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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.

Today (February 3rd, 2011) is the first day of the Chinese year 4709, the year of the metal rabbit. You should go have some dumplings and rice wine and then light a bunch of firecrackers and dance with a giant dragon! If you have any business in China, you should relax—nothing is getting done there for nearly a fortnight.  This is by far the biggest and most important holiday of the year.  For two weeks, the ceaseless seething all-consuming industry of rising China comes to a stop.  Even the meanest factory drudges take time off to leave the manufacturing cities and travel back to the country for some well-earned time with family and loved ones.  When you celebrate the year of the rabbit you will be doing so with more than a billion souls.

The Year of the Metal Rabbit

The rabbit is a mythological figure of great standing in the Chinese pantheon.  The divine jade rabbit is a sage and a potion master capable of mixing the elixer of immortality.  He dwells on the moon with the beautiful and troubling moon goddess Chang’e, but every once in a while he scampers down to earth to perform good deeds and instruct worthwhile students.  In the middle ages he reputedly saved the inhabitants of Beijing from a plague!

The Jade Rabbit mixes potions in front of his mansion on the moon.

According to astrologers and geomancers the year of the rabbit is traditionally associated with the family and the homestead. It is a good time for artistic pursuits, diplomatic missions, and for shoring up the peace (which always needs to be shored up after a dramatic and dangerous  tiger year).   People born in the Year of the Rabbit are ambitious and have excellent taste and fashion sense.  They are frequently financially lucky: their ability to sense danger and flee from it gives them an edge in business.  It goes without saying that they are cautious and careful, never yielding to impulse.  Well—not never–although outwardly reserved, rabbits have their own private life.  You can look to the animal kingdom for instruction…

Speaking of the animal kingdom, this week we are celebrating Furry Herbivore Week here at Ferrebeekeeper (I made the text red since it’s not a real thing), and the rabbit has a place of honor. Few animals are more universally known and more universally successful. The family Leporidae consists of over 50 species of rabbits and hares and, together with the family Ochotonidae (the pikas), constitutes the order Lagomorpha.  But whereas pikas have a limited range, rabbits and hares are found worldwide except for Antarctica (and possibly Manhattan).  The Encyclopedia of Mammals eloquently describes the basic leporidae design:

Leporids are small to moderately sized mammals, adapted for rapid movement. They have long hind legs, with four toes on each foot, and shorter fore legs, with five toes each. The soles of their feet are hairy, to improve grip while running, and they have strong claws on all of their toes. Leporids also have distinctive, elongated and mobile ears, and they have an excellent sense of hearing. Their eyes are large, and their night vision is good, reflecting their primarily nocturnal or crepuscular mode of living.

Together with a quick and fecund reproductive cycle and a taste for readily available vegetation, this is a winning design.  Few families of mammal are more bountiful.  When rabbits and hares were introduced to the continent of Australia, they overran it completely.  Armies of bunnies have subsequently wrecked havoc on the lives of marsupial herbivores with which they compete. It is one of the most disastrous stories of invasive animals in history.

But to the rabbits it was a story of success.  It always is.  Individual rabbit stories end with jaws or talons or steel snares, but the overall story is always a running leaping thriving tale of victory.  You shouldn’t look at one rabbit or hare, you should look at them all.  When you do you will be amazed by the luck and resiliency and beauty of the leporids.  I hope you think about them sometimes as you embark on your own happy and successful year of the rabbit!

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