|PERFORMER||Katherine Lakoski voice|
The Phoenix is a mythological bird claimed by legend to have regenerative powers, able to rise from the ashes of its own previous incarnation.
In Big Bird in China, the Phoenix is specifically associated with, and referred to as, Fenghuang. This version doesn't reference the rebirth elements of the Phoenix story, but instead focuses on Fenghuang as the Empress of the Southern Skies, ruler of the Kingdom of Mu.
Described by a storyteller (played by Hua Zhi-Ping, dubbed in narration by Jon Stone; later revealed to be the Monkey King in disguise) as the Vermillion Phoenix, Fenghuang could summon hundreds of other birds to help her raise the sun each morning from its slumber at the bottom of the ocean. In an attempt to thwart Fenghuang's duty to her people, an evil demon imprisoned the sun in a dungeon, trapping its rays of light from escaping the dark mountains where he lived. Fenghuang was able to free the sun from the demon and his court of ghosts and spirits by transforming into a human woman who sang a song about the history and beauty of China's people. As a promise to never let the sun fall prey to capture again, the Phoenix appears as the first star in the morning sky, waiting to carry the sun on her shoulders.
Big Bird first hears of the Phoenix from a Chinatown shopkeeper (Arabella Hong), who presents to him a scroll with several clues that will lead to finding the Phoenix. In the spirit of advancing the friendship of China and America, Big Bird convinces the shopkeeper to loan him the scroll so that he may travel to China (with Barkley) to tell this Chinese bird that American birds think that they're just swell.
Big Bird's quest is aided by a little girl named Xiao Foo who helps him find the landmarks on the scroll that lead to finding the Phoenix. Their "treasure hunt" (as Big Bird calls it) ends at the foot of an ancient banyan tree where the Phoenix now lives as a construct of light. Surprised that she can speak "American", Big Bird's request to the Phoenix is to once again take on human form (Lu Ja-Lin) and sing the song that defeated the forces of darkness.
Behind the scenes
In the special, the bird form of the Phoenix is animated using a technique similar to Scanimate over film footage. A collection of photos from the special as seen in My Sesame Street Yearbook 1984 (although notably absent from the Big Bird in China photo book) includes a picture of a puppet version of the Phoenix that was not used in the final special.