The Year of the Rooster, On Seeing

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Palace Museum Calendar
Palace Museum Calendar marking the first day of the 2017 Dingyou Year of the Rooster 丁酉鸡年. Courtesy of John Minford.

The word ji 雞 is a homophone for ji 吉, ‘auspicious’, a term used in such expressions as jixiang 吉祥 and jili 吉利 or good fortune, and common in the new year salutation: 大雞(吉)大利. Artists and artisans alike have used everything from the humble chick, to the hen as well as the statuesque rooster in their work since ancient times. The annual desk calendar produced by the Palace Museum in Beijing, 故宮日曆, which draws on a formidable collection, offers ji 雞 every day of the year 2017. (These museum calendars were originally produced from 1933 to 1937; the practice was only revived under the People’s Republic in 2010.)

In the lead up to Chinese New Year on the 28th January 2017, the Beijing-based artist, writer, humorist and raconteur Huang Yongyu 黄永玉, made twelve paintings featuring ji 雞. From 2006, Huang painted an annual calendar of twelve works on the theme of each of China’s traditional Zodiac Animals. He had done so partly out of pique since, although his work had been used in official postage stamps over the years (starting in 1980), in 2006 his Bingxu Year of the Dog 丙戌狗年 picture of a micturating canine 狗撒尿 had been turned down. He completed the cycle of twelve animals this year, 2017.

As Huang writes in an introductory note to the Twelve Ji that appear below, looking back over the past twelve years (to when he was a mere eighty-year old):

Time has truly flown by and, in the twinkling of an eye, I have painted all Twelve Zodiac Animals. I can’t avoid the fact that I’m an old man, and there’s not much puff left in me. 时间是那么地飞快流逝,眼看我画完了足足十二年的生肖月历。人,究竟还是老了,九十二岁的人再挺也挺不到哪里去了。

He goes on to say:

The ancients claimed that the ji 雞 has Five Virtues: with its crown it appears civilised; with the spurs on its feet it is martial; faced with an enemy it courageously attacks; in the presence of food it displays its humanity by clucking for others to join in; while in the early hours it never fails its duty. It’s intriguing that people share the same qualities. 古人說,雞有五個特點:頭戴冠者文也,足搏距者武也,敵在前敢闖者勇也,見食相呼者仁也,守夜不失時信也,我看人若是也有這五番講究,應該是相當有意思的。

Here, as in so much of his other work over the decades, Yongyu gives both voice and form to a particular sensibility or quwei 趣味, one that reflects the complex temper of the cultural universe I frequently refer to in my work on New Sinology. Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) first introduced me to that world as an undergraduate student of Chinese and then, in China, friends like Yang Hsien-yi and Gladys Yang, Wu Zuguang, Huang Miaozi, and many others initiated me into the parallel realm of latter-day literati that miraculously (but only just) survived Mao. It is a land of the heart-mind that is part of a lineage leading back to the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and earlier. That group, and the thinkers and writers who inspired the Sages, as well as a disposition in which culture in its most vibrant and inclusive sense, light the way for The Wairarapa Academy for New Sinology.

Mother Hen: I can't help getting excited when I create. 母雞:我創作了,我抑制不住兴奋。
Mother Hen: I can’t help getting excited when I create. 母雞:我創作了,我抑制不住兴奋。From Huang Yongyu, Animal Crackers 黃永玉著《罐齋雜記》.

Previously, Huang Yongyu’s Zodiac Animals featured in my essay on the Bingshen Year of the Golden Monkey 丙申猴年, published in The China Story Journal during the dying days of my editorship in early 2016. Some years prior, Yongyu’s work appeared in that Journal to celebrate the start of the 2013 Guisi Year of the Snake 癸巳蛇年.

Some thirty years prior to all of this, Yongyu encouraged me to translate his Animal Crackers 罐齋雜記, and some of that work features in the multimedia section of the website created for the 2003 film Morning Sun, which I made with Carma Hinton and Richard Gordon, who are also long-time friends of the artist.

huang-yongyu-signatureThese Year of the Rooster pictures first appeared in the pages of Beijing Evening News 北京晚报; subsequently, they were widely reproduced online. An exhibition of the ‘Twelve for Twelve Months’ 十二个十二个月——黄永玉生肖画展 featuring the paintings Huang Yongyu has created for the twelve Zodiac Signs over twelve years opens at the National Musuem of China in Beijing today (19 January). The show will continue until 12 February 2017.

The translated legends and written explanations are mine. See also The Year of the Rooster, On Reading and The Year of the Rooster, On Eating, Imbibing, Injecting & Speaking.

Geremie R. Barmé, Editor, China Heritage


Pleasure without End — I've never really enjoyed watching cock fights
‘Boundless Pleasure? — I’ve never really enjoyed watching cock fights.’ This is a reference to Mao Zedong’s famous lines:  與天奮鬥,其樂無窮!與地奮鬥,其樂無窮!與人奮鬥,其樂無窮!(There is boundless pleasure in struggling with Heaven, with Earth and with Other People!) written in 1917. This was supposedly a reference to the energy and optimism Mao enjoyed as he faced and overcame numerous opponents and trials during his early years. Who would have thought in 1917, a year that ushered in the New Culture Movement and a move away from the autocratic and paternalistic patterns of the past, that Mao’s thirst for struggle would eventually drag the country back into those very patterns. A century later, China still struggles with this baneful legacy.
The Most Beautiful Bird: like the rooster, one of the most beautiful creatures in the world, you are so accustomed to having them around that you forget how unique they are. It's the same with families and friends: it's all too easy to forget how precious and special they are.
The Most Beautiful Bird: like the rooster, one of the most beautiful creatures in the world, you are so accustomed to having them around that you forget how unique they are. It’s the same with families and friends: it’s all too easy to forget how precious and special they are.
Do you have to make such a racket just because you laid an egg?
Do you have to make such a racket just because you laid an egg?
A member of the Miao on his way to market
A Elder Brother Miao man 苗族  on his way to market.
Self-awareness is a virtue: do you really think you can lay an egg?
Self-awareness is a virtue: do you really think you can lay an egg?
Everywhere you look: grandparents and parents crowding around to pick children up after school
Everywhere you look: grandparents and parents crowding around to pick children up after school.
The chicken to the duck: sometimes misunderstandings are just what it is about
‘A Chicken Trying to Talk to a Duck: sometimes misunderstandings are what it is all about.’ The Cantonese saying ‘[like] a chicken talking to a duck’ 雞同鴨講, 眼碌碌, means there that people just talk past and not to each other.
The folly of amassing too many eggs (or excessive wealth). What are you going to do with it all?
‘The Folly of Amassing Too Many Eggs (or excessive wealth, also 累卵之危). The artist asks: What are you going to do with it all? One explanation of Huang’s vision of miserly greed may simply be that it reflects well the temper of the times, in particular the Xi Jinping-Wang Qishan anti-corruption campaign. Since we have been calling China’s party-state supremo the ‘Chairman of Everything’ for some years, however, we are inclined to speculate that the dangers of amassing too much in one person’s edacious grasp might equally apply to the Fifth Generation Core Leader.
Commanding Chicken
Commanding Cock.
Chickens and Rabbits in a Cage (also known as 雉兔同笼): a traditional mathematical puzzle
‘Are We Destined to Only Ever be a Maths Quiz?’ Counting the number of heads and feet of Chickens and Rabbits in a Cage 雉兔同籠 is a traditional mathematical puzzle that continues to torment school children.
Delivering Eggs for a Celebration 喜蛋
Delivering Eggs, 喜蛋 for a celebration.
Morning Early Warning System 牝雞司晨
Hens Welcome the Dawn the World Over. The image of a squawking hen is painted over a list of the names of female political leaders and their countries. Here the artist overturns the original meaning of the saying ‘If a hen is in charge in the morning, the household will be in peril’ 牝雞司晨, 惟家之索, which traditionally warns against women in power. Closer to home, the artist would daresay be aware that there have been no women in China’s ruling Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee since 1976.