The dragon and phoenix have been symbols used throughout Chinese culture for centuries. They are seen in most events, celebrations, and in surroundings. Dragon and phoenix baoding balls are particularly popular as you’ll see why.
The Chinese Dragon
In Chinese culture, the dragon is a kind mythological animal representing auspiciousness. It symbolizes power, strength, and good luck. Chinese emperors had dragons throughout their kingdom from their robes and beds to their throne. Being associated with the dragon means a person is excellent and outstanding. Therefore, having a child in the year of the dragon was very much desired.
The Chinese dragon is different than other mythological dragons as its body is formed by a combination of other animals. It has the head of a camel, demon eyes, horns of a stag, claws of the eagle, tiger paws, cow ears, beard from a goat, neck from a snake, belly of a clam, scales of a carp, and a tail of a fish.
The Chinese Phoenix
The Chinese phoenix once had a male phoenix (feng) and female phoenix (huang). Overtime, the words were merged (fenghuang) and represented only the female as dragons were predominantly used to represent males. This also symolized the union of yin and yang.
The phoenix represents high virtue and grace. As emperors were adorned with dragons, their empresses and surroundings were decorated with phoenixes. The symbolism of a dragon and phoenix together also represented a blissful marriage. It is common today to see the dragon and phoenix pair together at weddings.
The Chinese Dragon and Phoenix Pearl Folktale
Often you see the dragon depicted with a ball. It is actually a large pearl and there are different interpretations of what the pearl signifies. However, there is a popular folktale which is told as follows:
Long, long ago there was a snow-white Jade Dragon, living in a rock cave on the east bank of the Celestial River. In the great forest across the river lived a beautiful Golden Phoenix.
Leaving their home every morning, the dragon and the phoenix met each other before going their different ways. One flew in the sky, while the other swam in the Celestial River. One day both came to a fairy island. There they found a shining pebble and were fascinated by its beauty.
“Look, how beautiful this pebble is!” Golden Phoenix said to Jade Dragon.
“Let’s carve it into a pearl,” said Jade Dragon.
Golden Phoenix nodded in agreement. Then they started working on it, Jade Dragon using his claws and Golden Phoenix her beak. They carved the pebble day after day, month after month, until they finally made it into a perfect small round ball. In high spirits Golden Phoenix flew to the sacred mountain to gather dewdrops and Jade Dragon carried a lot of clear water from the Celestial River. They sprinkled and washed the ball with dew and water. Gradually the ball turned into a dazzling pearl.
They had become attached to each other and both loved the pearl dearly. Neither wanted to go back to the cave and the forest. So they settled down on the fairy island guarding the pearl.
It was a magic pearl. Wherever it shone, things grew better. Trees became green all the year round, flowers of all seasons bloomed together and the land yielded a richer harvest.
One day the Queen Mother of Heaven left her palace and saw the brilliant rays shed by the pearl. Overwhelmed by the sight, she was eager to acquire it. She sent one of her guards to go in the middle of the night to steal the pearl from Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix while they were fast asleep. When the guard came back with it, the Queen Mother was very pleased. She would not show it to anyone, but immediately hid it in the innermost room of her palace, to reach which one had to pass through nine locked doors.
When Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix woke up in the morning they found the pearl gone. Frantically, they searched high and low for it. Jade Dragon looked into every nook and cranny at the bottom of the Celestial River, while Golden Phoenix combed every inch of the sacred mountain, but in vain. They continued their unhappy search day and night, hoping to recover their treasured pearl.
On the birthday of the Queen Mother, all the gods and goddesses in Heaven came to her palace to offer their congratulations. She prepared a grand feast, entertaining her guests with nectar and celestial peaches, the fruit of immortality. The gods and goddesses all said to her, “May your fortune be as boundless as the East Sea and your life last long like the South Mountain!” The Queen Mother was excited and, on a sudden impulse, declared, “My immortal friends, I want to show you a precious pearl which cannot be found either in Heaven or on earth.”
So she unfastened nine keys from her girdle and unlocked the nine doors one after the other. From the innermost room of her palace she took out the bright pearl, placed it on a golden tray and carried it carefully to the center of the banquet hall. The whole hall was instantly lit by the pearl. The guests were fascinated by its radiance and greatly admired it.
In the meantime, Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix were continuing their fruitless search. Suddenly Golden Phoenix saw its bright light. She called to Jade Dragon, “Look, isn’t that the light from our pearl?”
Jade Dragon stuck his head out of the Celestial River and looked. “Of course! No doubt about it! Let’s go and get it back.”
They flew towards the light, which led them to the palace of the Queen Mother. When they landed there, they found the immortals crowding around the pearl and praising it lavishly. Pushing through the crowd, Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix shouted together, “This is our pearl!”
The Queen Mother was so enraged by their claim that she snapped, “Nonsense! I’m the mother of the Heavenly Emperor. All treasures belong to me!”
Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix were infuriated by her remarks. They protested, “Heaven did not give birth to this pearl, nor was it grown on earth. It was carved and polished by us. It took many years’ hard work.”
Shamed and angry, the Queen Mother clutched the tray tightly while ordering her palace guards to eject Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix. But they fought their way back, determined to snatch the pearl from the Queen Mother. The three struggled over the golden tray with all their might. As the tray shook amidst the tussle, the pearl fell off, rolled to the edge of the stairs and then dropped into the air.
Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix rushed out of the palace, trying to save it from being dashed to pieces. They flew beside the falling pearl, until it slowly landed on earth. When it touched the ground the pearl immediately turned into a clear, green lake. Jade Dragon and Golden Phoenix could not bear to part from it, and so they changed themselves into two mountains, remaining for ever by the side of the lake.
Since then Jade Dragon Mountain and Golden Phoenix Mountain have quietly stood beside the West Lake.