Phoenix patterns in ancient Chinese jade artifacts

Phoenix patterns in ancient Chinese jade artifacts

The phoenix has always been an important decorative motif in ancient and modern jade works, with themes such as "hundred birds paying homage to the phoenix," "vermilion phoenix facing the sun," and "phoenix playing with peonies." It symbolizes auspiciousness and wealth. The combination of dragon and phoenix in motifs, such as "dragon and phoenix dancing together" and "dragon and phoenix presenting blessings," represents the harmony and happiness between male and female, symbolizing marital love, reunion, happiness, and fulfillment. Therefore, jade phoenix has always been highly favored by people.


The phoenix, also known as the Feng bird, is the king of the birds in legendary tales, with the male being called Feng and the female being called Huang. In ancient times, our ancestors highly respected the phoenix. The origin of the phoenix is as ancient as that of the dragon. Neither the dragon nor the phoenix actually exists; they are both imaginary and composite mythical creatures. The phoenix is a combination of various bird features, a bird deified, with the head of a common pheasant, the beak of an eagle, the high crown on a rooster's head, the wings of a roc, the feathers of a peacock, and the feet of a crane. It stands six feet tall and is colorful, graceful, and magnificent.


In ancient myths and legends, Emperor Shun was said to be an incarnation of the Feng bird. "The dark bird is the messenger of the Emperor of Heaven." "The dark bird of destiny descended and gave birth to the Shang dynasty." Among the Yin people's tribes, the bird was their totem. "Phoenix, the divine bird." In oracle bone inscriptions and bronze inscriptions, the character for phoenix already appeared. The oracle bone inscription for "phoenix" is a bird with a crown, long feathers, and a curled tail.


The theme of phoenix was widely popular during the Warring States period, diversified, and often depicted in pairs. There were double phoenix jade pendants, double phoenix amulets, and jade ornaments combining dragon and phoenix motifs. The representations of phoenix were varied, with some being intricately intertwined with other motifs like dragons, presenting pairs of double creatures, such as jade pendants with intertwined dragon and phoenix patterns and jade ornaments like "chongya" and "huang." Most jade phoenixes had circular eyes, and they often had open beaks and curly crowns. The phoenix body would be in the shape of an "S," with some having raised ridges on the edges, forked tails, and some decorated with engraved "ice and water" patterns, "hook clouds" patterns, and "bent pipal tree" patterns. The technique of "piercing carving" was commonly used, with the lines of the bird becoming more fluid and free, displaying a sense of elegance and beauty.


During the early Western Han period, the jade phoenix motif inherited the style of the late Warring States period and was similar to it. In the middle Western Han period, jade bi (jade disks) were carved with symmetrically arranged phoenix patterns, with circular eyes, open beaks, crowns curving backward and upward, and coiled bodies. They were adorned with engraved "ice and water" patterns on the feathers, and the phoenix's wings were exquisitely crafted. Some phoenixes had their beaks holding small insects, and their eyes showed engraved eyebrows. The belly and tail were engraved with regular straight lines to represent feathers. The jade phoenix motif during the Eastern Han period resembled the Zhuque (Vermilion Bird), with its head resembling a mandarin duck, thin eyes, and many feathers on the neck. There were patterns of intertwining branches and flowers, such as peonies and lotuses, accompanying the phoenix.


The Tang Dynasty was a period of economic, cultural, and artistic prosperity in China. During the Tang Dynasty, jade works were influenced by Western regions' art, showing a more secular tendency. After the Tang Dynasty, jade phoenixes became more commonly used as daily life items for women. The phoenix was likened to the embodiment of women, and it represented empresses and imperial concubines. Empresses and imperial concubines would wear phoenix crowns and adorn their heads with phoenix jade hairpins and jade ornaments. At this time, the phoenix motif was often accompanied by entwining branches, flowers, peonies, lotuses, etc.


In the Tang Dynasty, the typical characteristics of jade phoenixes were their raised heads and chests, presenting a round and plump appearance. They had mandarin duck-shaped eyes (combed-shaped eyes), mushroom-shaped crowns, curvy necks, and long hair flowing from the back of their heads. They stood with outstretched wings, exuding a dynamic and auspicious vibe. The patterns were finely carved. During the Tang and Song dynasties, the jade phoenix motif had both realistic and abstract elements, along with exaggeration. The phoenix motif was often accompanied by entwining branches and flowers, such as peonies and lotuses. The style evolved toward greater complexity, and the phoenix's appearance became more natural, realistic, and free, capturing a sense of spirit and charm.


During the Liao and Jin periods, the lines were concise, straightforward, and presented a bold and unrestrained style, vivid and expressive. In the Yuan period, the jade phoenix motif matured further. In the Ming and Qing periods, the appearance of jade phoenixes became more standardized, with a stronger sense of form. The decorative techniques became rich and diverse, resulting in lavish and grand designs.


Throughout different historical periods, the representation of phoenixes varied significantly. Its image underwent continuous changes, with the mysterious and terrifying aspects diminishing, giving way to a portrayal that was natural, realistic, and free-spirited. Due to the rich imagination of artists, the phoenix took on new forms, and its expressions became more diverse, showcasing its various charms. As a result of continuous evolution and development in artistic expression, the jade phoenix has gradually become a symbol of perfection. With a history spanning back centuries, the jade phoenix remains cherished and admired, leaving behind a lasting legacy.



Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.

Featured collection