This June I had the chance to meet one of Fengyang’s best traditional Chinese phoenix painting masters. He showed me his work, and explained the most important aspects of phoenix paintings to me. I even got to try on my own!
78 year old Tu Weiliang涂维良 (I will call him Master Tu) has been drawing phoenixes his whole life. He studied art at an early age and dedicated the rest of his life to master the traditional phoenix brush art of his hometown Fengyang.
The phoenix or Fenghuang 凤凰 is a mythological bird that reigns over all animals. In China images of the phoenix have appeared as early as 8000 years ago. First on jade and pottery motifs and later appearing decorating bronze. During the Han dynasty (2,200 years ago) two phoenixes, one a male (feng, 鳳) and the other a female (huang, 凰) were often shown together facing one other. Later, during the Yuan dynasty the two terms were merged to become fenghuang, and the “King of Birds” came to symbolize the empress when paired with a dragon as a dragon represented the emperor.
The phoenix has very positive connotations. It is a symbol of high virtue and grace. It also symbolizes the union of yin and yang. It is said that each part of the phoenix body symbolizes a word, the head represents virtue (de 德), the wing represents duty (yi 义), the back represents propriety (li 礼), the abdomen represents credibility (xin 信) and the chest represents mercy (ren 仁).
Phoenix painting in Fengyang has a history of over 600 year. Master Tu told me that when drawing a Phoenix seven parts are distinguished: The shetou 蛇头, literally “the head of the snake”, the shejing 蛇劲, “the snakes neck”, the guibei 龟背, “the curvature of the spinal column”, the yingzui 鹰嘴, “the eagle’s beak”, the hetui鹤腿, “the crane’s legs”, the jiuwei九尾, “the nine tails”, and the shiba chi十八翅, “the eighteen wings”.
There is also an order to how you draw a phoenix. While I thought you just start where ever you want and with whatever colour you want, Master Tu told me differently. After sketching the outlines with a pencil, you first redraw some of the outlines with black ink used in Chinese calligraphy. You always start with the head. Even the colours for traditional Fengyang phoenix paintings are set. Only the five main colours 五彩 are used: white, black, red, yellow and blue. The head of a phoenix is traditionally read, while the throat is blue. During our session I got to paint the whole head. Admittedly my white dots on the blue look a bit drunk, but for the first time I have to say it’s not too bad.
I have really started to like these phoenix paintings and decided to try some on my own when I have some more time later. The colours are so vibrant and the phoenix wings are beautifully detailed; exactly what I love. Unfortunately, Master Tu lives four hours from us. I hope one day I get another chance to meet, and maybe even show him one of my works.
What do you think? Aren’t those phoenix paintings beautiful?
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