On February 12, China and many other parts of Asia celebrated the beginning of a new year. Because the traditional Chinese calendar is largely based on the phases of the moon, this celebration is often called the Lunar New Year. The Chinese calendar is incredibly old and dates back at least as far as the Zhou dynasty, some 3000 years ago. As you may know from those popular placemats at Chinese-American restaurants, each year of the lunar calendar is named after one of the twelve animals of the Chinese Zodiac. This Lunar New Year ushered in the Year of the Ox, but how did the years get their names, and what’s the significance of the ox in Asian cultures?
Recumbent Ox, Chinese, ca. 550 – 577. Earthenware with slip. h. 7 in. (17.8 cm); w. 12 1/2 in. (31.8 cm); d. 5 1/2 in. (14 cm). Gift of Lenora and Walter F. Brown, 2004.20.6. Photography by Peggy Tenison.
The story goes that the Jade Emperor (the divine ruler of the heavens) wished to separate the years from one another, so he devised a Great Race between the animals of the earth. The first twelve animals to cross the finish line would be immortalized among the zodiac and have a year in the cycle named after them. The clever Rat got up at the crack of dawn to get a head start on the bigger animals, but found that the finish line was on the far bank of a river—much too wide for him to cross. Along came the steadfast Ox, who was big and strong enough to ford the river. The Rat asked kindly to hitch a ride on his back, to which the Ox agreed. Together, the Ox and Rat crossed the river, but just as the Ox was about to step onto the far shore and win the race, the Rat leapt off his back and ran over the finish line, taking first place in the zodiacal cycle. The Ox wasn’t too bothered by this and came in second a moment later.
If you’d like to hear a full retelling of the Great Race, I like this animated version from TED-Ed.
As the narrative of the Great Race suggests, the Ox is considered a strong, reliable, and diligent creature in the Chinese tradition. Those who are born in the Year of the Ox are thought to inherit some of these qualities. Not a bad sign! (Though they can be a bit stubborn.)
The ox can be symbolic of wealth and status. Oxen were employed widely as beasts of burden and draught animals—think of them as the semi-trucks and agricultural tractors of the day. They were expensive to purchase and keep, and the difficult work they were capable of made them all the more valuable. The recumbent ox above is from SAMA’s collection of early Chinese ceramics; it likely accompanied its owner in their tomb, where it could serve as a sign of their wealth and carry out agricultural work in the afterlife.
Young Miao women performing traditional dance, Guizhou Province, 2017. Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain.
Oxen are also culturally significant to the Miao people, an ethnic minority of southwestern China whose art was recently featured in the special exhibition Exquisite Adornment. The Miao trace their origins back to their legendary progenitor, Chi You, who is frequently described as having the physical attributes of an ox (such as horns, or cloven hooves). Chi You is venerated by the Miao to this day and both he and the ox are symbolic of human, animal, and vegetable fertility—everything needed to keep a community happy and healthy. The ox-horn motif appears in Miao art, most conspicuously as the elaborate silver crests worn by young Miao women during prenuptial celebrations, as seen above. The ox-horn motif and the dazzling glint of precious silver advertise both the families’ socio-economic status and confer blessings of fertility upon the prospective brides.
This is, of course, only scratching the surface of the importance of the ox in Asian cultures and art! The Chan and Zen schools of Buddhism, for instance, developed a series of ten ox-herding pictures as a metaphor for one’s spiritual awakening. Additionally, the taotie, a mysterious bull-like motif, often appears on ancient Chinese bronze vessels, though its meaning is a matter of ongoing debate.
I hope the next time you visit SAMA’s Asian galleries, you’ll keep a close eye out for oxen and other bovine imagery. With a little bit of cultural background, you may find that you have a newfound understanding or appreciation for these works. From all of us at SAMA, happy Year of the Ox!
Docent Program Manager
Published February 12, 2021