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Year-of-the-SheepToday is Chinese New Year! Happy Year of the Ram! This is a controversial zodiac year—at least during this era. For one thing, it is unclear whether the ancient Chinese character representing this year’s zodiac sign should be translated as ram, sheep, or goat. Although sheep are herded in the northwestern grasslands of China, they are far less prevalent than goats. Throughout the rest of East Asia the distinction is clearer: Vietnam celebrates the year of the goat; whereas Japan is emphatically in the sheep camp. However in China, the exact animal varies by region. Here at Ferrebeekeeper it is sheep week, so we are going to go with sheep—but we are going to say “ram” (a horned adult male sheep) so that everyone recognizes we are dealing with a horned caprid of some textual ambiguity.

Can't we all just get along?

Can’t we all just get along?

There is an additional problem: in contemporary China the sheep is regarded as one of the worst of all zodiac signs. The virtues associated with a sheep personality are not currently en vogue in venal laissez-faire China. People born in the year of the ram are said to be gentle, compassionate, kind-hearted, and artistic. These were not necessarily considered bad attributes in classical China, but in today’s mercenary world of slippery business deals they are equated with weakness. The newspapers are filled with articles foretelling a dearth of newborns in 2015 as expectant mothers skip having babies to wait for more predatory zodiac creatures.

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The trouble has been compounded by the chief executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, an unpopular communist-appointed mandarin who has been attempting to quell the restive island by a wide variety of techniques. His most recent attempt to quash conflicting voices was a New Year’s exhortation to be more like the biddable sheep. Leung stated:

Sheep are widely seen to be mild and gentle animals living peacefully in groups…Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts. In the coming year I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep’s character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong’s future.

The phrasing takes on a particularly sinister bent considering that Leung Chun-ying is universally (and completely unofficially!) known as “the wolf”. His new year’s speech was cartoonishly in keeping with this sobriquet.

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

[image unrelated to Hong Kong]

Politics and zodiac nonsense aside, I would like to speak a word for the rams (who must be feeling uncharacteristically disliked as their year begins). Finding joy in beauty self-evidently means a life filled with joy and beauty (abstracts which blunt shiny business people often are incapable of grasping). Likewise loving people have love in their lives. Speaking of which, I have a sneaking suspicion that there will be just as many babies this year as ever! I hope lunar new year finds you eating dumplings and pomelos with your loved ones. May everyone find kindness, beauty, and peace in the Year of the Ram!

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Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Last week Ferrebeekeeper featured a delicate porcelain cup from the Ming Dynasty. I was going to let you think about it for a while before showing more Chinese porcelain, but the news of the world has intervened with my plans. Behold the famous Meiyintang Chenghua Chicken Cup which was made in mid 15th century China.

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Made of delicate white paste porcelain, the cup is quite charming. A bold rooster struts vainly through a garden of prayer stones and red flowers while a pragmatic hen snatches up bugs with her beak. Around the pair is a little flock of endearing chicks. The scene is almost exactly copied on the opposite side (as you can see in this futuristic albeit mildly sinister wrap-around photo).

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

The cup has spawned countless imitations—you could go to a Chinese market and buy endless chicken cups of plastic and porcelain for not very much money. Yet the reason that the original cup has made waves in the international news is not because of its beauty or its legacy but instead because of the sky high price which it commanded at auction today (April 8, 2014) in Hong Kong. Sotheby’s auction house reports that the chicken cup sold for a record 36 million US dollars (well, really 281.2 million Hong Kong dollars to be exact). For comparison Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867 for 7.2 million dollars (although if we adjust for inflation, that price goes up a good deal).

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The cup was made in the Ming dynasty during the reign of Emperor Chenghua (who ruled from 1464-1487). Emperor Chenghua was the father of the renowned and righteous Hongzhi Emperor whose reign was a high water mark for the Ming. The story of Emperor Hongzhi’s boyhood however is one of terror and fear. The young crown prince was nearly snuffed out by the infamous Lady Wan, an imperial concubine of Emperor Chenghua who tried to consolidate power by surreptitiously killing off all of the emperor’s male heirs (and all of his other favorite concubines to boot). The turmoil and corruption at court spread far and wide.

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

Chenghua Chicken Cup (Ming Dynasty, ca 1447-1487 AD)

I wonder if the unknown artisan—or team of artisans—who made this little cup were thinking about the problems in the imperial court and in society as they churned out a big batch of chicken cups long ago. I also wonder how they would react to the fact that this one somehow survived more than 500 years of war, upheaval, and change to end up being sold for more than a lord’s estate.

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