A Beautiful Phenomenon: The Magnificent Rainbow

A rainbow over some mountains.

In ancient China, the appearance of a rainbow was considered an ominous sign. (Image: Tomas1111 via Dreamstime)

In meteorology, the rainbow is an optical phenomenon of light bending as it passes through water droplets. It is a natural and beautiful occurrence whereby white light is split into different colors. To have the privilege of seeing it occur in the afternoon after the rain has cleared is truly a magnificent sight.

In Chinese culture, the rainbow has taken on different existences and meanings, depending on the historical period. For example, it has been seen as the light emitted by Nuwa’s five-colored stone, the symbol of the god of drought, the revenge of Fuxi’s descendants, and the metaphor of the gods’ clothes. Later, the monster from the sky is described as a two-headed dragon, snake, or insect creature, called “Hongni” (rainbow).

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In ancient China, the appearance of a rainbow was considered an ominous sign. Still, in later times, the rainbow encountered by the Tang Dynasty chancellor Wei Gao represented an auspicious omen, a mysterious creature of illusory beauty that foretold impending good fortune.

A rainbow in the sky

During the Tang Dynasty, when Chancellor Wei Gao was in charge of Sichuan, he hosted a banquet in the west pavilion of the county for a dozen guests and their attendants. The sky suddenly dropped a severe storm during the meal, but the weather became cloudless and sunny after a short while. The rapid change in weather was mind-boggling.

As the servants filled the table with food and the people started to enjoy their meals, a glorious rainbow suddenly descended from the sky. It projected partially into the hall where the banquet was being held and extended its end to the table full of food and wine as if it had a life of its own.

Seeing this incredible scene, Wei Gao and all his guests stepped back in fear and watched as it absorbed all the food and wine that should have been theirs. Then, after sucking up all the wine and food, it looked up at the people standing around. They could see that it had a donkey’s head, and its seemingly non-existent body looked like a cloud of red and green that emitted a multicolored light. Then, after an extended period, it disappeared into the air as if nothing had happened.

Seeing this incredible scene, Wei Gao and all his guests stepped back in fear and watched as the rainbow absorbed all the food and wine that should have been theirs. (Image: Photodynamx via Dreamstime)

A sign of good fortune

The banquet was supposed to be happy, but this sudden unexplained presence spoiled it. Wei Gao was both scared and disgusted by it, so he told his guests that the banquet was over and asked them to leave.

Dou Lu, the former head of Henan, was a guest in Sichuan and therefore had the honor of partaking in the banquet. He immediately stood up and asked Wei Gao: “Why does your face look so melancholy?” Wei Gao replied helplessly: “I heard that the rainbow is a demonic aura. Today, this demonic qi barged directly into my banquet when we were in the middle of our banquet. Isn’t this very strange? I feel fearful and uneasy about this in my heart.” 

Knowing Wei Gao’s concern, Dou Lu reassured him: “This is an auspicious omen in the world! It should not make people feel strange. This rainbow is an angel visiting you. If it comes to an evil person, it means evil, but if it comes to a righteous person, it is a sign of good fortune. Therefore, you are a righteous person and should celebrate this encouraging sign.”

He then wrote down words of dedication to Wei Gao on a specially prepared silk paper. Wei Gao was pleased when he read it, and his anxious mood calmed down.

Ten days after the rainbow incident, Wei Gao received an imperial edict from the emperor, appointing Wei Gao as the Chinese official, proving that its appearance was indeed an encouraging sign. 

Recent appearances of rainbows

Many rainbows have appeared worldwide in recent months, with multiple photos of this beautiful phenomenon being shared on social media and news outlets.

Perhaps the most discussed appearance of a rainbow occurred with the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II. According to news reports, on September 8, the day of her passing, a rainbow appeared over the grounds of Windsor Castle just as the Union Jack flag was being lowered to half-mast in honor of her death. Meanwhile, just before the Queens’ passing was announced in London, an incredible double rainbow spanned the sky over Buckingham Palace.

The night before the Queen’s funeral, on her final night lying-in-state in Westminster Abbey, news outlets reported that yet another rainbow appeared, this time just as the sun was setting in the evening sky. The crowd of onlookers exclaimed in awe at the beautiful sight. Not only did these inspire a sense of wonder, but they also provided a sense of hope and comfort to those mourning the Queen’s death. 

The timing and significance of the rainbows related to the Queen’s passing were not lost on those paying attention. The mystical rainbow has always held a special meaning in ancient China and cultures and countries throughout history.

Perhaps the most discussed appearance of a rainbow occurred with the recent passing of Queen Elizabeth II. (Image: Eddygaleotti via Dreamstime)

In ancient Polynesia and several other cultures, for example, the rainbow was believed to be a bridge between Heaven and Earth, and souls who died were said to be carried on its bridge into Heaven.

In ancient Indonesian cultures, the rainbow was used to transport the soul boat into the next realm, while in ancient Greece, the messenger goddess Iris used one to travel throughout the realms. In the Bible, it symbolizes renewal. For example, one appeared after the Great Flood, indicating God’s covenant to never destroy the earth again with another flood.

In recent times, people in the west believe that the rainbow is a sign of good luck, blessings, or hope — a sign that the storm will soon pass and better things are to come. Likewise, many believe that the rainbow is a sign that their loved ones are watching over them or that those who’ve just passed have made their way to Heaven.

The rainbow even made its way into popular culture in the iconic film The Wizard of Oz, where Dorothy dreams of a place somewhere over the rainbow where all of her dreams will come true.

While today’s world is brimming with stories of disasters — from flooding to droughts, hurricanes to earthquakes — rainbows have also appeared worldwide, reminding us that hope, beauty, and the promise of something better remain. 

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