Bonghwang in Korean Mythology

Bonghwang is a mythical creature that has existed in Korean culture since the country’s ancient times. In some sense, it can be described as Korea’s version of the phoenix. Image: An artistic depiction of the creature.

The Bonghwang (also known as Bonghwang or Fenghuang in Chinese) is a mythical bird in Korean mythology, similar to the Chinese Fenghuang. It’s often depicted as a bird radiating with brilliant light, embodying the union of yin and yang. This creature is part of East Asian cultural and artistic motifs, and it’s commonly associated with high virtue, grace, and the conjunction of peace and prosperity.

In Korean art and symbolism, the Bonghwang is frequently portrayed alongside other mythical creatures such as the dragon, turtle, and tiger, each representing different cardinal points and elements of nature. It is particularly associated with royalty and has often been used in emblems and motifs related to the royal family.

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The Bonghwang is usually depicted as a composite of several birds including the head of a pheasant, the body of a duck, the tail of a peacock, the legs of a crane, and the mouth of a parrot. This makes it an emblem of the unity of diverse creatures, symbolizing harmony and balance. The bird’s appearance is considered auspicious, representing not only beauty but also immortality and resilience.

It is also important in other East Asian cultures, where it similarly symbolizes harmony and noble virtues. The Bonghwang’s presence in art, literature, and cultural artifacts underscores its enduring appeal and the deep meanings attributed to it in Korean and broader East Asian contexts.

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Did you know…?

  • In Korea, the Bonghwang features prominently in the presidential emblem, depicted as twin birds. Historically, this symbol was also associated with queens and empresses, underscoring its regal and auspicious significance in Korean culture.
  • There is a station in South Korea called Bonghwang. The station serves the BGLRT Line of Busan Metro in Jeonha-dong, Gimhae, South Korea, and is scenically situated alongside a riverside.

The Bonghwang symbolizes royalty and adorns palace decorations, royal garments, and various cultural elements. For example, the Bonghwang symbol can be found on the South Korea President Seal and in the Blue House. Image: Seal of the South Korean President, with twin phoenix emblem.

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What are the different names by which the Bonghwang is known in other Sinospheric mythologies?

In Sinospheric mythology across East and Southeast Asia, the Bonghwang is known by various names, such as Fènghuáng in Cantonese, hōō in Japanese, and phượng hoàng or phụng hoàng in Vietnamese. This reflects its cultural significance regionally.

How is the Bonghwang depicted in East Asian mythology?

This mythical bird is often depicted in art as attacking snakes with its talons spread wide, symbolizing its role as a protector.

In some ancient Chinese texts, the bird is described as a hybrid of various animals: it has the beak of a rooster, the face of a swallow, the forehead of a fowl, the neck of a snake, the breast of a goose, the back of a tortoise, the hindquarters of a stag, and the tail of a fish.

In contemporary descriptions, the bird is often represented as a composite of many different birds, reflecting its majestic and inclusive nature. These include the head of a golden pheasant, the body of a mandarin duck, the tail of a peacock, the legs of a crane, the mouth of a parrot, and the wings of a swallow. Each element adds to its symbolic depth and visual splendor.

Image: A statue depicting the creature, located at Nanning city, Guangxi, China.

What does the Bonghwang symbolize in Korean mythology and other East Asian mythologies?

In some accounts, the Bonghwang symbolizes immortality as it is considered a resilient creature.

In some East Asian texts, the bird symbolizes the celestial bodies. Its body represents various elements of the cosmos: the head signifies the sky, the eyes the sun, the back the moon, the wings the wind, the feet the earth, and the tail the planets.

According to Chinese mythology, the bird originated from the sun and incorporates the five fundamental colors—black, white, red, yellow, and green—which signify completeness and balance.

In some accounts, the bird is depicted carrying sacred scrolls or books, and occasionally, a fireball, enhancing its mystical attributes.

Also, it was generally believed that this mythical phoenix manifested only in regions that experience the utmost peace, prosperity, and happiness, serving as a symbol of auspiciousness and harmony in those areas.

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