The secrets of the phoenix
One of the four Magic Animals, the phoenix holds a special place in Vietnamese culture.
The phoenix and the dragon make an excellent pair, representing many noble virtues. Popular
throughout Asia and Europe, the phoenix symbol may even have its roots in Vietnam.
The symbol of the phoenix appears quite early in Chinese culture. More than 7, 000 years ago,
images were found on Chinese ceramic objects depicting a giant bird with a well – proportioned
body, and a long neck and tail. These birds were probably worshipped as a totem symbol.
Some researchers argue that the phoenix symbol came from the South, i.e. Vietnam. In his
famous ‘The Records of the Grand Historian’, Si Ma Qian wrote: “In the sixth year of the Rabbit
(1, 110 B.C) under King Kang of Zhou, the Yue clans in Jiaozhi sent an envoy to offer a white
pheasant. The envoy did not know the way back and therefore, the Duke of Zhou had five carts
made with a compass showing the way south for him to follow the coastline back. The
delegation took one year to complete to journey. “The white pheasant was later turned onto a
phoenix symbol to represent a woman’s nobility and beauty.
In fact, there are male and female phoenixes. In the theory of wu xing or the five elements, and
in the art of fengshui, two phoenixes were shown facing each other to represent to southern
direction. Later, the two birds were combined to symbolize most on earth.
In Vietnamese culture, the phoenix appeared very early. Some researchers suggest that the Lac
birds found on the bronze drums of the Dong Son civilization were actually the first phoenixes.
The bird was seen sacred, flying in dance of the universe towards harmony, creation and
reproduction. If this theory is correct, the phoenix was already a totem symbol of the ancient Viet
Under the influence of Chinese civilization, the phoenix underwent certain changes I appearance
but remained one of the sacred animals. It represented the southern direction. The phoenix was
the supreme Yin to complement the dragon as the supreme Yang in the full yin-yang pairing the
Like the dragon, the phoenix is sacred. It possesses the best essence of other creatures, like the
rooster’s head, the swallow’s jaw, the snake’s neck, the tortoise’s back and fish’s tail. Its body
flashes with the colours of the five elements i.e. black, white, red, blue and yellow. It also
represents the six factors of the universe: the head as the sky, the wings as the wind, the feet as
the earth, and the tail as the moon, the wings as the wind, the feet s the earth, and the tail as the
stars. As such, the phoenix also represents the moving universe.
In architecture and decoration, the phoenix was employed as early as the motif. Sometimes, this
symbol is used more sophistication than that of the dragon. The phoenix was used extensively
on the palace roofs of the Ly and Tran dynasties. These designs are highly artistic.
The ancient imperial city of Thang Long (present – day Hanoi) was once called the phoenix
Citadel. It was then known as the Phoenix and Dragon Citadel, and then as just Thang Long
During the Le Dynasty (1428 – 1789), the phoenix came to represent the queen, princesses and
concubines. Even the clothes of court women were decorated with phoenix images, differentiated
only by the wearer’s rank and position. By the Nguyen Dynasty (1802 -1945), the regulation
governing the use of these images became much stricter. The queen’s crown featured nine gold
phoenixes, as did her robes. Other court women wore clothes featuring fewer phoenixes.
In architecture, the phoenix was found everywhere. From the rule of Emperor Minh Mang to that
of Emperor Tu Duc (1836 – 1859), the Gia Dinh fortress in Hue was also called the Phoenix
Fortress. This fortress was leveled by the French colonialist after their invasion of South
Vietnam. In the royal capital of Hue, the entire wooden structure above the Ngo Mon (Southern
Gate – the main entrance to inner city) was called the Ngu Phung Lau question of Five
Phoenixes). Many would question why this structure bore this name. In fact, this was a symbolic
name because the phoenix is the sacred bird representing the southern direction and the gate
The Ngu Phung lau was also the place where the king solemnly received scholars from
throughout the country. At the time, the best scholars were often compared to phoenixes. In the
year of the Dog in 1898, five scholars from Quang Nam province passed the national
examination. The honor earned the province the title of ‘Five phoenixes gathering in one place’s.
In Hue’s palaces, the phoenix is closely associated with women. The Dien Tho residence was
reserved for the queen mother. As such, its roofs were decorated with phoenixes. Similarly,
phoenix are found on top of the Truong Sanh residence (home to the queen mother’s mother) and
on the Khiem Tho Tomb’s screen (at the tomb of Queen Le Thien, wife of Emperor Tu Duc).
The phoenix was used alone or combined with other sacred animals on bas-reliefs, furniture,
gates, screens, and ceramics. A typical manifestation is a phoenix on a plane tree, expressing a
wish for peace, prosperity and happiness. The plane tree was believed to be the only tree on
which this bird would perch. As such, Emperor Ming Mang had four plane trees planted at the
back of the Thai Hoa Hall (Hall of Supreme Peace) and in front of Can Thanh Hall (Hall of
Diligence). These magnificent old trees are still standing in Vietnam’s ancient capital, Hue,
where they shade to visitors.
This article written by Lanh Nguyen from Vietnam Heritage Travel
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