Similar to other cultures, in China some animals are given certain symbolism and used in a metaphorical way to express human feelings.
The dragon and phoenix are mythical creatures venerated by the Chinese, and intrinsically linked to their culture identity. Belief in the dragon can be traced back to primitive society, when certain prehistoric tribes adopted the dragon as their symbol and guardian.
Ancient people regarded the dragon as a lucky and miraculous creature, a symbol of power, authority, talent and auspiciousness. Over time it became recognized as a symbol of the Chinese nation.
A piece of Tang prose claimed “A mountain will become famous if there’s deity on it, even if it is a small mountain; a river will become divine if there is a dragon in it, even if it only has shallow water.”
Different physical attributes were added over time, including the head of a camel, the antlers of a deer, the eyes of a rabbit, the ears of an ox, the neck of serpent, the scales of a fish, the mane of a horse, the claws of an eagle and the palms of a tiger. As noted by Li Shizhen in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), in his Compendium of material Medica, the dragon appropriated the distinctive features of many animals to become what it is today.
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The phoenix, quixotically, has the head of a chicken, the neck of a serpent, the chin of a swallow, the back of a tortoise and the tail of a fish. Its skin has five colors and it is over two meters in length. People in different places have their own imaginations of the phoenix.
Fengyang in Anhui Province was the birthplace of the first Ming emperor, Zhu Yuanzhang. It is also renowned for its artistic interpretations of the phoenix, but with a local twist. According to artists there, drawings of the phoenix were presented to the wife of Emperor Zhu Yuanzhang.
However because her birthday was in the year of the serpent, the head of the phoenix was changed to that of a serpent. Also, because the empress was partial to the number nine, its tails and wings were numbered at nine or multiples of nine.
The Chinese long regarded the dragon as a powerful divine being, who freely roamed high clouds and deep water and commanded changes in the weather at will. The phoenix was considered the queen of the birds and made a roaring sound. It never stayed in a place that did not have treasure.
The first emperor of the Han Dynasty, Liu Bang, claimed his father was a dragon. Since then the dragon gradually became a symbol of imperial power and a representative of the emperor. Empresses, on the other hand, were connected to the phoenix.
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Anything related to the emperor or empress was labeled dragon or phoenix. For example, the emperor’s countenance was known as 龙颜，his robe as 龙袍 and his descendents as 龙子龙孙. The empress gown was known as 凤衣，her crown as 凤冠, her chamber as 凤阁 and her carriage as 凤辇.
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