Year of the Phoenix? —by Jinny Batterson
During the shortest days of the year for the past several years, an exhibit of lighted figures has come to our town—a multi-acre display of LED-illumined silk lanterns produced in the Chinese city of Zigong, in Sichuan province. Zigong’s artisans have long crafted lanterns for Chinese festivals. In recent decades they’ve gained global fame for their beautiful handiwork. Increasing numbers of U.S. cities are using winter-dormant park spaces to mount both static and interactive displays.
Our town’s display centerpiece is near the shore of a multi-acre lake: until this year a magnificent dragon (shown in a previous post—https://jinnyoccasionalpoems.com/2018/01/03/chinese-lantern-festival-an-american-version/). When I attended this year’s event just before (western) New Year, I wondered, as I wandered down a slope decorated with shapes of real and mythical animals, if the dragon had taken its accustomed place. No dragon, not this year. Instead, an equally impressive floating display of a mythical phoenix, complete with pulsing lights going from head to tail.
The night I saw the display, the weather was fairly mild for late December. Attendees from multiple cultural traditions mingled and oohed and aahed at the depiction of the fabulous bird. A little research about legends of the phoenix show the magic bird as a staple in the mythology of multiple civilizations, including Egyptian, Greek, and Chinese:
“In Asia the phoenix reigns over all the birds, and is the symbol of the Chinese Empress and feminine grace, as well as the sun and the south. The sighting of the phoenix is a good sign that a wise leader has ascended to the throne and a new era has begun. It was representative of Chinese virtues: goodness, duty, propriety, kindness and reliability. Palaces and temples are guarded by ceramic protective beasts, all led by the phoenix.” ( https://www.ancient-origins.net/myths-legends/ancient-symbolism-magical-phoenix-002020; accessed 2020/03/27)
When our town’s lantern display was packed up for return to Zigong in mid-January, it was nearly time for Chinese New Year (or “Spring Festival,” celebrated in 2020 starting on January 25). The upcoming Chinese year would start another cycle of the 12-animal Chinese zodiac, which includes the dragon, along with eleven other real-life animals (in sequence: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig). So far, the phoenix has not become part of the Chinese zodiac, though the mythic bird is often considered the feminine counterpart to the masculine dragon.
Now that covid-19 has become a global pandemic, I’ve been asked, like more and more people all over the world, to self-isolate at home to reduce the speed of the virus’s spread, allowing health care systems time to adapt by “flattening the curve” of new infections. If I’m a bit bored, it’s a small price to pay for a larger social good. The next generation in our family includes two members of hospital medical staffs, and their safety is a big concern.
This enforced time at home gives me license to engage in reveries about the mythical bird. Many legends of the phoenix depict it as an extremely long-lived creature who senses approaching death, builds her own funeral pyre, and then dies in fiery majesty. Shortly afterwards, the next generation of phoenix rises from the ashes.
What might the symbol of the phoenix mean as 2020 begins with a global pandemic—the death of an overly competitive ethos and the dawning of an age of more thorough global cooperation? a rethinking of our interlocking systems of education, health care, corrections, and social welfare? a reining in of our preoccupation with material wealth? renewed reverence for the natural world that supports us all?
Let’s hope that 2020 will turn out to be a year of the phoenix.
Phoenix lantern at NC Chinese Lantern Festival