This year, the Chinese Zodiac honours a very special beast of burden.
The Ox (牛) is the second of the 12-year periodic sequence (cycle) of animals which appear in the Chinese zodiac related to the Chinese calendar, and also appears in related calendar systems. The Chinese term used here as ox in Chinese is niú (牛), a word generally referring to cows, bulls, or neutered types of the bovine family, such as common cattle or water buffalo. The zodiacal ox may be construed as male, female, neuter, and either singular or plural. The Year of the Ox is also denoted by the Earthly Branch symbol chǒu (丑). The term “zodiac” ultimately derives from an Ancient Greek term referring to a “circle of little animals”. There are also a yearly month of the ox and a daily hour of the ox (Chinese double hour, 1:00 a.m. to 3:00 a.m.). Years of the oxen (cows) are cyclically differentiated by correlation to the Heavenly Stems cycle, resulting in a repeating cycle of five years of the ox/cow (over a sixty-year period), each ox/cow year also being associated with one of the Chinese wǔxíng, also known as the “five elements”, or “phases”: the “Five Phases” being Fire (火 huǒ), Water (水 shuǐ), Wood (木 mù), Metal (金 jīn), and Earth (土 tǔ). The Year of the Ox follows after the Year of the Rat (the first year of the zodiacal cycle) and it is followed by the Year of the Tiger.
Oxen, cows, beef cattle, buffalo and so on are an important motif in Chinese mythology. There are many myths about the oxen or ox-like beings, including both celestial and earthly varieties. The myths range from ones which include oxen or composite beings with ox characteristics as major actors to ones which focus on human or divine actors, in which the role of the oxen are more subsidiary. In some cases, Chinese myths focus on oxen-related subjects, such as plowing and agriculture or ox-powered carriage. Another important role for beef cattle is in the religious capacity of sacrificial offerings.
It’s also worth a visit to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), which boasts a fine collection of artefacts inspired by the Chinese Zodiac, among them many to do with oxen. Their site explains: “People born in the Year of the Ox are strong, reliable, fair and conscientious, inspiring confidence in others. They are also calm, patient, methodical and can be trusted. Although they say little they can be very opinionated. They believe strongly in themselves, but are also stubborn and hate to fail or be challenged. Although they do not lose their temper easily their anger can become explosive and impulsive. They are serious, quiet and not naturally sociable, which can make them dull. Ox people have a great deal of common sense.” The world’s leading museum of art and design has much more besides.