Happy 牛 Year!

The Year of the Ox is here! What does it hold in store? And what is the standing of the ox in Chinese culture? Find out in our article all about the ox!

The ox is the second animal in the twelve year cycle. Why second? According to legend (and there are different versions of the story!) the Jade Emperor said the animals would represent years according to the order in which they arrived at a party he was giving. The ox was about to be the first to arrive, but the rat had asked the ox to give him a ride, and just as they arrived, the rat jumped down and landed ahead of the ox! 

In Chinese, the word 牛 niú is used generally to apply to oxen, buffalo, water buffalo and cows. According to Chinese mythology, oxen originally lived in heaven where they were stars. People on Earth were starving at that time, and the Emperor of Heaven sent the oxen with the message that if the people worked hard they would be able to have a meal at least every three days. The oxen got the message mixed up, and instead told the people that the Emperor of Heaven promised them that if they worked hard, that they would be able to eat three meals every day. This was a problem for the Emperor as the people on their own would not be able to achieve that. So to punish the oxen for getting the message wrong, and not wanting to appear to be a liar, he made the oxen stay on Earth to help the people with their farm work.

A farmer with his cows in rural Hainan

The importance of oxen in ancient China cannot be overstated. Family status was measured by the number of cattle owned and a man and a woman of unequal family status could not be married. The vast majority of the population were farmers, so towards the end of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 B.C.), the imperial court initiated the Rite of the Spring Ox. On the first day of spring, government offices put up clay images of a farmer and his trusty ox outside their doors to usher in the spring and honour farm work. Over the generations, this custom underwent various changes to become a ritual of breaking a clay ox. The clay ox is full of grains which scatter when the ox is broken, symbolising a good harvest. 

New Year’s decoration at China World, Beijing

Oxen are the subject of one of the most famous paintings in China. ‘Five Oxen’ was painted on paper in the Tang Dynasty by Han Huang (723-787), making this the earliest painting on paper (as opposed to silk) to still exist. The painting is in hand scroll format (a long, thin, horizontal scroll that would be laid flat on a table to be viewed) and bears the seals of various other famous people who viewed it, including Zhao Mengfu and Emperor Qianlong. Han had a chequered career as an official (and briefly chancellor) of the Tang Dynasty. As a painter he specialised in agricultural subjects, which although not uncommon, were not as popular as the more typical shan-shui (mountain landscapes), flower and bird paintings. It is speculated that the painting may have been intended to promote the importance of agriculture to society. The five lifelike oxen are on a plain background to make them stand out, and each is in a different posture. The painting is currently held in the Palace Museum but due to its fragility is unfortunately rarely on display. 

Detail from ‘Five Oxen’

People born in 1925, 1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009 and 2021 are most likely born in an ox year (though if born in January or early February you should check the date of Spring Festival that year).

People born in the year of the ox are honest, earnest, logical, hard-working, trustworthy, gentle and loyal. They never want to be the center of attention. These attributes bode well for a calmer 2021 when compared to 2020, the year of the mischievous rat. Any career is suitable for the ox, as long as it’s stable, and their calm demeanour makes people born in this year particularly suitable for demanding professions and leadership positions. The ox is generally healthy but may have heart or joint problems and should be careful not to overwork. If you were born in the Year of the Ox, you should be particularly careful this year, as traditionally the year of your animal is considered unlucky in almost all areas of life, including career, health and relationships. Chinese people traditionally mitigated this by wearing something red for luck (for example, a bracelet made of red cord, red underwear or socks etc) and avoiding making big decisions (such as changing job or moving) until the following year.

In terms of the other animal signs, the Year of the Ox will be poor for horse, sheep, and dog; not bad for dragon, snake, rooster and rat; and great for tiger, rabbit, monkey and pig! Whatever your sign, remember that ultimately you are in control of your destiny, and we wish you a great Year of the Ox ahead!

Chinese New Year decoration

What’s your animal sign? Do you believe you are similar or different to your animal? Do you think this year will be better than the Year of the Rat for you? Let us know in the comments below. We always love hearing your thoughts and insights! 

Photo Credits
– Cultural Keys; Shanghaidaily.com


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