The animal kingdom plays an important part in Chinese
culture, and not just as food on the table. So it is
rewarding to see someone take an interest in this phenomenon.
Long before your Ayi's time, Chinese
tradition classified all animals into four categories,
each group represented by a mythological beast. Scaly
animals like fish and snakes were symbolized by a Dragon.
Feathered animals were depicted as a Phoenix. Furry
animals like cats and dogs were represented by a Unicorn,
and shelled animals by a Tortoise. The Dragon, Phoenix,
Unicorn and Tortoise were considered 'supernatural creatures,'
with the Dragon leading the pack.
The Chinese dragon has long been
regarded as a fair and nice guy, not a maiden-eating,
fire-breathing menace as portrayed in the West. Traditionally,
the Dragon symbolizes fertility, and the powers of Heaven.
However, early rulers of China designated dragons as
emblems of Imperial power. Pictures of dragons came
to mark success, wealth and importance. Dragons are
often shown chasing a pearl, or the 'Pearl of Potentiality,'
believed to be a piece of the moon.
The Phoenix, that strange-looking
bird, is one of the most sacred creatures in Chinese
myth. According to legend, the fantasy fowl is said
to have the front of a swan, the back of a unicorn,
the throat of a swallow, the bill of a chicken, the
neck of a snake, the stripes of a dragon and the arched
back of a tortoise. Talk about an identity crisis! The
Phoenix has long symbolized the feminine spirit. In
fact, Ayi was considering getting a tattoo of one before
every floozy in Beijing did it first. This flashy big
bird is often seen hanging out with her male counterpart,
the Dragon. The expression, Dragon and Phoenix, means
The character for Phoenix is Ě´"╦
(fĆnghuçng). These characters represent male and female,
together indicating sex. A number of Chinese phrases
use the Phoenix referring to sexuality. For example:
'false male and empty phoenix,' which in layman's terms
means homosexuality. There is also the idiom 'phoenixes
dancing in pairs,' one of 30 traditional Chinese sexual
positions and a personal favorite of your Ayi.
The Chinese unicorn, the Qilin, is
said to be able to distinguish the guilty from the innocent.
It aided Gao Yao, judge to the Emperor Xun, by goring
a guilty party with its horn. The Qilin has the body
of a deer, the tail of an ox, hooves of a horse and
a single horn. However, often the Chinese unicorn has
three or more horns. It was traditionally believed that
burning the Qilin's horn like a torch and then staring
into an illuminated bowl of water would reveal the future.
The appearance of the Qilin also indicates the reign
of a just emperor.
As tortoises generally live long
lives, these shelled creatures symbolize longevity and
steadfastness. Tortoise designs were often carved at
the top of grave pillars to honor the eternal spirits
of the deceased. Emperors would place inscription tablets
on the backs of tortoises to imply their words were
meant to stand the test of time. Large stone Chinese
tablets or steles (sh'b'i ╩»▒(r)), which you still see
around today, were often placed on the backs of tortoises.
Moreover, tortoises are sometimes looked upon as physical
representations of Heaven and Earth, the shell symbolizing
Heaven and the underside Earth.
But the tortoise can also symbolize
immorality. The phrase 'black tortoise' once meant 'pimp,'
while 'tortoise master' was another way of calling someone
a 'father of a whore.'
These four superbeasts have counterparts
called the 'Five Noxious Creatures,' embodiments of
the five evils. The Snake, Toad, Scorpion, Gecko and
Centipede have traditionally symbolized bribery and
corruption; tax evasion; misappropriation of state property;
poor workmanship and theft of state economic information.
The five noxious animals were not always known for being
evil. At one point snakes were an object of worship
as they were believed to be clever. Being chased by
a snake in a dream was a sign of good luck.
Traditionally the gecko marked protection.
The shape of a gecko was considered a litmus test to
gauge a woman's sexual activeness. Before going on long
journeys, men would paint geckos on the lower part of
their wives' bodies. They believed if the wife was unfaithful
then the gecko would disappear. The Gecko was also used
as a 'guardian of the palace.' A gecko was put in a
pot and fed cinnabar powder for one year. Then the whole
thing was smashed. This mixture of powder and gecko
was spread on the arm of a girl destined for the Imperial
court. The mark was supposed to vanish if the girl had
already lost her virginity.
Luckily in Ayi's day this was not
the practice. Good girls were told to keep copies of
the Classics between their legs and hold them there
until they were married. No book, no good.
So Curious, I hope that addresses
some of your questions about animals. And if you're
looking for some pointers on 'Phoenixes Dancing in Pairs,'
just contact Ayi's Escort Service at firstname.lastname@example.org.