I made an immediate start on my Fulbright bird-figure research in Taiwan, discovering in my first weeks many examples of human-bird connections in traditional art and popular culture in Taipei.
In fact, on the airplane from New York I found one example near the end of a movie, Legend of the Demon Cat, by Chinese director Chen Kaige. In a culminating scene, a beautiful woman soars on a swing that is shaped like a phoenix. While the appeal was immediately symbolic, she seemed to echo an ancient Chinese goddess. The Taoist “Queen Mother of the West,” Xi Wang Mu, is said to live eternally on a mountain; she controls cosmic forces, oversees the afterlife, and is associated with tigers and magical birds.
In my first pilgrimage to the famous National Palace Museum in Taipei—which houses more art treasures from 8,000 years of Chinese history than anywhere in mainland China—I found several paintings and tapestries on view showing a similar image. In these a “Female Immortal” flies on a crane or a phoenix. A crane often symbolizes long life, and a phoenix suggests divinity, balance, and good fortune. The “Immortals” are transcendent beings, and early texts called them “feathered people,” leading to the belief that they could fly. The Queen Mother of the West, as leader of the Female Immortals, was said to transmit the Tao.
It was the mystery of just such an image that brought me back to Taiwan for my Fulbright research, three years after my environmental project Black Kite Bench in Keelung at the National Museum of Marine Science & Technology. There in the small fishing village of Badouzi in 2015, I saw a temple stone-carving of a woman with flowing sleeves seated on a crane. After researching, I suspected she might refer to the ancient Taoist goddess, and I wanted to know more. I have since learned that this tradition from the Shang Dynasty over 3000 years ago carries on in the common saying that when someone dies, they return to the West by “riding a crane”—骑鹤 (qíhè). It seems to incorporate aspects of both Daoist and Buddhist traditions.
The “Riding on a bird” motif has now become a new focus for my collection of cross-cultural human-bird connections. While Chinese tradition does not have many human-bird hybrid characters (more on that later), I’ve discovered riding-on-a-bird images in museum paintings, at the top of carved dragon-columns in temples, in passed-down folk tales, and in contemporary pop culture and fantasy references. Stay tuned!