Martial Arts with Integrity

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Episode 7: Language and Culture

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Most people learn at least a little language and culture when they begin studying martial arts.  Taking it further than that has its pros and cons.

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The Meaning of the Double Phoenix Certificate Design

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If you practice a Korean martial art, there is a good chance that your certificates include an image of a double phoenix.  The image is so widely used, I even found it on this attendance certificate:

DoublePhoenixCert

The double phoenix image is very popular on almost any kind of certificate.

As an aside, the flower in the image is the rose of Sharon, which is South Korea’s national flower.  It’s not unusual to find it depicted on formal certificates as well.

The double phoenix image is very widely used in Korea, even outside of martial arts.  It is depicted on South Korea’s presidential seal, again with a rose of Sharon.

South Korea presidential seal

When we westerners hear the word “phoenix,” we generally think of the Greek phoenix, an immortal fire bird that always rises again from its ashes.  Despite the similar names, this bird has nothing to do with that.  Instead, the Asian phoenix is a mythical heavenly bird.  In Korea it is called a “bonghwang,” but it has its roots in ancient China under the name “fenghuang.”  If you’re interested in the Chinese roots of the fenghuang, I highly recommend listening to this episode of KungFu Podcast.

The Asian phoenix is depicted as being made up of parts of a variety of birds, including the tail of a peacock.  With the tail being such a prominent feature, the image is sometimes mistaken for a peacock.  It also has the body of a mandarin duck, the head of a golden pheasant, the wings of a swallow, the beak of a parrot and the legs of a crane.

golden pheasant head

Head

parrot beak

Beak

mandarin duck body

Body

peacock tail

Tail

swallow wing

Wings

crane legs

Legs

The bonghwang is rich in symbolism.  It represents virtue, beauty, prosperity and morality–essentially, the “art” in the martial arts.  Correct training develops character, justifying the “virtue” connotation.  Correct techniques should be effective first and foremost, but coincidentally when perfected they produce a stunning aesthetic, making the “beauty” meaning appropriate.  The “prosperity” aspect was perhaps more relevant in older times when martial artists may have needed their skills to protect their homes and livelihoods, but even today the benefits of martial arts training can extend to all areas of life.  The “morality” meaning emphasizes that we should never misuse our physical skills.  It is no surprise that so many groups find the phoenix to be a fitting image for their certificates.


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