2021 is the Year of the Ox according to Chinese zodiac. Highly respected throughout Chinese history, the ox not only serves as a main source of sacrificial offering and food, but also an important beast of burden, pulling carts and ploughing the fields. In addition to that, cow bones can be used in divination and glue-making, while cowhide and cow horns are raw materials in ware production. Meanwhile, Chinese characters with ox as the radical express a wide range of meanings and are crucial components of the language. In ancient literature and art, it is not uncommon to find works praising, metaphorizing and personifying the strong beast, which goes to show its rich humanistic implications.
Reclining Ox (Qing dynasty (1644–1911)) by Ju Lian (1828–1904)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Reclining Ox | Ju Lian (1828–1904)
Painted with an elegant palette of colours, the work is succinctly outlined with fine gossamer lines, which gives a sense of antiquity while highlighting the sturdy and rock-steady silhouette of the ox.
The brothers Ju Chao and Ju Lian specialised in capturing the subtleties and spirit of animals in their paintings, which is perfectly reflected in the present example.
Two Water Buffaloes (Undated) by Gao Qifeng (1889–1933)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Two Water Buffaloes | Gao Qifeng (1889–1933)
The work was inspired by the six-screen painting Herdboy by Hōshō Hikida (1878–1934), which was awarded the Third Prize in the Third Art Exhibition held by the Japanese Ministry of Education in 1909 and published in the exhibition catalogue.
Gao Qifeng added on to the original work by inserting background elements next to the recumbent buffalos, such as reeds at the riverbank ...
... and a kingfisher swiftly flying by.
The alterations introduced drama to the work— the calm hugeness of the cattle contrasts with the gliding slenderness of the bird, while the buffalo looking afar has his eyes coincidentally on the kingfisher.
Dish with oxen design in underglaze blue and polychrome enamels (Late Ming dynasty)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Dish with overglaze enamelled decoration of Laozi mounted on a buffalo | 17th century
The piece, designated for export to the Japanese market, was produced by a private kiln in Jingdezhen in the late Ming dynasty. It is decorated with patterns of cows, rocks and trunks in underglaze cobalt blue, and overglazed with elements such as huts, grass, and leaves. However, the two layers do not seem to be on the same surface and look as if they were painted rather spontaneously.
The illustration on the ware features two cows— the calf rubbing against the rock, and the larger one bowing his head to express concern. This corresponds to the Chinese idiom, “a cow dotes on her calf”, which describes deep parental love and is based on the conversation between Father Yang and Cao Cao after the latter killed Yang Xiu in the Biography of Yang Xiu, the Book of the Later Han.
Dish with overglaze enamelled decoration of Laozi mounted on a buffalo (Late Ming dynasty)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Dish with overglaze enamelled decoration of Laozi mounted on a buffalo | 17th century
Also produced in Jingdezhen for the Japanese market in the late Ming dynasty, the dish features the buffalo-riding Laozi, dressed in green, with a ruyi-scepter in his hand.
In some pictorial representations, Laozi departs on a luxurious bullock carriage attended by servants. In Late Ming paintings and prints, nevertheless, it was more common for Laozi to be on the buffalo on his own, showing his sense of ease and freedom. The motif gained the connotation of longevity in the Song dynasty and has been used to express birthday blessings.
Water buffalo and crow (Dated 1949) by Ting Yin–yung (1902–1978)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Water buffalo and crow | Ting Yin-yung (1902–1978)
The head of the cow in the painting resembles the character “牛” (“ox”) in the seal carving by Ting Yin-yung. Combining calligraphy and painting all in one, the piece is marked with childlike and lovely brushstrokes. The outline of the cattle’s body is painted in one go with dry ink, while the inscription is made up of strings of repeated characters for an enhanced overall effect.
The mood conveyed brings to mind a line from the poem Village Life by Zhang Shunmin in the Song dynasty, “Dusk sees the cow bringing home no one on its back, only returning jackdaws lined up in pairs.” Both works served to communicate the artists’ sentiments about soulmates.
Bovine teapot with overhead handle (Early 20th century) by Attributed to Xu YouquanArt Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Bovine teapot with overhead handle | Early 20th century
Zisha wares are not limited to teapots but also include archaic collectibles and exquisite items for the scholar’s desk. Meanwhile, archaic elements and scholarly aesthetics also influence teapot design.
The oxhead-shaped spout and collar design of the present example show inspiration from ancient animal-shaped vessel while the tall looped handle and the rounded body might be derived from ancient wine/water vessels. A synthesis of the various styles of antiquities, the piece demonstrates the potter’s comprehension and reinvention of tradition.
Pottery ox cart (Han to Six Dynasties)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Pottery ox cart | 2nd century BC - 6th century AD
Bullock cart can be dated prior to the Qin dynasty. According to the treatise “Travel and Dress” in the Book of Jin, it was not a means of transportation for the nobility until it was adopted by the feudal lords whose power was weakened by the Han Emperor of Wu. From the Wei and Jin dynasties to the prime of the Tang dynasty, bullock carts became increasingly well-furnished and popular among aristocratic families.
The piece features a rear door for easy boarding while a curtain can be hanged on the front for shading. Making reference to unearthed pieces, there might be a small back rest inside the spacious compartment originally. The ride can be so comfortable that the scholar-officials of Liang dynasty were said to have always commuted on carriages and within the suburbs, there was no horse-riding man in sight.
Ox cart at the Xiang County (Landscape Sketches, no. 54) Ox cart at the Xiang County (Landscape Sketches, no. 54) (Republican period, dated 1942) by Yip Yan–chuen (1903–1969)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Ox cart at the Xiang County (Landscape Sketches, no.54) | Yip Yan-chuen (1903–1969)
The mid-Tang dynasty saw the downfall of aristocracy, and bullock carts once again regressed from the luxurious carriages admired by nobles to the loading tools used by laymen. Until today, these carts can still be seen in rural areas.
This painting is among a series of sketch dated 1942 by the cartoonist Yip Yan-chuen. Yip is reputed for capturing everyday snapshots in his paintings. After the fall of Hong Kong in 1941, he fled to Guangxi and travelled west along the Xun and Qian rivers, while sketching and recording his experiences along the way. The Xiang county was one of the stops.
Ox cart at the Xiang County (Landscape Sketches, no. 54) BackArt Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
At the back of the painting, the artist wrote: “In the Xiang County, bullock carts are the major mode of transportation. Two bullocks are used to pull the cart but the one in the front merely pretend to be pulling. It is a mystery why they keep it.”
Herding (1949–1957) by Li Keran (1907–1989)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Herding | Li Keran (1907–1989)
In 1946, Li Keren was invited by Xu Beihong to join the National Art School in Beiping. There, he met Qi Baishi and had been studying art with him for a decade since then. During the period, Qi Baishi inscribed many of Li Keren’s paintings on cattle herding, showing his love for such works.
This particular piece is diagonally framed, which was a common technique employed by Li. The bathing buffalo and the shepherd boy are positioned in a smooth curve, so that each elements of the scene corresponds to each other in perfect harmony. The body of the buffalo is portrayed in accumulated ink and painted several times in different shades to create a layered and textured blackness.
The Buffalo Ride (Modern) by Lo Koon–Chiu (1918–2012)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
The Buffalo Ride | Lo Koon-Chiu (1918–2012)
Lo Koon-chiu graduated from the Guangzhou Municipal School of Fine Arts. Trained in western painting, his depiction were rigorous in perspective and enlivened by rich colours and vivid scenes.
This piece, for example, illustrates two buffalos swimming cross the water. One was wading away on its own, making the shepherd boy shout anxiously.
On the other side of the painting, the willow bending over the river expresses the liveliness of spring.
Record of the iron ox in Guizhou in running-cursive script (Qing dynasty (1644–1911)) by Su Renshan (1814–1849)Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Record of the iron ox in Guizhou in running-cursive script
Su Renshan gave up the pursuit of an official career at a young age and made a living as a private tutor or as an advisor. He frequently travelled between Guangdong and Guangxi provinces. This piece is his commentary on the Guizhou natives’ practice of casting iron cows to pray for peace and stability.
According to Su’s inscription, it is a piece modelled on Mi Fu’s expansive calligraphic style. The fact that Su has used his left hand to execute the piece has made it even more exceptional.
Hundred Oxen (Ming dynasty (1368–1644))Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong
Hundred Oxen | 14th century - 17th century
The work is comprised of a hundred cattle playing by the river on the outskirts of the village.
98 buffalos, 2 cows ...
... and 33 shepherd boys were portrayed with different postures without repetition.
Historically, there had been varied interpretations on the motif. Some said it is a metaphor for benevolent rule and a peaceful society, others believed it contrasts the difficult career in officialdom with the happy roaming cattle, which symbolizes the freedom of returning to the countryside. In Zen Buddhism, the cattle is even used as a metaphor for the mind.
The taming and shepherding of cattle was likened to the cultivation of mind and the finding of the Way. Zen Master Puming’s “Ode to Ten Bulls”, which had been circulated since the Ming dynasty, divided ox-herding into stages such as “undisciplined”, “beginning to be disciplined”, "in harness”, “faced round”, and “tamed” to describe the process of self-cultivation of the mind.
The content is developed based on "Celebrating the Year of the Ox", an exhibition curated by Dr. Tong Yu, Sam. (Research Fellow, Art Museum, The Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Click Here for the Description of the Exhibition