Fenghuang, one of China’s most beloved historical towns, translates to ‘Phoenix.’ The legendary bird, in fact, has been a part of Chinese folklore and culture for around 8,000 years. And arriving in Fenghuang Ancient Town, I wondered if I’d get the chance to learn more about it. But while Phoenix imagery is abundant throughout the town, I didn’t have much luck finding information about the mythical bird. That is, until, completely by accident, I encountered a sightseeing area known as the Nanhua Mountain Phoenix Cultural Spot.
The attraction is rather obscure, with hardly any information posted about it online. And the Nanhua Mountain Phoenix Cultural Spot is not even included in the Ancient Town ‘through ticket.’ At first I balked at the hefty ¥98 admission fee, yet I was intrigued by what I might find inside. If I wanted to learn more about the Phoenix, I realized, this was the place.
What is the Phoenix Cultural Spot?
The Nanhua Mountain Phoenix Cultural Spot is the first ever park dedicated to Phoenix culture in China. It was created by the artist Huang Yongyu, who was born and raised in Fenghuang. Now in his 90’s, Mr. Yongyu is mostly known for his woodblock paintings. But as you’ll see around the park, he’s also dabbled in sculpture as well.
Supposedly, this is just one of five scenic spots in the works for Fenghuang’s Nanhua Mountain. But at the time of writing, the others, which should include Buddhist temples and a Miao cultural village, have yet to open.
The Phoenix Cultural Spot is divided into ten areas, with signboards explaining the significance of each along the way. Information is provided in both Chinese and English. While some things have gotten lost in translation, you should be able to get the gist of it.
But still, what exactly is this place? A museum? An open-air cultural village? While it certainly contains elements of both, the Nanhua Mountain Phoenix Cultural Spot is something entirely unique. While hard to define, it’s not just an homage to a dead tradition. Its purpose, rather, seems to be bringing Phoenix culture into the modern era.
Walking through the park, I couldn’t help but feel that Mr. Yongyu designed it with the intention of attracting a real-life Phoenix back down to earth.
Entering the Nanhua Mountain Phoenix Cultural Spot
Walking up the lush green mountain trail, the busy streets of Fenghuang all of a sudden seemed like a world away. But turning around, I was rewarded with excellent views of the city and the Tuo Jiang River down below. The Phoenix Cultural Spot, it turns out, provides some of the best vantage points of Fenghuang you can find anywhere in the area.
I soon noticed a viewing pavilion and as well as a platform extending out from the side of the mountain. Interestingly, the pavilion featured a couplet by author Shen Congwen, whose family home happens to be one of Fenghuang’s main attractions.
I passed by a wooden cabin, only to find it empty. The place was largely void of staff or any other visitors. And it almost felt like I was walking through an abandoned campground. Still unsure exactly what this place was all about, I continued following the trail up the mountain.
Continuing along the trail, I passed through an eloquent wooden gate which marked the beginning of a steep staircase. At the top, I encountered yet another pavilion. And by this point, Fenghuang Ancient Town was long out of view. I’d left the ordinary world, it seemed, and entered into the mythical realm of the Phoenix.
Next, I encountered a wooden bridge which took me right along a treetop canopy. Carefully walking across, I could see nothing but lush green forest on either side of me. Arriving at the other end of the bridge, I came across another platform which took me to yet another staircase. And this staircase, I’d soon discover, would take me face to face with the Phoenix in all its glory.
But first, what exactly is a Phoenix and what is its significance in Chinese culture?
The Phoenix in Chinese Culture
Referred to as ‘the King of the Birds,’ the Phoenix has been worshipped in China for around 8,000 years, historians believe. Associated with both the elements of wind and fire, the Phoenix is a kind bird, renowned for its integrity, honor and sense of justice.
In Chinese folklore, the Phoenix is a composite of other birds like the peacock, pheasant and crane.
According to one legend, the Phoenix (then a relatively ordinary bird) once took the time to gather and store various fruits and seeds that fell from the trees as the other birds were eating.
Later, during a period of drought, the Phoenix generously gifted what it had stored to the other birds. Grateful, the other birds gifted the Phoenix with some of their own feathers in return. A famous classical music piece called ‘100 Birds Pay Homage to the Phoenix’ recalls this scene.
In ancient times, Phoenixes were commonly depicted in pairs. One for male yang energy and the other for female yin. It was only during the Yuan dynasty (13th – 14th centuries), however, that the male phoenix was replaced by a dragon. Artwork featuring both a dragon and a Phoenix, which symbolizes the Emperor and Empress, has been incredibly popular in China ever since.
Traditionally, Phoenix worshippers have believed that one day, the Phoenix will once again reappear on earth. And this event is supposed to trigger a new era of world peace and prosperity.
In Chinese mythology, the Phoenix is closely linked with the number nine. It lives in the ninth (and uppermost) layer of heaven, while in some ancient depictions, the Phoenix even has nine heads. Nine has traditionally been a highly auspicious number in Chinese culture. It’s the largest of the odd numbers which are associated with expansive and active yang energy.
As such, the number has been interwoven into many of the scenic area’s landmarks. The ‘Jiujiu Heaven Steps’ leading up to the highest level, for example, contain 99 steps. And on either side, the staircase is flanked by 9 totem columns. Looking closely, you’ll notice various types of birds carved into each.
Native American tribes were not the only culture with totem poles. The ancient Chinese had them, too. And thousands of years ago, when Chinese tribes were primarily animist and shamanistic, a group of people would choose an animal they identified with most, carving its likeness into various objects.
The Phoenix Palace & Museum
After climbing up all 99 steps, I finally arrived at the central area of the park – the Phoenix Palace. There, in the center of a spacious terrace, stood a large statue of a Phoenix which towered over its surroundings. And all around the edges were 18 more bird totems.
According to the sign, each one represents particular qualities of the Phoenix. They are: “beauty, prosperity, reaching up to the heavens, flying towards the sun, controlling of the wind, integrity, justice, courtesy, benevolence, honesty, intelligence, loftiness, purity, self-renewal, kindness, talent and becoming an emperor.”
Also around the Phoenix Palace, I noticed a number of women wearing traditional Miao and Tujia dress. Apparently, there are occasionally ceremonies or performances held in front of the Phoenix. It’s not clear at which time or how often they happen, but it seemed like the women were preparing for a dress rehearsal. As the lone tourist there, they were pretty surprised to see me, but gave me a friendly greeting.
The main image in the Phoenix Palace is a 9.9-meter high copper statue. The sculpture was designed by Huang Yongyu, the mastermind behind the park itself. The Phoenix is standing on top of a tiger, while there are also antlers coming out from either side of it. The statue, therefore, represents a composite of three different animals that were all important to the ancient inhabitants of this land.
The sculpture, though, is not an original design. It’s merely a larger replica of a relic unearthed from a Chu-era tomb. And visitors can even go see the original just behind the main statue itself.
What was the Chu Kingdom?
The Chu Kingdom flourished from around the 8th – 3rd centuries BC. At their peak, they controlled a large territory that encompassed much of southern China, stretching from present-day Hunan, all the way to Shanghai.
In their early days, they were involved with numerous conflicts against the imperial Shang and Zhou dynasties. And they remained largely autonomous for much of their history. Eventually, Chu culture would go on to greatly influence the dominant culture of the Han dynasty. It was this fusion of Chu and Han cultures, in fact, that would go on to form what we now refer to as ‘Chinese culture.’
Chu people largely practiced a mix of Taoism and shamanism. And as mentioned, they paid special reverence to the Phoenix. According to their own mythology, their people could trace their roots back to both the sky and fire gods. As the Phoenix was associated with both elements, it’s no wonder why it was such an important symbol to the Chu.
The Chu were known for their intricate bronze work. And they also commonly depicted the Phoenix. While Phoenix art was also common in the north at the time, the Phoenix as portrayed by the Chu took on a particularly elegant and exotic form.
Behind the main statue is a small museum containing a wide variety of Phoenix relics unearthed throughout former Chu territory. In the central hallway, I came across the original relic used as the model for the large Phoenix statue. While it wasn’t uncovered here, it was presented laying within in a replica of the tomb in which it was originally found.
Also in the central hallway was a standing Phoenix with antlers, and a bronze drum in between a pair of Phoenixes, both standing atop tigers.
Inside, meanwhile, I found a collection of Chu bronze pieces and other ancient artwork depicting the Phoenix. They included jade carvings as well as ancient eaves tiles. Eaves tiles first emerged thousands of years ago during the Zhou dynasty as a way to decorate the ends of rafters.
The museum, unfortunately, completely lacked any English signage. Thankfully, though, I’d already seen a fair amount of Chu artwork at the Hunan Provincial Museum in Changsha, so I at least had some idea of what I was looking at.
Also on display along the museum walls were a group of four circular tiles representing the ‘Four Celestial Animals’ of Chinese mythology. The animals represent different seasons, colors and Taoist elements. They include the tiger, tortoise (with a snake), dragon and bird. Contrary to popular belief, however, this bird is not actually a Phoenix, but a similar-looking bird called a ‘Suzaku.’
The Fountain & The Forest
Exiting the museum, there was still more to see. According to legend, says the signboard, the Phoenix solely subsists on seeds and ‘liquan’ (醴泉), or natural spring water. Appropriately, the Nanhua Mountain Phoenix Cultural Spot has its own natural spring.
At one end of a circular brick structure, I noticed water coming out of a small bamboo spout. Visitors are free to take a sip, but it was almost as if the space was designated for the mythical bird itself.
Next I encountered a series of five gates representing five morals of Confucianism: Benevolence, Justice, Courtesy, Wisdom and Trust. They took me slightly downhill to the area the park calls the ‘Wish-Making Forest.’ This enchanting section was entirely decorated in red parasols, while there were strings tied around the trees from which people could hang their wishes.
There were also a number of wooden structures like a gift shop and a cafe (both closed) and a large, multilevel cabin. The area, however, was completely devoid of staff members, and there was no indication of when these things are normally open. It felt nice, at least, to have the whole place to myself.
The last section of the park was the ‘Wind-Riding Plank Road.’ According to legend, the Phoenix rides the wind while the dragon rides atop clouds. The elevated walkway, then, was designed to make visitors feel as if they’re gliding through the air alongside the Phoenix.
At the end of the walkway, I encountered a staircase taking me to yet another area. There was a swinging door which easily opened, and on the other side I came across some type of memorial obelisk. Apparently, however, this was not part of the park! I was immediately scolded in Chinese by a nearby guard, and I ended up walking down the same way I came. And so I passed by the Phoenix one more time before descending back down to bustling Fenghuang.
You can find the entrance to the Nanhua Mountain Phoenix Cultural Spot off of the southern section of Hongqiao Rd (south and west of the river). The ticket kiosk is on the ground level, while just next to it is a staircase taking you to the entrance of the park. All in all, a slow walk through the park shouldn’t take more than 90 minutes or so.
As mentioned above, a ticket costs ¥98 (roughly $14 USD) and the attraction is NOT included in the Fenghuang Ancient Town ‘through ticket.’
So, is the price worth it?
Honestly, while I really enjoyed the park and don’t regret going, ¥98 RMB is pretty unreasonable. Compare this with the ¥168 through ticket which includes a multitude of attractions in town in addition to the Southern Great Wall. While it’s possible that the Nanhua Mountain area is managed by a completely different entity, it would be nice to see the Phoenix Cultural Spot be included in the through ticket sometime in the future.
Another negative aspect of the park was the fact that many areas seemed to be closed. There were hardly any staff on hand other than the ticket checker, so it was unclear where my ¥98 was going. And at the time of my visit, there was no signage indicating when things are supposed to be open.
But all in all, if you have the money to spend, like being in nature and are interested in traditional Chinese culture, you’ll surely enjoy the Nanhua Mountain Phoenix Cultural Spot. It’s a truly unique concept that I would like to see more of around the country. It was well designed and didn’t feel kitschy or gimmicky.
If you’re still hesitant to spend the cash, then hopefully you still learned some things about the Phoenix and its relevance to the Fenghuang area in the article above.
Fenghuang can be reached by bus from most other major cities in Hunan Province. In addition to Changsha and Zhangjiajie City, you can even ride there directly from Wulingyuan (right by Zhangjiajie National Forest Park). From Wulingyuan, though, there are just a couple of buses leaving each day.
The bus station is some distance away from the Ancient Town and it’s too far of a walk, unless you’ve packed very lightly. To get there, you’ll need to either take a bus or a taxi. Lookout for buses 1A or 6 to get you to the Ancient Town. As the Ancient Town itself is pedestrian only, you’ll get dropped off somewhere outside of it. If you don’t speak Chinese, be sure to have a VPN with Google Maps or download an offline map application like Maps.me.
Taxis should cost around ¥15 RMB, but you’re unlikely to get this rate with the drivers waiting around at the station. As soon as you arrive in Fenghuang, be prepared to encounter a group of taxi drivers all too eager to rip you off. It’s better to head out to the street and flag one down yourself.
There’s plenty of accommodation along the river. However, before my trip, I read about how noisy it would get at night due to all the bars and nightclubs (yes, some government officials had the bright idea to turn Fenghuang into a party town).
I stayed at Hemu House (formerly known as Fenghuang More Inn) near Phoenix Square which I would definitely recommend. It was very quiet at night, while it was an easy walking distance to most of the attractions in the Ancient Town area.
What’s more, is that it was also located nearby the edge of the Ancient Town, making it easy to walk into the modern city for a bite to eat or to do some shopping. It was also relatively nearby the bus stop to take you to the main bus station.
I must say, though, that as I walked along the riverside and saw hotel guests seated out on their balconies looking out over the water, I got a little jealous. Should I ever visit Fenghuang again in the future, I’d definitely give the riverside a shot.
As you may or may not be aware, a bunch of major web sites are completely blocked in China. This includes Google, YouTube and social media sites like Facebook. Not only can this be a huge annoyance, but not being able to access your Gmail account or use Google Maps could even cause major problems during your trip.
That is, unless, you have a VPN.
VPN stands for Virtual Private Network. Using one allows you to access the internet via servers in a variety of international locations. Therefore, when traveling in China, you can access the internet through a server in Taiwan or Hong Kong (or anywhere, really) and suddenly start using Google and social media apps like normal again.
I’ve tried out a couple of different companies over the course of multiple trips, and have found ExpressVPN to be the most reliable.
The actual use of VPN’s in China isn’t illegal in itself. However, the Chinese government will often make things difficult for certain VPN companies, and some services may stop working for you out of the blue. That’s why it’s important to go for the most reliable VPN, and ExpressVPN is widely regarded as the best to use in China.