is used as a symbol for the sun as a red, three footed crow (or raven) was believed to rule it. A proverb says ‘it is better to be an honest crow than a deceitful magpie’.
Rather than being associated with love as it is in the West the Chinese association of the dove is with long life and fidelity as doves pair for life. It is also revered for taking great care of its young. A jade scepter 玉杖 yù zhàng with a figure of a dove on it was given to people who reached the age of seventy which is why the scepter was also known as the ‘dove staff’ 鸽杖 gē zhàng.
In the countryside youngsters used to attach small wooden whistles to the tail feathers of doves and pigeons so that they gave out a whistle when they flew, just as with kites.
Ducks when portrayed in pictures or on porcelain denote a wish for happiness, especially when combined with a lotus.
The Mandarin duck (鸳鸯 yuān yāng) is so named because of its self importance and flamboyant plumage like the high officials (掾 yuàn 'mandarins') of the Imperial court. It symbolizes loyalty as the ducks mate for life and it is said that when one dies its mate will pine away and die too. Often the mandarin drake is shown with a lotus flower in its beak and its mate with a lotus fruit with the meaning of a wish for children. They are a popular motif on wedding gifts.
In Taiwan the rebel leader Zhu Yigui ➚ was called the ‘mother duck king’ because he was a duck breeder and on one occasion trained his ducks to march in step towards an enemy division. It is a word you have to be careful with in China as it is also a slang term for a homosexual.
The eagle is not a particularly potent symbol in Chinese art, although it is sometimes used to symbolize strength. An eagle and bear together symbolize a hero 英雄 yīng xióng (英 yīng means ‘hero’ as well as ‘England’). An eagle in a pine tree wishes strength in old age; while an eagle on a rock symbolizes a lonely struggle.
A goose is a symbol of marital fidelity like the mandarin duck as it mates for life and often flies in pairs. An old tradition for marriage gifts reinforces this, the bridegroom's family was given a gander and the bride's family a goose. Wild geese are symbolic of separation as they migrate south in winter.
The sage of calligraphy Wang Xizhi is often shown with a pair of geese of which he was very fond, it is believed the geese may have influenced his writing style. A goose was used as the emblem of the Imperial Postal Service in a nod to the story of Su Wu ➚ 苏武 who alerted the Emperor in 81BCE to his false imprisonment by using a goose as messenger - tying a letter to a goose's foot.
The character ‘ying’ can mean any one of several raptors: falcons, hawks and eagles.
The Mongol Emperors in common with the people of Central Asia today were very fond of falconry. Marco Polo, with his customary exaggeration, describes an excursion of Emperor Kubai Khan took 70,000 attendants with eagles large enough to take away wolves.
In decoration they symbolize boldness and keen sightedness.
The heron often features in Chinese poems together with the marshes and lakes it likes to inhabit.
In a painting it symbolizes a path or way as it sounds the same as 路 lù ‘way; method; path’. If shown with a lotus then this adds the sentiment of progression as 莲 lián ‘lotus’ sounds the same as 连 lián ‘successive’ giving the phrase: 路莲升 lù lián shēng ‘may you follow a path of continuing promotion’.
There are several species of Kingfisher in China that are admired for their bright, iridescent plumage. The feathers have been used to create colorful artwork collages. It is a metaphor for the more showy forms of female beauty.
The magpie is universally admired for its intelligence and guile but a nuisance to farmers. In China it has a positive connotation, a harbinger of joy and as such a magpie is used in paintings to wish someone joy as 喜 xǐ means ‘glad; joy; happiness’. If the character is shown upside down, rather like fu, it means happiness has already arrived.
The most famous legend associated with magpies is that of Zhinu 织女 and Niulang 牛郎 where on the 7th day of the 7th lunar month a bridge of magpies allows the two lovers to be re-united. Another legend has a hand mirror broken in two so husband and wife could each take one part, if either party was unfaithful then the mirror turned into a magpie and flew back to the aggrieved partner. This is why magpies became a favorite decoration for the backs of mirrors.
If a magpie happens to be heard while ruminating on an action is considered a sign that the plan is the right one. The founding father of the Manchu dynasty is said to have been prevented from taking an unwise military action by a magpie landing on his head. There is also a legend that he was the son of a magpie. It is considered lucky if a magpie builds its nest near a home.
In pictures a group of magpies symbolizes many good wishes, with an official on horseback signifies ‘multiple joys’. Pictures with magpies, bamboos and plums signify a wish for marital joy. With plums 梅 méiit gives the message 喜上眉梢 xǐ shàng méi shāo ‘may happiness fill you to the top of your eyebrows’. A pair of magpies symbolize marital bliss (double happiness). Rather curiously the character for ‘write’ is 写 xiě in its old form was a magpie under a roof 寫 perhaps indicating that writing is setting ideas in order just as how a magpie makes its nest.
The oriole has a beautiful song and so is associated with joy. The bird symbolizes friendship when depicted in pictures. An association with young female beauty makes it crop up in descriptions of prostitutes and brothels.
For the Chinese owls are birds of ill omen. One legend is that young owls only left the nest after pecking out the eyes of their mothers. Its large staring eyes were considered demonic and its call is frightening. A picture of an owl was used as a talisman to keep away evil spirits.
In China the parrot is only found in the wild in the southern provinces but has been kept elsewhere as a caged bird for thousands of years. For decoration it is mainly used as a colorful motif on porcelain.
Its talkative nature is supposed to keep wives faithful in Guangxi as the parrots were liable to give the game away. It is often associated with the Buddhist deity Guanyin holding a pearl in its beak. The word for parrot can also mean a young girl.
The handsome male peacock struts around showing off its amazing ‘eyed’ tail feathers to a passing peahen.
It is an emblem of beauty and dignity. In the Ming and Qing dynasties the seniority of officials could be judged by the number of peacock feathers he wore in his hat. So peacocks in decoration can represent the wish to become an official.
The Queen Mother of the West is sometimes depicted riding a peacock. There is a legend of a beautiful daughter who set a challenge to select the man to marry her. She painted a peacock on a screen and the first Tang Emperor Gaozu won her hand by shooting an arrow through both eyes of the peacock in the painting this led to the phrase “choose by hitting the screen of birds” meaning to select a husband.
The Peng niao is a legendary bird of immense proportions. Its huge wings allow it to swoop thousands of miles. In the “Divine Classic of Nanhua ➚” Zhuangzi describes the giant bird that dwarfs the mountains. The bird symbolizes rapid advancement due to its speed and size.
The pheasant, bred for game shooting in the U.K. comes from China. There are a range of different pheasant species often with spectacularly colored plumage. Pheasants are sometimes interchanged with phoenixes as emblems of beauty and good fortune.
Some tales make it a bird of ill omen, if it did not call in the twelfth lunar month floods would arise; while others have it over-wintering as an oyster (as with the swallow). Two grades of officials had a pheasant decoration to indicate their rank. It is one of the twelve Imperial insignia and represents the Empress.
The phoenix is such an important bird in Chinese symbolism that we have a separate section dedicated to it; it is is put in the same section as dragons as the phoenix and dragon are paired, the dragon represents the Emperor and yang; the phoenix the Empress and yin. To use the name ‘phoenix’ is bit misleading as there is no legend in China about reincarnation from ashes as there is about the Egyptian mythical bird ➚. In China it was a god of the winds. In symbolism the dragon and phoenix together represent a married couple. The phoenix alone is a symbol of joy and peace, it heralds the coming of auspicious days just like the qilin.
The quail is a ground nesting bird like the partridge and the pheasant. The cock quail will fight like cockerels and quail fighting was common in China. The fighting quality makes them an appropriate symbol for courage and a fighting spirit. They are believed to mate for life and so signify marital loyalty. In a picture a quail may symbolize peace as 安 ān sounds the same as ‘quail’. Nine quail with chrysanthemums symbolizes a wish for many generations to live long together in peace.
The raven is a large, intelligent, black bird. For some reason it is also the bird in the center of the sun (see also crow and cockerel) and this raven has three legs. A creation legend has it that there were ten sun-ravens in the sky creating far too much heat, so the Divine archer Houyi shot down nine of them. The Zhou dynasty's emblem was the red raven. The Manchu people fed ravens in the belief that they were the spirits of their ancestors.
Perhaps based on observations that corvids, including magpies, play tribute to their dead ➚, they are considered pious and by legend ravens built burial mounds for distinguished people. Like the crow, to hear the croak of a raven is generally unlucky but there are some times of day when it is auspicious.
The swallow is depicted as a character complete with a wing; head; body and tail. They used to be very numerous in China as the traditional roofs offered ideal nesting places, Beijing was known as the ‘Capital city of Swallows’ 燕京 yàn jīng.
The coming of swallows in Spring was welcomed and signified good luck for the household. To account for their disappearance in winter, there was a legend that swallows spent the time transformed into mussels by the sea. In Europe it was believed that they hibernated ➚ - some say under water.
Poetically the sound of women's voice is likened to the twittering of swallows and the fragile nest is a metaphor for transience and instability. A swallow may also signify brotherly affection.
Bird's nest soup is made from sea weed and the dried saliva of the sea swallow (Hirundo esculenta).
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