Birds in Shinto and Japanese Culture

ShintoRooster

Daylight had long faded to memory. The world seemed consumed by a never-ending darkness. Despite waiting and waiting… and more waiting… morning never came. The sun goddess Amaterasu refused to emerge from her cave.

The other deities and spirits realized that something had to be done, for an earth without light was becoming too much to bear. These beings, referred to as kami, deliberated on a way to lure the goddess out again. Eventually, after devising a plan, they brought all components into place. The strategy included aiming a mirror towards the grotto-housed Amaterasu (in order to catch her reflection) while roosters crowed nearby.

Soon the great solar goddess, hearing the cocks’ daybreak song, noticed the glowing cavern entrance. She was puzzled, her interest piqued. The scheme appeared to be working. Finally stepping out to investigate, the goddess did what she had resolved to not do—Amaterasu brought sunlight back again into the world (1, 2, 3). The most revered deity in the Shinto pantheon, thus, had been tricked in part by some roosters.

Today these creatures are kept at some Shinto shrines, while the torii, those gate-like structures at temple entrances, are deemed the birds’ honorable perches (4). Although the cock is highly regarded, several other birds also figure prominently within this religion and throughout Japan’s culture.

Monsters, Messengers, and More

Birds are noted in the Kojiki and other ancient texts regarding the history of the Japanese people and their land. Several tales involve a great hero referred to as Jimmu Tenno, who’s depicted as Japan’s first emperor and a descendant of the goddess Amaterasu. For instance, before Jimmu’s conquest of Japan, he sighted a falcon near or on his ship, interpreting the bird’s appearance as an auspicious sign (5, 6). Later, in a dream, Amaterasu revealed her plans to dispatch Yatagarasu, a special three-legged crow and messenger. The vision turned out to be prophetic, for the great kami-bird soon materialized and contributed to Jimmu’s victory (7).

Like many ancient civilizations, the early Japanese also commonly associated death and the hereafter with avian creatures. Archeological remains and artwork discovered at funeral mounds, for instance, suggest birds were considered psychopomps, guiding the dead towards the afterworld (8, 9). In many cases, too, the human spirit was recognized as a bird. A popular story about Yamato Takeru, another of the nation’s storied heroes of antiquity, illustrates this belief. The Kojiki states that upon death he transformed into a white-feathered bird. The exact kind is not clear; however, speculation posits types ranging from a sandpiper to a swan (10).

Other avian creatures, too, continue to remain popular in lore related to death and rebirth. In some circles today, people believe that the dead can return as ravens (11). One Japanese tradition holds that certain individuals, usually Buddhist monks and mountain ascetics tainted with spiritual pride, are reborn as kami-like beings with avian features (e.g., wings and claws, heads of a kite or crow, etc.). Known as tengu, these monstrous figures are believed to reside in the forest highlands where they wreak mischief on nearby hermits. But not all tengu look or act similarly, and some do not resemble birds (12, 13). Also, a few, rather than haunting holy men or abducting children, reportedly offer individuals martial arts instruction. For example, popular stories indicate that tengu trained the legendary 12th-century warrior and general Minamoto no Yoshitsune (14). Overall, while these mythical creatures may have originated in spooky woodland lore, today they have taken off in the Japanese entertainment industry. One regularly finds tengu in the country’s comics (manga) and animated films (anime) (15).

Iconic Creatures

Featured in Japanese art and folklore, cranes abound among the nation’s most beloved animals. At least a couple of the Seven Gods of Good Luck are portrayed alongside these creatures. Depictions of the sages Fukurokuju and Jurojin, both of whom represent long life, include cranes (16, 17). Ideas associating such deities and these birds with longevity likely stem from Taoist influences (18, 19). As noted in a prior post, cranes do figure prominently in that Chinese religion. They also are significant in origami, the centuries-old art form of Japanese paper folding. Custom holds that a person capable of creating 1,000 paper cranes will be granted health and longevity (20). This idea probably accounts, too, for the origami birds’ popularity as a wedding gift, interpreted as a symbolic wish for the new couple’s marriage to be long and happy.

Besides the crane, a couple other winged creatures deserve mention. The first is the cormorant, a bird particularly important centuries ago. The Kojiki, for instance, refers to allies of Jimmu Tenno as folks who fished with trained cormorants (21). This practice likely originated in China, but is most famous in Japan. If you’re wondering exactly how such a process worked, the key lies with a string-like apparatus. This cord is fixed around the bird’s long neck, enabling fishermen to regurgitate catches restricted within the cormorant’s esophagus. In fact, such a method is still practiced today, but primarily as a reminder of Japan’s cultural heritage (22). Then there’s another feathered favorite, the pheasant. This close relative of the junglefowl rooster is depicted as the messenger of deities such as Amaterasu (23). While the green pheasant is thought of as Japan’s national bird (24), the albino version held significance for the imperial court. According to the eighth-century Nihongi text, sightings of a white pheasant indicated that the kami were pleased with the emperor (25).

Summary                                                                                                             

Much has changed in Japan since the unification of this archipelago nation many centuries ago. Just in the past one hundred years alone, the country has relegated its imperial figures to a ceremonial role and grown into a tech industry powerhouse. Commercial fishing is also thriving—but without the cormorants. Yet, as this post attempts to demonstrate, birds still remain integral to Japanese culture and religious life, from aspects of origami and manga to the symbolism on display at Shinto temples.

Sources:

  1. Roberts, J. Japanese Mythology A to Z. New York: Jim DeFelice, Chelsea House, 2010. p. 5.
  2. Sun, RQ. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1974. p. 162.
  3. Horne, CF et al. The Sacred Books and Early Literature of the East: Volume XIII: Japan. New York: Parke, Austin, and Lipscomb, 1917. pp. 37-40, 164.
  4. Sun, RQ. p. 162.
  5. Frédéric, L. Japan Encyclopedia. Roth, K. (translator). Boston: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002. pp. 420-421.
  6. Martin, LC. The Folklore of Birds. Old Saybrook, CT: The Globe Pequot Press, 1993. p. 55.
  7. Volker, T. The Animal in Far Eastern Art and Especially in the Art of the Japanese Netsuke: With References to Chinese Origins, Traditions, Legends, and Art. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J. Brill, 1975. pp. 38-39.
  8. Bonnefoy, Y. (compiler). Asian Mythologies. Doniger, W. (translator). Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993. pp. 270-272.
  9. Hoffmann, Y. Japanese Death Poems. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1986. p. 34.
  10. Horne, CF et al. pp. 60-61.
  11. Hoffmann, Y. p. 34.
  12. Bonnefoy, Y. pp. 285-287.
  13. Foster, MD. The Book of Yokai: Mysterious Creatures of Japanese Folklore. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2015. pp. 130-139.
  14. Foster, MD. pp. 133-135.
  15. Kimbrough, RK., “Tengu”, The Ashgate Encyclopedia of Literary and Cinematic Monsters. Weinstock, JA. (editor). Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2014. pp. 529-531.
  16. Roberts, J. pp. 42-43.
  17. Frédéric, L. p. 438.
  18. Renard, J. 101 Questions & Answers on Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002. p. 23.
  19. Mak, R. “Japanese Mythology”. Bullen, M, et al. National Geographic: Essential Visual History of World Mythology. Washington, DC: National Geographic Society, 2008. p. 365.
  20. Mackenzie, D. “Exploring Origami”. Exploratorium Magazine Online (Volume 23, Number 2): http://www.exploratorium.edu/exploring/paper/paper2.html.
  21. Horne, CF et al. pp. 85, 92.
  22. Gabriel, O, et al (editors). Von Brandt’s Fish Catching Methods of the World (Fourth Edition). Oxford, U.K.: Blackwell Publishing, 2005. pp. 34-36.
  23. Horne, CF et al. p. 170.
  24. Lederer, R. Amazing Birds: A Treasury of Facts and Trivia about the Avian World. London: Quarto Publishing, 2007. p. 50.
  25. Horne, CF et al. p. 142.
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Birds in Chinese Religions and Culture

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The power of Confucius’s teachings are legendary. Supposedly he had the ability to captivate predatory birds with his wisdom. A testament to such stories can be found among the ornate decorations at sanctuaries dedicated to the sage and the religion later established in his name. “In rows along the beams of the sloping eaves stand birds of prey,” scholar John Renard observes at one temple, “for, according to tradition, even the fiercest raptors alighted and paused to listen when Confucius taught.” (1)

Another Chinese religion similarly matches the magnitude afforded to its individuals of great insight and conduct. This time, though, the source is the Tao Te Ching, the ancient text of Taoism (also spelled as “Daoism”). Unlike Confucianism, with its emphasis on social structures and education, Taoist philosophy stresses harmonious action by transcending such institutions. The Tao Te Ching, thus, speaks of the person who relinquishes contrivances and artifice to live in accord with nature. And at one point, Lao Tzu, who’s credited as the author of this book, compares such an individual to an infant whom birds of prey will not disturb (2).

The approaches of Confucianism and Taoism often do not coincide, so their presentations of a wise person’s relationship to eagles, hawks, and other raptors differ subtly. Yet this divergence retains comparable features, which may offer a look into how both religions complement one another, not unlike the concepts of yin and yang. In fact, China has a rich history of balancing multiple spiritual disciplines. For instance, before the rise of communism in that country, people practiced Buddhism alongside both Confucianism and Taoism as well as various folk religions. And over time, such systems merged into a kind of socio-religious amalgam still evident in Chinese communities throughout the world (3).

Birds as a Key Cultural Component

Outside of religion, China has widely embraced bird imagery. Among the 12 Chinese zodiac signs, one finds the rooster (4). An ancient martial arts fighting technique is named after the crane (5). Certain avian creatures are employed to indicate important social bonds, or the lack thereof. For instance, a pair of Mandarin ducks signify marriage, whereas a single wild goose implies estrangement (6). Even the Chinese Imperial Court, as scholar Patricia Bjaaland Welch explains, once relied on bird-based badges (e.g., of peacocks, egrets, paradise flycatchers, etc.) for ranking its officials (7). Moreover, she elaborates in her book Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery on how that country’s fine arts portray arrangements of specific birds, plants, and other animals to communicate meaningful social themes (8).

Overall, Chinese culture frequently imbues birds with symbolic significance and positive connotations. Jack Tresidder notes in his Symbols and Their Meanings that two common examples, the pheasant and quail, represent virtuous behavior and skill (9). Similar use occurs in Chinese religions, too, for avian creatures often exemplify spiritual wisdom. For example, the Taoist philosopher Chuang Tzu states in scholar Burton Watson’s translation, “The true sage is a quail at rest, a little fledgling at its meal, a bird in flight who leaves no trail behind.”(10) The last of these three metaphors appears also in Buddhist texts, as noted in a previous post. The pheasant and quail, though, are just a few winged creatures of importance in Chinese religions and folklore.

Finding the Yang in One Bird’s Yin

Before looking at the most popular avian representatives, consider that even questionable birds are not entirely deemed undesirable and without value. In ancient China, as in many places of the world, the owl was considered an ominous creature, for its appearance supposedly signaled imminent disaster or, even worse, death. Thus, an owl’s entry inside the residence of Jai Yi, a Taoist politician during the Han dynasty (206 BCE – 220 CE), spurred him to serious spiritual contemplation (11). The statesman, however, discovered profound inspiration in the superstitions of his peers.

In his poem “The Owl”, Jai Yi questions the creature as to why it has come to him. The bird, of course, is incapable of speaking. Nevertheless, the poet imagines the owl’s response, and in that answer the raptor imparts not warnings but, rather, wisdom:

‘Disaster is what fortune leans
on; fortune’s where disaster hides.
Joy and grief find the same door, as
good luck and bad find the same seat.’(12)

The lengthy discourse from the feathered intruder includes the lines above, as translated by Tony Barnstone and Chou Ping, before eventually closing with the following statement:

‘Be free and have trust in your fate
and be a man who seeks what’s true
and though the thorns and weeds may scrape,
what can such trifles mean to you?’(13)

Jai Yi is not the only one from this time period who reconsidered the owl’s supposedly portentous nature. Many of his contemporaries apparently did so as well. “During the Han dynasty,” ornithologist Edward Armstrong explains, “ornaments called ‘owl corners’ were set on the corners of roofs to protect dwellings from fire.” He explains that, due to the creature’s reputation as a “bird of darkness”, the bird and its image were thought capable of preventing lightning strikes and the subsequent incineration of buildings. (14). So, although associated with harm and ruin, even the owl was clearly believed at times to possess protective qualities.

Symbols of Immortality and Sovereignty

Of course, owls have never been as popular as many of their larger, diurnal counterparts. And of these, no other bird has appealed to Chinese religious sensibilities like the crane. The long-legged creature remains an iconic representation of the wise Confucian scholastic (15, 16). Meanwhile, for Taoists, the bird is commonly associated with longevity and immortality (17, 18), characteristics ascribed to living a virtuous life. One prominent Taoist was said centuries ago to have resided on White Crane Mountain (19). Today, the recently rebuilt Yellow Crane Tower stands near a site where several legendary figures supposedly took flight on a mythical golden bird (20). Moreover, depictions of Taoism’s celebrated Eight Immortals frequently include a crane (21)—though a stork appears by some figures (22).

Chinese legends and art also include imaginary birds, such as the aforementioned yellow crane. While too many mythical avian creatures occur to detail here, two of the most important are the great three-legged crow of the sun and the magnificent phoenix. Both have existed as emblems of imperial Chinese rule (23, 24). The former bird became a prominent figure later in Japanese lore, as will be noted in the upcoming post on Shinto. However, Confucius attached significance to the phoenix. For him, this creature represented the wise monarch, the type of figure he wished to see eventually come to power (25). And though such a person never ascended the throne during his lifetime, Confucius left a legacy of ethical teachings to guide the future leaders and citizens of his country.

Summary

Spanning thousands of years before Confucius and the first Taoists as well as after, China’s history is vast. So, of course, is its size. From the rugged Himalayas to an extensive eastern coastline, the nation encompasses great geographic diversity. An abundance of avian life, thus, can be found there. The same holds true of birds in Chinese culture. Gamebirds, waterfowl, songbirds, and raptors figure in several millennia of scriptures, folklore, poetry, and paintings—more than can be presented in one post! Overall, avian symbolism in Confucianism and Taoism comprises just a part, albeit an important one, in this country’s myriad cultural traditions.

Sources:

  1. Renard, J. 101 Questions & Answers on Confucianism, Daoism, and Shinto. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2002. p. 129.
  2. Lao Tzu. Tao Te Ching. Dale, R.A. (translator and commentator). London: Duncan Baird Publishers, Barnes & Noble Inc., 2005. pp. 158-159.
  3. Renard, J. pp. 14-16.
  4. Sun, R.Q. The Asian Animal Zodiac. Rutland, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 1974. pp. 161-176.
  5. Galante, L. Tai Chi: The Supreme Ultimate. York Beach, ME: Red Wheel / Weiser, 1981. pp. 15-16.
  6. Liu, W., Lo, I.Y. (editors). Sunflower Splendor: Three Thousand Years of Chinese Poetry. First Midland Book Edition. Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1990. p. 256.
  7. Welch, P.B. Chinese Art: A Guide to Motifs and Visual Imagery. North Clarendon, VT: Tuttle Publishing, 2008. p. 67.
  8. Welch, P.B. pp. 69-88.
  9. Tresidder, J. Symbols and Their Meanings: The Illustrated Guide to More than 1,000 Symbols—Their Traditional and Contemporary Significance. New York: Metro Books, Duncan Baird Publishers, 2006. p. 69.
  10. Chuang Tzu. The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu. Watson, B. (editor, translator). New York: Columbia University Press, 1968. p. 130.
  11. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. (editors, translators). The Anchor Book of Chinese Poetry: From Ancient to Contemporary, the Full 3000-Year Tradition. New York: Anchor Books, 2005. p. 38.
  12. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 39.
  13. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 41.
  14. Armstrong, E.A. The Life & Lore of the Bird: In Nature, Art, Myth, and Literature. New York: Crown Publishers, 1975. p. 215.
  15. Taylor, R.L., Choy, H.Y.F. The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Confucianism: A-M. New York: Rosen Publishing, 2005. pp. 157-158.
  16. Palmer, S.J. Confucian Rituals in Korea. Berkeley, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1984.
  17. Renard, J. p. 124.
  18. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 217.
  19. Liu, W., Lo, I.Y. p. 87.
  20. Barnstone, T., Ping, C. p. 355.
  21. Wilkinson, P. Eyewitness Companions: Religions. New York: DK Publishing, 2008. p. 254.
  22. Renard, J. p. 103.
  23. Tresidder, J. p. 71.
  24. Wilkinson, P. p. 243.
  25. Legge, J. (translator), Muller, F.M. (editor). The Sacred Books of China: The Texts of Confucianism. Volume III. London: Oxford University, Macmillan and Co., 1879. p. 406.