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.

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

Red-Crowned Cranes
Red-crowned cranes


The crane is one of the many emblems of longevity and wisdom, and is often depicted in paintings alongside pine trees, deer, or stones to represent eternal youth. One Chinese fable says that once the crane reaches 600 years old it no longer needs to eat, and in art and literature immortals are often shown riding red-crowned cranes.

When shown near bamboo cranes are an emblem of nobleness or purity. And as they are monogamous and stay with one partner until death, they are said to symbolise loyalty and long-lasting love in marriage.

Crested Serpent Eagle
Crested serpent 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.

Red-Billed Blue Magpie
Red-billed blue 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 Duck
Mandarin duck

Mandarin duck

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

Black Naped Oriole
Black-naped oriole


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

Eurasian Scops-Owl
Eurasian scops-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.

Golden Pheasant
Golden 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.

Japanese Quail
Japanese 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.



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

Red-Rumped Swallow
Red-rumped swallow


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





Spotted Dove
Spotted dove







Green Peafowl
Green peafowl


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