Monday, January 26, 2009

Happy Chinese New Year!

Today is the Chinese New Year of year 4706 (Jan 26, 2009 - Feb 13 2010). According to ancient Chinese astrology, this is the year of JiChou 己丑 in 60-year cycles which is the least common multiplier of a 10-year and a 12-year cycle. The 10-year cycle is called Heavenly Stems derived from two attributes: Yin and Yang for the interaction of forces, and five planets/elements - Venus, Jupiter, Mercury, Mars, and Saturn. This 2x5 combination produces the cycle of 10 and this year is Yin Earth 土. The 12-year cycle, on the other hand, is called Earthly Branches 地支 that correspond to the 12 sections of the orbit of Jupiter of 11.86 years; this year is the 2nd section. Over time, zodiac signs of animals and stories became much more popular and widely used for the 12 Earthly Braches and this is the year of Ox .

According to the Wikipedia entry, those who are born on year of Ox, like me, are supposed to have personality that can be characterized as “Responsible, dependable, honest, caring, honorable, intelligent, artistic, industrious, practical”. But don’t get carried away too far too quickly; they can also be “Petty, inflexible, possessive, dogmatic, gullible, stubborn, critical, intolerant, materialistic”!

One way to appreciate the relation of ox (or bull that we will use interchangeably in this blog) with human beings is to examine how it is treated in different societies and in recorded arts and literature of various cultures. First off, there is no question that ox plays significant roles in human economic activities. They can produce milk, plow the fields, pull the wagons, and is a resource for meat diet and leather goods. Consequently, at one end of the spectrum, we see in countries like India, they enjoy a mother-like status and have been venerated and protected by Hindus for thousands of years. At the other end of spectrum, they are viewed simply as an important resource for meat production and consumption in societies like U.S. where they are mostly managed in a large scale highly optimized production system from breeding by artificial insemination, through antibiotic-filled, corn-fed, cramped indoor pens and slaughter houses and eventually the distribution system to stores and markets all in 12-18 months.

Ox also has a special role in rituals and spectacles as its strength and tenacity has long been recognized and admired by humans. For example, there is a long history of bullfighting dated back to Romans. It remains the very symbol of Spanish culture with its fierce and unique Iberia fighting bulls although its popularity appears to be on the decline. American Indians are known to hunt and respect bison (that technically speaking belongs to a different genus from ox). The name of the famous Sioux chief who defeated Lt. Col. George Custer at the Battle of Little Bighorn in 1876 is Sitting Bull.

Indeed, ox is such an integral part of many cultures that it can be found in literature and religion as well. With his fascination with the Spanish culture and bullfighting, Ernest Hemingway wrote his "Death in the Afternoon" and his first major novel "The Sun Also Rises'' with background set in bullfighting. While matador against bull may be a blunt tribute to the beauty of tragic death in struggles of human against natural forces, Buddhism takes bull to a much more abstract and philosophical level. The fascinating Zen Buddhism story of Ten Bulls is an excellent example in which bull was used in the metaphor of progression towards to enlightening. Of course, ox does often get tough assignments. The mighty guard of hell in many Buddhism stories has a bullhead with a job of punishing those evil people who ended up in hell after life!

For daily lives and use in English language, bull seems to have been associated with a questionable image. One finds expressions like “bullshit” and “bully” which amplifies the negatives rather than positives of bull. I still can’t figured out why we call people lying “to bull”. There might be something deep here; Chinese also call people bragging as 吹牛 that literally means “blowing a bull”. Fortunately, in the all important topic of modern finance and economy, bull redeemed itself and is used as symbol of prosperity. Most people are familiar with the 7,000 lb bronze sculpture Charging Bull by Arturo Di Modica, standing near Wall Street in New York City since 1989.

Talking about bull in arts, the oldest surviving Chinese brush painting on paper happens to be about it. The Five Bulls 五牛圖 above by Han Huang 韓滉 (723-787 AD) of Tang dynasty has long been an imperial collection and was stolen from the palace during the 1900 invasion of Beijing by Eight-Nation Alliance 八國聯軍 during the boxer rebellion and recovered by Chinese government through auction in 1951. My personal favorite however is a much more modern work of Homebound Bull at Sunset 夕照歸牛 by Qi Bai Shi 齊白石during WWII when he was 78 years old. The simplicity and creative arrangement and color of a lone bull walking at sunset near wavering willows with its back to the viewer conveys beautifully the sadness and uncertainty in the air but calm and firm determination.

A totally different spirit can be found in many Western paintings. The must-see Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston has the famous 1562 painting The Rape of Europa of Italian painter Titian. It depicts the Greek Mythology that Zeus changed itself into a bull and kidnapped the princess Europa. Of course, many notable paintings involving bull came from Spanish artists given the significance of bullfighting there. What came to mind immediately include Joan Miro’s Mural Painting of a bullfight in 1951 (in exhibition recently in MoMA) and Picasso’s Guernica of Spanish civil war in 1937. It is up to you to interpret them.

President Obama was born on the year of Ox. We wish him succeed in turning the country and world around or in Chinese牛轉乾坤! Perhaps he should suggest replacing the popular Wall street’s landmark Charging Bull by Zu Ming’s朱銘 wood carving sculpture Team Work or In One Heart 同心協力. The latter depicts the bull and 4 famers working hard and pulling together the enormous load of the cart.

Before I go, below is probably the most popular Chinese New Year celebration song for your enjoyment. Happy Chinese New Year and talk to you soon!

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