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  Beijing Scene

Supernatural Creatures

Hey Ayi,
Why does everything 'traditional' in China have pictures of dragons and strange-looking birds on it? I've even seen a few turtles and snakes. What is up with the Middle Kingdom's animal fetish?

Curious Critter

Dear Curious,
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 wedded bliss.

The character for Phoenix is " (fnghung). 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 ʯ(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 ayi@beijingscene.com.

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