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Birds in Chinese mythology, art and life

PANG FEI, XU WEIYU | 2018-07-19 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Details from the painting “Hundreds of Birds Paying Homage to the Phoenix” by Shen Quan (1682—1760), a well-known painter of the Qing Dynasty


Birds have had symbolic significance in human culture for thousands of years. Studies have shown how important birds are to the human world, serving as an inspiration for many topics from the worldly affairs of politics and economics though to sacred mythology, art and other practices, their influence can be easily found in the early stages of Chinese civilization.


Birds played a prominent role in the mythology surrounding the origins of human among the ancient Chinese tribes. The legends of the Shang Dynasty (1600?-1046? BCE) associated its antecedents with a mythical bird called Xuan Niao. According to the Records of the Grand Historian, Qi, the predynastic founder of the Shang lineage, was miraculously conceived when Jian Di, one of the Emperor Ku’s wives, swallowed an egg dropped by a Xuan Niao.

The Records of the Grand Historian also perceived birds as the representatives of Heaven in a myth about Hou Ji, the patriarch of the House of Zhou (1046-256 BCE). The birth of Hou Ji was a supernatural event because his mother, Jiang Yuan, a previously barren wife of Emperor Ku, was said to have become pregnant after stepping into a footprint left by a giant. Since the unusual birth was seen as an ill omen, Hou Ji was repeatedly abandoned by his mother, but saved each time. Once in the street, cows and horses protected him; another time on the ice, a group of birds covered him with their wings. These signs convinced Jiang Yuan that her son was a gift from Heaven and she finally brought him back. Therefore, Hou Ji was also named Qi (a different character from the name of the founder of the Shang Dynasty), meaning “abandoned.” From then on, folk tales about  birds circulated within Zhou society.

The House of Zhou also worshiped a legendary bird as the symbol of national prosperity. As is written in the Discourses of the States, a collection of speeches attributed to rulers and other men from the Spring and Autumn Period, the state of Zhou began to thrive when the Yue Zhuo (a black-or-purple-feathered phoenix) was whistling on Mount Qi. Therefore, the whistle of the Yue Zhuo or phoenix was regarded as a good sign in the Zhou Dynasty.

The Mozi, the masterpiece of the Warring States Period, further explained birds as the messengers from Heaven. “One day, a red bird landed at the altar on Mount Qi of Zhou, holding in its beak a piece of jade on which the following words were inscribed:‘Heaven orders King Wen of Zhou to overthrow the Shang Dynasty and take over all its territory.’” This text claimed that replacing the Shang with the Zhou was the accomplishment of the mandate of Heaven.

People in the ancient Yue state regularly worshiped birds during the periods between the Spring and Autumn and the Warring States, and held these feathered creatures in the highest regard. As is noted in the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue, an unofficial history of the two southern states of Wu and Yue by the Eastern Han scholar Zhao Ye, hundreds of birds were found ploughing and weeding a swamp. These descriptions, are said to refer to situations in which birds make fields arable after they dig and turn over soil for food. The book also mentioned that Heaven ordered groups of birds to come back and cultivate the land for people in memory of the legendary ruler Da Yu.

Similarly, a work on the ancient geography of China called the Commentary on the Water Classic documented that people derived farming methods by observing bird behaviors, such as weeding in spring and catching pests in autumn.


Birds have been depicted throughout the arts from the earliest times to the present, including writing, literature, music and painting. As the distinguishing marks of a mature civilization, the emergence of Chinese characters, literature and other forms of art are associated with birds’ tracks.

According to the work Shuowen Jiezi, Cang Jie, the official historian of the Yellow Emperor, was inspired by the tracks of birds and other animals. He believed that if he could capture the special characteristics that set apart each and every thing on the earth in a drawing, this would be the perfect kind of character for writing. Eventually, Cang invented a symbol called zì, which was considered the first Chinese character.

During the development of Chinese scripts, a type of seal script called Niao Chong Shu or “bird-worm” was quite popular during the period between the late Spring and Autumn and the Warring States. Even today, it still has a special place in the affections of calligraphers. Moreover, Cai Yong (133-192), the well-versed calligrapher of the Eastern Han Dynasty, stressed that Chinese handwritings and paintings were derived from the study of birds’ tracks. He also drew analogies between the figures of the Chinese characters in seal script and the gestures of a flying bird.

The Book of Poetry, also known as the first comprehensive anthology of poems in China, begins with the “Cooing of Birds.” “The waterfowl would coo upon an islet in the brook. A lad would like to woo a lass with nice and pretty look.” The Book of Poetry consists of 305 poems, 51 of which illustrate birds, covering 38 bird species. These poetic figures deliver not only the symbolic or psychological significance, but also the valuable information and knowledge about birds’ behaviors. As the Analects goes, “ (the songs and poems) will widen your acquaintance with names of birds, beasts, plants and trees.”

Birds’ singing has influenced composers and musicians since the birth of music. The Spring and Autumn of Lü Buwei thought that music might have its roots in the ancient tribe of Ge Tian of the New Stone Age, when music “was performed by a group of three people stamping their feet together and waving cow tails rhythmically. The music had eight episodes: the first episode was addressed as ‘Zai Min,’ the second was ‘Xuan Niao.’ ” It also mentioned that the Yellow King ordered the musician Ling Lun to harmonize notes and pitches. On hearing the singing of the phoenixes, Ling “set the tones of the 12 pitches. The female bird sang six times and so did the male.”


Birds have touched on all aspects of life in China since the birth of civilization, featuring in a wide variety of food, clothes and even architecture.

As one of the most important crops that feed the world, rice was first cultivated in China. There is a legend about its original source in Jiangnan areas, one of the major rice-producing regions in China. According to folklore in Zhejiang Province, it was the sparrows that stole the rice seeds from the God of Grain and brought them to humans. Obviously, this folklore can be traced back to the bird worship in the ancient Yue state. People in Shengzhou of Zhenjiang Province still hold a centuries-old ritual annually in gratitude for sparrows. During the ceremony, rice scattered over the field to feed the birds is called Ma Niao Fan, in which Ma Niao indicates sparrows while Fan refers to rice.

Images of birds have been enlightening for the evolution of clothing and fashion. Inspired by the crest and beard of birds, ancient Chinese made elaborate headdresses and other decorations and jewels. In certain cases, patterns of birds served as a status symbol, such as the diverse embroidery of birds on the regalia of the Qing officials, pointing out their rankings in the Court.


Pang Fei and Xu Weiyu are from the Zhijiang College of Zhejiang University of Technology.

(edited by REN GUANHONG)