The Pheonix and Patriarchs in Chinese Daoism

The Pheonix and Patriarchs in Chinese Daoism

The phoenix, usually paired with dragons was believed to have been a good-luck totem of eastern tribes in ancient China. The phoenix is believed to reign over all other birds and is a composite of five birds with the body of a duck, the tail of a peacock, the legs of a crane the head of a pheasant, the beak of a parrot, and wings of a swallow.

The Phoenix is a common feature in Chinese art, frequently seen painted on Chinese ceramics, in paintings, in temple carvings, and in other art objects such as jade carvings. In Chinese mythology, the Phoenix (Fen Huáng) symbolizes the union of females and males and represents the six celestial bodies.

During the Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) two phoenixes, one a male (feng), and the other a female (Huang), were often seen facing one other. In the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 AD) the two terms feng and Huang were merged to become the generally translated “phoenix”, or “King of Birds”. The Phoenix became the symbol for the Empress and when paired with a dragon represents the emperor.


The six Taoist figures on this incense burner most Likely represent the six Patriarchs related to Confucianism and Taoism. There are two separate groups of Buddhist patriarchs, those of the West with Indian and Hindu origins, and those of the East with Chinese origins. The Patriarchs originated in China is a total of six, known as the Tung-t’u Liu, and are a later development in Chinese Buddhism.

The first Patriarch of Chinese Buddhism is Bodhidharma, he was the 28th and last patriarch of Indian Buddhism. He left India when he was already an old man around 520 AD. After travelling for approximately three years, he reached Canton bringing with him the sacred alms bowl of the Indian Patriarchate. He died about ten years later and is thought to be buried near Loyang or Canton.

The last of the six Patriarchs who lived during the 7th century was the most famous of the Six, known as Liu Tsu, best known by his religious name Hung Neng, who was the founder of the Dhyana (Ch’an) “School of Sudden Awaking”, which is today the only major surviving Dhyana School of Chinese Buddhism which is practised in many parts of Asia.

Referenced – Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

The founding of the Tang dynasty (618–907) was accompanied by millenarian prophecies about a sage emperor surnamed Li (Bokenkamp 1994). As we saw before, this was also the surname of the Han-dynasty messiah; four centuries later, the powerful Li family claimed to belong to Laozi’s lineage. Their rise to the throne was supported by representatives of the Shangqing lineage.

The Patriarch Wang Yuanzhi (528–635) predicted the rise of the Tang, informed Li Yuan that he would become the next emperor, and secretly transmitted to him the “registers” of the Celestial Mandate (tianming). Li Yuan finally founded the Tang dynasty as Emperor Gaozu. These events marked the beginning of the ascent of Shangqing to a status similar to “state religion”, which it maintained throughout the first half of the dynasty (Barrett 1996; Kohn and Kirkland 2000).

The support of the court culminated in ca. 740 in the compilation of the Kaiyuan Dao Zang (Daoist Canon of the Kaiyuan Reign Period), the first of a series of imperially sponsored collections of Daoist texts.

The other four Patriarchs: the second Shen Kuang, the third Patriarch Seng Ts’an, the fourth Patriarch Tao-hsin and the fifth Patriarch Hung-jen. To learn more about these Patriarchs, they are discussed in more detail on this website.


The dragon in China is a mythological creature and has been part of Chinese myth and folklore for a few thousand years. During the Han Dynasty, the dragon was chosen by the Emperors as their symbol to show imperial power with the colour gold or yellow becoming the Imperial colour for all Emperors to follow.

Like the Phoenix, dragons are a popular theme in Taoist (Daoist) religion, as well as mainstream Buddhism and Chinese literature and poetry, they are frequently painted on ceramics with their long twisting body winding their way around a vase or bowl, depicted in paintings and Taoist sculptures as well as being popular features in many Chinese temples, decorating roof lines. They are also highly symbolic in the principles practised in Feng Shui and is one of the animals in the Chinese zodiac.

The Chinese dragon differs from the Western dragon represented in medieval tales where they are portrayed as an angry fire-spewing creature that destroys everything in their path. In China the dragon is portrayed as an auspicious creature, benevolent and powerful, the bringer of good luck, master of the weather and moving bodies of water such as waterfalls, rivers and oceans, as well as bestowing blessings and good fortune, but whatever you don’t anger him if angered their rage can be extremely harmful and can work in reverse.

Dragons also feature in Japanese and South East Asian cultures and have similar traits to the Chinese dragon.

The Pheonix and Patriarchs in Chinese Daoism
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