Asiatic Parrots and Parakeets in Chinese Art

Asiatic parrots & their meaning in Chinese culture through art Taaye cockatoo artwork A glimpse

Asiatic parrots in Chinese culture

Parrots have always fascinated the Chinese with their colorful plumage and intelligence. There are native parrot species in China. But they are not as well known as their cousins in other parts of Asia.

Are there parrots in China?

The short answer is yes. The earliest pre-historical Chinese literature that recorded parrots was the Book of Rites(Liji) and the Classic of Mountains and Seas(Shanhai Jing). But, it wasn’t until the Book of the Hans Volume 6 that parrots made their first mark in proper Chinese history.

Native parrot species in the north

The northern native species lived in the northwest mountains, along the old caravan route to what was now the border of Shaanxi and Gansu. The now-extinct species was most likely a variety of the Derbyan parakeet. Derbyan parakeet is a native species to Sichuan, Yunnan, and eastern Tibet. 

Native parrot species in the south

Later in the Tang dynasty, more varieties of parrots were found in the western part of Guangdong. These were the common species of rose-ringed parakeet, the red-breasted parakeet, and the blue- or blossom-headed parakeet.

The parrots and cockatoos imported to China

Starting from the 3rd century, diplomats, merchants, and sailors brought parrots from Indochina and Indonesia.The rainbow-colored parakeets and lories were celebrated for their beauty as “five-colored parrots”. Scarlet lories, rosy cockatoos, and white cockatoos from remote islands in Australasia arrived too. They became beloved pets of emperors and the wealthiest in ancient China. 

Parrots in Chinese cultures and their meanings

1. Parrots as gifts to the Tang dynasty’s emperor

The Tang dynasty was famous for its outreaches and openness to foreign cultures. In the 7th century, a five-colored parrot and a white cockatoo were gifted to the Tang dynasty‘s second emperor, Tai Zong. Tai Zong reportedly was astonished by the birds and ordered a rhapsody to praise them. The scene of the two birds being presented to Tai Zong was painted by painter, Yen Li-Pen. However, the story ended with the birds unable to withstand the cold weather. At the end, Tai Zong sent them home out of pity.

2. White cockatoo as an excellent pet for Lady Yang

Later in the Tang dynasty, the 9th emperor, Xuanzong, and his favorite concubine, Yang Guifei, had another pair of parrots that they both loved. They are the white cockatoo named “Snow-Garbed Maiden” and a beautiful parakeet named “Green Messenger”
Story had it that when Xuan Zong was losing at a game of “double-six”, Yang would fly Snow-Garbed Maiden to disrupt the game. This allowed the emperor to save face. 

3. Parrot as a symbol of a person who lost his freedom

Chinese poets loved using parrots as a theme in their work. These poets often served as officers in court. They saw similarities between parrots and their own situation: they are born with enormous talents but are trapped as prisoners of the imperial bureaucracy.
The first poetry that ever used parrots as a theme was the Hang dynasty’s Mi Heng’s Rhapsody on the parrot (Yi Wu Fu). Mi Heng was a talented person. But due to life circumstances, his life ended at the age of 26. Although it could not be confirmed by historians, many Wuhan people believed Mi Hong wrote his rhapsody on a sandbank on the Yangtze river called the Parrot’s Shoal (Yi Wu Zhao), which became the topic of other poetry in later times.

4. Releasing parrots to show morality

 The second meaning of parrots in Chinese culture was the suggestion of morality. At the beginning of the Tang Dynasty, Tai Zong had to murder his two brothers to get his title as the crown prince. After the Xuanwu Gate Incident, Tai Zong needed to re-establish his reputation and showcase his virtual. To do that, he set a parrot free.

5. Parrot as a talented poet and Guanyi’s acolyte

From the 3rd and 4th centuries, the introduction of Buddism brought along many tales of foreign animals. These tales also included parrots. These Buddhist tales incorporated stories of animals and humans interacting and were translated into Chinese for the first time.
The Tale of the parrots’ filial piety (Yingge xing xiaoyi zhuan) told a tale about a filial parrot. The story started with a pair of white parrots. The father was killed and the mother was blinded by hunters. Their filial son took care of the blind mother by flying out to search for her favorite fruites. He was later caught by the same hunters that blinded his mother.
However, this son parrot was a talented poet and got through hoops of challenges using his poetry skills. He even took revenge on the hunters. At the end, the son returned home to find his beloved mother’s passing. The son’s story reached Guanyin, who later decided to let the son become her acolyte. 

6. Parrot as an intelligent religious preacher and Guanyi’s acolyte

 A similar tale could be found in the Precious scroll of parrots (Yingwu baojuan) and other later literature. Except this second version has a stronger allegorical emphasis. 
In this version, the parrot son was a devoted Buddhist who was well-versed in Buddist Sūtra. The hunters, instead of selling the son, converted to Buddhism because of the son’s preaching. A semi-legendary Buddhist monk, Bodhidharma, advised the parrot to play dead to escape. The story had the same ending with the son returning home to find his mother passing and joining Guanyin as her acolyte.

Interested to read about parrots & cockatoo art in European visual art? Read this other blog post of mine.

Asiatic parrots & their meaning in Chinese culture through art 50 cockatoo 7

Notable parrots arts in Chinese art


Emperor Huizong of Song’s Five-Colored Parrot

 The Northern Song Dynasty’s emperor, Huizong(1082-1135), was a talented artist, calligrapher, and musician. His love and devotion to art drove the development of Chinese art to a new level in the Song dynasty. His highest artistic achievement was his bird and flower painting.
The Five-colored parakeet on a blossoming apricot tree is an Ink and color on silk painting done around the year 1110. The painting is currently owned by the Museum of Fine Art Boston.
On the right side of the painting were Huizong’s inscriptions and poems about the parakeet. The bird seemed to exist in a timeless and airless world. This painting distanced from the usual ‘prisoned man theme’ associated with parrots in Chinese literature
Asiatic parrots & their meaning in Chinese culture through art Five Colored Parakeet on a Blossoming Apricot Tree taaye art

Chen Shu and white cockatoo

Chen Shu(1660-1735) was a Qing dynasty female painter. Born into a noble family, she was one of the few women who earned a reputation as a painter in premodern China. She was most famous for her birds and flower paintings. Her iconic White cockatoo, currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was a tribute to traditional Chinese themes. The scroll was most based on decorative Song academy paintings. And the subject, the exotic cockatoo, was most likely a reference to older tales. 
Chen Shu’s recognition as a painter came when her son, Qian Chenquen (1686-1774), joined the court of Emperor Qianlong. The emperor endorsed her artistic skills and included her paintings in the imperial collection.
Asiatic parrots & their meaning in Chinese culture through art ChenShu White cockatoo Taaye art

Read this article (in Chinese – support well automative translation) by a registered Chinese doctor about parrots in Chinese culture, including literature, art, and jade culture. See this news article about the blossom-headed parakeet, which was believed to have vanished for nearly 100 years in China until 22 of them were rediscovered in 2015.

Materials Referenced for this blog:

Idema, Wilt L. UCLA online lecture “A Historical Taxonomy of Parrots in Chinese Literature: From Mi Heng’s Rhapsody on the Parrot to Prime Minister Parrot”, 2023
Schafer, Edward. The Golden Peachers of Samarkand, Berkeley, 1962
Weidner, Marsha. Views from Jade Terrace, Chinese Women Artist 1330-1912, Indianapolis, 1988


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