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Happy Lunar New Year! In the Chinese calendar it is already year 4718, the Year of the Metal Ox. Gosh, where does the time go? Weirdly, one of New York City’s symbols is, I guess, technically a metal, ox so I put him up there for visual interest. In both the Chinese and Western culture, the metal ox is symbolic of wealth, prosperity, and success. Let us hope that 2021…er, I mean 4718…brings such things to all of us (particularly to you, dear reader).

Humankind’s association with cattle and oxen goes way back to 80 animals that were domesticated from wild ox in the Near East around 10,500 years ago (genetic analysis tools really have a way of clearing up some of paleohistory’s cobwebs!) Since those days, selective breeding has allowed humankind to tailor-make cattle of all sorts of shapes, colors, and characteristics, to such a degree that it is hard to believe they all descend directly from that 80 original herd of four score. Next week I promise a very special kine post to show you what I mean! Here is a little teaser picture so that you will come back for that post (and by “little”, I mean this is a little pre-taste of cattle-themed excitement: obviously there is nothing little about that bull who is pictured with a normal-sized adult human)

But this is Chinese New Year, and we are straying a bit from Chinese oxen, so let us go straight to an undiluted Chinese masterpiece which celebrates the strength, beauty, and personality of oxen in the Middle Kingdom. Here is “Five Oxen” 五牛图 arguably one of the most famous paintings in Chinese history.

Five Bulls (Han Huang, mid 8th century CE) ink on silk scroll

The work was painted sometime in the middle of the 8th century AD by Han Huang, AKA Duke Zhongsu of Jin. Han Huang is now renowned as perhaps the greatest cow painter in Chinese history, but in his life he was relegated the less glamorous task of running the Chinese empire as the chancellor/prime minister for Emperor Dezong of the Tang Dynasty. The painting was lost in 1900 after European troops put down the Boxer rebellion and occupied Beijing, but it was rediscovered in Hong Kong during the 1950s and now graces the Palace museum in Beijing. Click on that painting fast, before WordPress changes something and you are unable to look at a high-def picture of the picture. It rewards close attention with its matchless bovine beauty!

Whatever his strengths and weaknesses as a statesman, Han Huang was a master of building form with calligraphic linework. In this grand scroll, he has utilized that skill to perfection to capture the overwhelming physical heft of five very different oxen. Yet the painting’s true strength does not come only from the oxen’s strength. Somehow Huang has not just captured their imposing bulk and might, he has captured the gentle curiosity and almost childlike diffidence of the great animals (except maybe for that first ox on the left, who has a very stolid cast to him).

Of course this juxtaposition is the very essence of oxen (to our human perspective anyway). They are the size of houses with the strength of small armies, and yet they are biddable and gentle…or at least they can be! In the west, bulls are known for being un-gentle! I have deliberately blurred the lines between bulls, oxen, steer cattle, kine, and cows in this post because I didn’t even want to talk about gender and number, and I certainly don’t want to talk about buffalo (the Chinese word can mean “ox” or “bovine creature” so arguably I could be parsing out the differences between water buffalo, yaks, bison, and cattle). We will talk about what all of that means later (if at all), but for the purpose of this post it means that cattle stand high enough in importance to humans (or at least to cattlemen) to demand incredibly specific and complicated terminology (I get the feeling that the Duke of Jin would understand.

In the Chinese zodiac, the steadfast ox was meant to be first sign, except it was tricked by the cunning rat. This was not just because oxen are tireless and strong, it is because they are first in importance to people and have been for a long time.

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