The oriental sun is rising, gradually illuminating the reeds, the wilderness, the valleys and waters of the wetlands, which turn from grey to light brown and green to all the bright colours of their nature. The scene is accompanied by the melodies of the wild and the calls of a flock of red-crowned cranes, waking their young.

This is Yancheng, in Jiangsu, China. Its long silty coastline, the rich and diverse beach wetland ecosystem and a vast expanse of reed marshes are perfect for the cranes, who fill the coastal sand flats with magical vitality.

The same scene is played out in Hokkaido, Japan, and on the border between North and South Korea. Red-crowned cranes are venerated in all four countries, where they have permeated the fields of literature, art, religion and philosophy, and at the same time symbolised auspiciousness, longevity, loyalty and integrity. This symbolism has become integrated into East Asian society in the way that the eagle and the lion have become European totems, but with the difference that the crane is symbolic for ordinary people, not just elites. The people of East Asia revere the dragon and the phoenix, but they love the crane. The first two are mythical beasts, while the red-crowned crane resides with us in the real world.

The first clear record of East Asian crane culture is the jade crane unearthed from the Tomb of Lady Hao at the Yin Ruins, being 3,200 years old. Artwork about and tales of cranes appear throughout Chinese history. The first collection of poems in China, the Book of Songs, contains a poem called the Crane Call, while the Book of Changes, a mystical textbook from the 9th century BC, explains its ninth hexagram as follows:

“The crane calls from concealment, and its young responds to it.”

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Since then, many writers and artists from each dynasty have dealt with the crane. The Hall of Supreme Harmony in the Forbidden City has bronze cranes on its terrace. Even in physical arts, the crane is important. White Crane kung fu was invented in Fujian province by a farm girl known as “Seven” and is divided into five styles, all of which loosely imitate the bird’s pecking and flapping style. One style is Wing Chun, used by Bruce Lee and Yip Man.

In Japan, the red-crowned crane is known as tanchōzuru. In Kushiro, Hokkaido, the bridge-towers are carved cranes, the street lamps are crane-shaped, and the local foods are named after cranes. And it is not just Hokkaido; the whole nation loves the crane. The 1,000-yen banknote features a pair of cranes. Origami, New Year cards, sculpture, and famous paintings all feature cranes. When the Japanese opera “Twilight Crane” (Yūzuru) was performed in China for the first time in 1985 it received wide acclaim. The Japanese even believe that cranes grant favours, known as Tsuru no Ongaeshi. The crane was used on samurai helmet crests, like the heraldic motifs of European knights. Japan Airlines uses the crane as its symbol. It is highly appropriate: the crane flies high for a thousand miles without tiring.

In Korea, the crane is known as durumi. It is the municipal symbol of Incheon, and it appears on the 500-won coin. A crane dance has been performed in the Tongdosa Temple since the 7th century. Amazingly, since the 1953 ceasefire, the demilitarised zone (DMZ) between North and South Korea has become an unintended nature reserve because no one can live there. Between two vast armies, red-crowned cranes can spend the winter unmolested, delighting soldiers on both sides who use their binoculars for birdwatching rather than spying on each other’s daily routines.

Why is the red-crowned crane so loved?

First, it is physically appealing. The body is smooth and streamlined, the wings wide and long. In flight, it creates a vision of a cross in the sky, bursting forth and inspiring us. The black neck and flight feathers against the snow-white body are topped off with the dash of scarlet, creating a startling beauty. The crane’s gait is like a strutting ballerina. Its dance is wide-ranging and spectacular. It is a large bird, weighing 11kg before migrating, more than twice the weight of an eagle and as tall as an adult human.

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Second, its habits are like those of idealised humans. It mates for life. Whether flying high or foraging, couples are inseparable. If one is injured, the other will watch over it day and night. Cranes communicate by body language, facial expression and by calls. Their calls can carry for several kilometres. The red-crowned crane is known for its longevity; it can live for 60 years. In the season when the cranes fly south, if you happen to be below them, you hear them first, then see crowds of flying cranes overhead, sometimes in straight lines, sometimes in a V formation. You watch them go, and the “windborne crane cries” grow gradually fainter, stirring your soul, just as they have stirred the souls of the ancients – the phenomenon was recorded in the Book of Jin (written in 648).

Some East Asians are so fond of the birds that they devote their lives to their well-being.

A young postgraduate, Xu Xiujuan, gave her life for them when she drowned in 1987 at the age of 23 having become exhausted after long hours swimming in a swamp to find a lost bird. She was considered a martyr by her colleagues and inspired some, such as Lü Shicheng, to become the great ornithologists or environmentalists they are today.

The greatest danger to red-crowned cranes comes from humans and the impact of human facilities such as lights, vehicles and high-voltage lines on migration. More seriously, the cranes’ habitat, the wetlands, is being destroyed. Over the past 40 years in China alone nearly half the total area of coastal wetlands has been reclaimed, posing a very serious threat to the habitat of red-crowned cranes. Humans pollute the wetlands with chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

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Erosion of the wetlands is dangerous for humans too. After heavy rains, without wetlands to drain water, there would be floods; in times of drought, without wetlands there would be no slow release of water to the periphery; without coastal wetlands, we would lose the natural cushioning barrier that protects us when tsunami hit. East Asian countries, bonded by a shared love of cranes, need to work together to save the wetlands. Red-crowned cranes could provide the cultural stimulus that would unite those countries with a shared purpose.

There are now only 3,100 red-crowned cranes in the wild. The species is endangered. If China, Japan and the two Koreas could work together to save the red-crowned crane and its habitat, the benefits would be threefold: one of the world’s most beautiful birds would be saved; the wetlands of East Asia would be preserved; and more importantly, three Asian races who have so often been in conflict would find more common ground.

Nicolas Groffman is a partner at law firm Harrison Clark Rickerbys