These two emblems were borrowed from Chinese mythology and are occasionally found in Korean art.
Korean furniture is often adorned with auspicious motifs, frequently found on hinges or inlays made from materials such as mother of pearl, tortoiseshell, or shagreen.
This design is less commonly carved into wood, as is the case with Chinese furniture.
Although less represented in Korean furniture, the dragon, known as “loong“, “long“, or “lung” in Chinese (龍), is a very important motif. It traditionally symbolizes potent and auspicious powers, particularly control over water, rainfall, typhoons, and floods.
The dragon is also a symbol of power, strength, and good luck for those deemed worthy of it in East Asian culture.
Historically, the Chinese dragon was associated with the Emperor of China and used as a symbol to represent imperial power.
The Phoenix, called Fenghuang (鳳凰) in Chinese and 봉황 in Korean, is a bird found in East Asian mythology that reigns over all other birds. In Chinese symbolism, it is a feminine entity that is paired with the masculine Chinese dragon, serving as a visual metaphor for a balanced and blissful relationship, symbolizing both a happy marriage and a regent’s long reign. The “Fenghuang” has positive connotations, symbolizing virtue and grace. It also represents the union of yin and yang.
“A dragon and a phoenix live on opposite sides of a magic river. One day they meet on an island and discover a shiny pebble. The dragon washes it and the phoenix polishes it until it becomes a pearl. Its brilliant light attracts the attention of the Queen of Heaven, and that night she sends a guard to steal it while the dragon and phoenix are sleeping. The next morning, the dragon and phoenix search everywhere and eventually see their pearl shining in the sky. They fly up to retrieve it,but the pearl falls down and becomes a lake on the ground below. The dragon and the phoenix lie down beside the lake, and are still there today in the guise of Dragon Mountain and Phoenix Mountain”.
The story is based on The Bright Pearl, a Chinese folk tale.
The dragon and the Phoenix in Korean art.
In Korea, as in China, the fictional dragon and the phoenix are traditional animals that symbolize auspiciousness. Along with the Qilin and the tortoise, they are collectively known as the “Four Supernatural Spirits.”
Individually, the Phoenix represents ‘yang’ energy (male energy), and when paired with the dragon, it symbolizes ‘yin’ energy (female energy). When both the dragon and phoenix come together, they symbolize love, harmony, and togetherness.
Therefore, the dragon, along with the phoenix, which is also considered the leader of all winged creatures, symbolizes marital bliss. When these two animals face each other, they convey the message of a happy reunion and a good omen. Most furniture decorated with such symbolism was intended for the woman’s quarters in a Korean house.
In Korea, this pattern was often used on Ganghwa island where small boxes and furniture, intended for the royal family during the late Joseon Dynasty, were covered with a thick black lacquer inlaid with motifs using mother-of-pearl, shagreen and brass wire.