Birds In Chinese Symbolism

In China the word for bird – ‘niao’ – also means penis and a bird is traditionally a symbol for a young man approaching the woman he loves.

Red-Crowned Cranes

Particular symbolic significance is attached to a number of specific birds in China – we take a look at some of them below:

Crane The crane is one of the many emblems of longevity and it is often shown together with others such as the rock or the pine tree. Its other meaning is as a symbol for wisdom.

Eagle The eagle is a symbol of strength. For the Huns who travelled through central Asia from the 1st century BC to the end of the 2nd century AD the eagle symbolised the ruler. When the eagle is depicted struggling with a snake, the reference is to the Indian garuda bird.

Magpie The magpie is a bird of joy and a good omen who often brings married bliss or heralds good news or the arrival of a guest. “Two magpies” is pronounced in the same way as “two happinesses” so a painting of two magpies was a metaphor for double happiness and was often given as a way of expressing congratulations particularly for a wedding. Their is a Chinese myth that if a man and a wife have to separate for some time they would break a mirror and take half each. If the woman succumbed to other men during the separation her half would turn into a magpie and fly back to the husband.

Mandarin The mandarin duck is native to East Asia. They live in pairs and mate for life. It is therefore a symbol for marital happiness.

Oriole The oriole is the bird of joy and music and is often the symbol for “sing-song” girls.

Owl The Chinese, like many other cultures, see the owl as a bird of ill omen. The owl was common in burial ceramics of the Han dynasty which was contemporary with the Roman Empire to which the Chinese had extensive trade relations. In Greece, Athens was known as “the city of the owl” as the Acropolis was full of them. In Chinese export porcelain decorations of an owl can sometimes be found as a tribute to Athena.

Pheasant The pheasant is a symbol of ill omen and is believed to turn into an oyster or a snake during the winter months. It is connected to seduction and extra-marital affairs. A golden pheasant will long tail feathers was the symbol of an official in civil service.

Quail The quail is the symbol of courage as in rural China quail-fights, like cock-fights, were a popular pastime. The quail is also a symbol for peace and harmony between generations living together.

Raven The robin is a symbol of bad omen and often contrasted with the magpie, the bird of good omen.

Swallow The swallow is the harbinger of spring and symbolises success, happiness and children and the relationship between elder and younger brother.

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