Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Tuesday, July 26, 2005


In Japan the crane was known as 'the bird of happiness' and was often referred to as 'Honourable Lord Crane'. In China the crane was the 'Patriarch of the feathered tribe'.

The Chinese saw the crane's white standing for purity, the red head for vitality (and also connected with fire).

The birds were associated with fidelity because they paired for life.

They were also symbols of longevity and in both China and Japan were often drawn with pine trees, tortoises, stones and bamboo - all symbols of long life. Both cultures also associated cranes with good fortune and prosperity so they are often painted with the sun - a symbol of social ambition.

The Chinese believed that cranes ('heavenly cranes' tian-he or 'blessed cranes' xian-he) were symbols of wisdom - the messengers of legendary sages who were carried on their backs in flight between heavenly worlds. They believed that pure white cranes were sacred birds which inhabited the Isles of the Blest.

The powerful wings of the crane were said to be able to convey souls to the Western Paradise and to take people to higher levels of spiritual consciousness.

The Chinese also saw valuable lessons in the flight of cranes in which the young must follow and learn from their older and wiser leaders.

Ancient Chinese symbolism included the crane with the phoenix, mandarin duck, heron and wagtail as a representation of the five relationships between people. The crane symbolises the father-son relationship - when it sings, its young answer.

In many parts of Asia the cries of migrating cranes were a significant signal of the seasons - crops needed to be sown as the cranes departed for their breeding grounds in spring, while their arrival coincided with the harvest in autumn.

Japanese creation myths talk of a legendary warrior who conquered his foes to extend the borders of ancient Japan. On his death, his soul took the form of a crane and flew away.

Legend has it that Yorimoto in the 12th century attached labels to the legs of cranes and asked people who captured them to record their location on the label and re-release the birds - a very early program of bird banding to find out about the movements of a species. Some of Yorimoto's birds were claimed to have still been alive several centuries after his death, giving rise to the notion that a crane lived for a thousand years.

Another legend records that at Kakamura in the 11th century a feudal leader celebrated a Buddhist festival in which birds and animals are set free, by releasing hundreds of cranes as thanksgiving after a successful battle. Each had a prayer strip on its leg to pray for those killed in battle. This appears to be the first recorded association of the crane with celebration of peace and prayers for those lost in war.

The oldest known use of the motif of a thousand cranes is a 15m (50ft) long scroll by Sotatsu, an artist of the early 17th century. The theme was repeated innumerable times in art on screens and walls. Inevitably the crane's reputation for long life and prosperity became a symbol of good health, and origami cranes became a popular gift for those who were ill.

It is apparent that as populations of cranes declined, artists drew on the work of other artists for details of the birds. When a crane stands, it appears to to have a black tail, but the only black feathers are on the trailing edges of their long wings. Yet for centuries, many artists in China and Japan portrayed flying cranes with black tail feathers. While the symbolism is clearly more important than biological accuracy, it is interesting to note that the symbol came very close to outliving the bird which inspired it.

The crane is not so highly regarded in the mythology of India, where they stand for malice, betrayal and treachery. However, in one legend Ramakrishna, when aged 6, fainted with rapture at the sight of a flock of cranes flying low against the background of the temple of Kali, with whom they were associated. Western Asian tradition tended to follow Greek and Roman writers in associating cranes with Apollo the sun god. They believed that cranes (kurti in Persian and ghurnuq in Arabic) were awake very early in the morning saying their prayers.

They also believed that the brain and gall bladder of a crane had miraculous medicinal power to ensure a long life.

Unfortunately, I lost the link to the page where I found this.

1 comment:

ms_lili said...

favorite fairy tale involving cranes:

favorite modern book with cranes in it:
_Even Cowgirls Get the Blues_ by Tom Robbins