The Year of the Rooster, On Reading

In a season of felicitations and rooster-related bonhomie, it is worth remembering that in the Chinese linguistic multiverse the word  (   ) covers a range of meanings: chicken, hen, rooster, cock, heroic, outspoken, steadfast, as well as including less-salubrious terms such as prostitute 雞、 野雞 (the latter expression also means pheasant, although 野雞大學 means a university that is little better than a ‘diploma mill’), penis 雞巴、雞雞, sodomy and male-to-male penetrative sex 雞姦 and even the concept of insignificance 雞毛, literally ‘chicken feathers’.

Here we offer a selection from classical and pre-modern texts and authors, as well as a post-1949 poem, a film and a famous quotation — our sources are the I Ching, The Book of Poetry, The Tao and the Power, ‘The Peach Blossom Spring’ by Tao Yuanming of the Wei-Jin period, a story by Pu Songling of the Qing dynasty, a painting by Xu Beihong, as well as a poem by Mao Zedong of the People’s Republic, a quotation from his wife, and later widow, Jiang Qing and, finally, a film by Shi Hui — that reflect various aspects of   . As these various uses of the word, as well as the texts and images selected here are well known and in general circulation in the Chinese Commonwealth, we have compiled this material to illustrate aspects of the abiding heritage of language, thought, art and history. This approach, and an appreciation of such material, is part of our advocacy of New Sinology.

This is one of three essays to appear in China Heritage on the theme of the Year of the Rooster. The other two are: On Seeing and On Eating & Speaking.

I am grateful to John Minford for his suggestions and for permission to quote from his work, old and new. See also The Year of the Rooster, On Seeing and The Year of the Rooster, On Eating, Imbibing, Injecting & Speaking.

Geremie R. Barmé,
 Editor, China Heritage,
15 January 2017

Cock’s crow 雞鳴 ushers in the morning and wakes the day. But the cock also indicates excessive aspiration or unrealistic ambition. In the early text of divination, I Ching, the image of the cock’s vain attempts to fly is used to indicate impending doom or calamity. The text warns against overconfidence; commentators advise against ‘crowing’ over presumed good fortune. This is a lesson for cocksure people in the 2017 Dingyou Year of the Rooster 丁酉雞年 who believe that their time has come. For those riding high as the year starts it would be wise to consider that events may well have passed their zenith; what lies ahead could be a dark nadir.

A cartoon lampooning Jiang Qing's cockiness
A cartoon lampooning Jiang Qing’s cockiness

On 12 September 1975, when visiting the Dazhai People’s Commune Jiang Qing, Mao Zedong’s last wife, spoke about the dangers facing true revolutionaries like her as revisionists were plotting to overturn the policies of the Cultural Revolution.

She famously declared:

‘It’ll be easy for people to engage in revisionism, that’s why at night I “sleep with a sword under my pillow and practice my martial prowess at cock’s crow every morning”. You must all be on your guard.’ 搞修正主义很容易。我每天是 ‘聞雞起舞枕戈待旦’ 嘛!大家要提高警惕。

A little over a year later she, along with her fellows, was detained in a military coup. Following years of incarceration and later under house arrest at Qincheng Prison, and suffering from throat cancer, Jiang Qing hung herself in 1991.

Cock’s Crow Rises to Heaven

I Ching 易經

In the I Ching the cock represents unrealistic aspiration. The Oracle cautions against overweening pride and predicts inevitable failure.

In Hexagram XLI, 中孚 Zhong Fu, Good Faith, the Cock is the theme of the Yang or unbroken line in the top place: 上九,翰音登於天,貞凶: ‘Cock’s Crow Rises to Heaven / Steadfastness / Calamity’, where the word hàn , feathers, indicates a cock:

中孚 Good Faith: Wind 巽 above Lake 兑
中孚: Wind 巽 above Lake 兑

Yang in the Top Place

Cock’s crow

Rises to Heaven,

In coelum ascendit.



Hoc pessimum.

On the Image

The cock

Cannot crow for long.




Yang Line in Yin Place. The cock itself cannot rise to Heaven, writes Zhu Xi, but its Aspiration is to do so. The Steadfastness is misplaced; the true situation has not been taken into account. This will lead to Calamity. [朱熹:居信之極,而不知變,雖得其貞,亦凶道也。故其象占如此。雞曰翰音,乃巽之象。居巽之極,為登于天。雞非登天之物,而欲登天,信非所信,而不知變,亦猶是也。] One should beware of overconfidence such as this, of any inclination to ‘crow’ over good fortune, writes John Blofeld. The intellect is wrongly used, writes Magister Liu. Wishing to climb the heights, one ends up falling. There is a lack of Humility, a random, eclectic ‘sampling’ of faiths — faiths no sooner entered than abandoned. The Leader should not step beyond his ability, writes Professor Mun. He should recognise the limits of his own strength.

— From John Minford, I Ching, translated with commentary, Penguin/ Viking, 2014, p.474, Chinese text added.

The Cock Has Crowed

The Book of Poetry 詩經


His lady to the marquis says,
‘The cock has crowed; ’tis late.
Get up, my lord, and haste to court.
’Tis full; for you they wait.’
She did not hear the cock’s shrill sound,
Only the blue flies buzzing round.

Again she wakes him with the words,
‘The east, my lord, is bright.
A crowded court your presence seeks;
Get up, and hail the light.’
’Twas not the dawning light which shone,
But that which by the moon was thrown.

He sleeping still, once more she says,
‘The flies are buzzing loud.
To lie and dream here by your side
Were pleasant, but the crowd
Of officers will soon retire;
Draw not on you and me their ire!’







— From The Book of Poetry, Book VIII, ‘The Odes of Ch’i’, translated by James Legge, 1876. From 詩經·國風·齊風·雞鳴

Cold Wind, and the Rain

The Book of Poetry 詩經


Cold wind, and the rain,
cock crow, his is come again,
my ease.

Shrill wind and the rain
and the cock crows and crows,
I have seen him, shall it suffice
as the wind blows?

Wind, rain and the dark
as it were the dark of the moon,
What of the wind, and the cock’s never-ending cry;
he and I.







— Translated by Ezra Poundin John Minford and S.M. Lau, eds, Classical Chinese Literature: An Anthology of Translations, I, 2000, pp.127-128. From 詩經·國風·鄭風·風雨

Chickens and dogs have been a feature of life in China for thousands of years. Recent archaeological evidence indicates that the domestic chicken, gallus gallus, has been a part of rural life in the Lower Yangzi Valley for 10,000 years. Dogs may have been domesticated even earlier. The two have been so prominent that the expression ‘chickens/ cocks and dogs’ 雞犬 has been used in Chinese written sources from at least the time of the pre-Qin philosophers. In modern Chinese the pairing of ‘chickens’ 雞 and ‘dogs’ 犬 survives in numerous set phrases 成語, and anyone who has spent time in the Chinese countryside knows only too well the meaning of 雞鳴犬吠, ‘cocks crowing and dogs barking’.

So intimate was the connection of chickens and dogs that the philosopher Mencius (340-250BCE) coupled them with two key concepts in what would later be known as Confucian thought, ‘benevolence’ 義 and ‘righteousness’ 仁:

Mencius said, ‘Benevolence is man’s mind, and righteousness is man’s path. How lamentable is it to neglect the path and not pursue it, to lose this mind and not know to seek it again! When men’s fowls and dogs are lost, they know to seek for them again, but they lose their mind, and do not know to seek for it. The great end of learning is nothing else but to seek for the lost mind.’ 孟子曰:仁,人心也;義,人路也。捨其路而弗由,放其心而不知求,哀哉!人有雞犬放,則知求之;有放心,而不知求。學問之道無他,求其放心而已矣。

— Translated by James Legge. From 孟子·告子上

Cocks Crowing, Dogs Barking, I

The Tao and the Power 道德經

One of the most famous early uses of the pair ‘chickens and dogs’ 雞犬 appears in The Tao and the Power 道德經, attributed to Laozi 老子 (5th or 4th century BCE).

It occurs in Chapter Eighty of the book, ‘Tying Knots’. The following excerpt is from John Minford’s new translation of this classic, with commentary. This is a work-in-progress, and we are grateful to the translator for allowing us to quote from it here for the first time.

Chapter 80 of Laozi, Daode Jing in the hand of Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 of the Yuan dynasty (fourteenth century)
Chapter Eighty of Laozi’s The Tao and the Power in the hand of Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 of the Yuan dynasty (fourteenth century)

A small nation,
With few folk.
Let there be
Tools for tens or hundreds
Which are never used.
Let the folk be
Mindful of Death
And never travel far.
Let there be boats and carriages,
Which are never
Put to use.
Let there be arms and soldiers,
Which are never
Let them
To the simple
Tying of knots,
Let them think their food sweet,
Their clothes fine,
Let them find peace in their dwellings,
And joy
In their customs.
Neighbouring countries can be seen,
Cocks can be heard crowing,
Dogs barking;
But the folk die happily
Of old age
Where they are,
Without ever having mingled.





The River Master
Let the folk Return to the tying of knots for their daily use. Let them Return to that which is Simple and Real, let them be sincere and without guile. Let their simple meals be agreeable to them. Let their coarse garments appear beautiful to them, and let them not overly prize the beauty of the senses. Let them find peace in their reed-hut, and not hanker after ornamented dwellings. Let them find joy in their simple customs, so that they have no Desire to change them. Neighbouring countries may be within sight of each other, the crowing of cocks and barking of dogs may be heard, because they are close at hand. And yet the folk will live to old age and die without ever having mingled with their neighbours. They will have had no Desire to do so. They will have lived in Contentment.

Magister Liu
Food and clothing are fine in the Heart-and-Mind, dwellings seem peaceful to the Heart-and-Mind, customs are a joy to the Heart-and-Mind. They are all a notion, conceived in the Heart-and-Mind of the Tao, in Not-Knowing, in the Oblivion of Self. Neighbouring countries can see one another in every attractive detail, and yet there is no Desire to travel. The sounds heard are No-Sound, the sights seen are No-Sights, within the Heart-and-Mind. The Heart-and-Mind is oblivious to Self, to things. The folk die of old age, without coming and going to and fro. Every phenomenon is a solitary grain in the Vast Void, round and bright, calm and naked. The Buddhists call this the Marvellous Countenance of the True Void. The followers of Confucius call it the Spirit of Sincerity. The Taoists call it the Great Alchemical Cinnabar, the Golden Elixir. Once this Treasure is formed, once its Form and Spirit have attained their full Marvel, and all is One in Truth with the Tao, then its Infinite Depth is unfathomable even to the Spirit Light of Heaven-and-Earth, let alone to the eyes of ordinary mortals. All-under-Heaven can never Contend with this Supreme State, with this True Reality, with this Ultimate Contentment.

Cocks Crowing, Dogs Barking, II

The Peach Blossom Spring 桃花源記

In ‘The Peach Blossom Spring’ 桃花源記, China’s most famous idyll, the author, Tao Yuanming 陶淵明  (365-427CE), describes a scene of untrammelled rural harmony. The expression ‘The sounds of cocks crowing and dogs barking could be heard from one courtyard to the next’ 雞犬相聞 (as opposed to 雞犬不聞, which appears in The Tao and the Power above to describe contented isolation), has been in use ever since:

Imagining Peach Blossom Spring, by Qi Baishi 齊白石
Imagining the Peach Blossom Spring, by Qi Baishi 齊白石

During the Tai-yuan period of the Jin dynasty, a fisherman of Wuling once rowed upstream, unmindful of the distance he had gone, when he suddenly came to a grove of peach trees in bloom. For several  hundred paces on both banks of the stream there was no other kind of tree. The wild flowers growing under them were fresh and lovely, and fallen petals covered the ground — it made a great impression on him. He went on fro a way with the idea of finding out how far the grove extended. It came to an end at the foot of a mountain whence issued the spring that supplied the stream. There was a small opening in the mountain, and it seemed as though light was coming through it.  The fisherman left his boat and entered the cave, which at first was extremely narrow, barely admitting his body; after a few dozen steps it suddenly opened out onto a broad and level plain where well-built houses were surrounded by rich fields and pretty ponds. Mulberry, bamboos and other trees and plants grew there, and criss-cross paths skirted the fields. The sounds of cocks crowing and dogs barking could be heard from one courtyard to the next. Men and women were coming and going about their work in the fields. The clothes they wore were like those of ordinary people. Old men and boys were carefree and happy. 晉太元中,武陵人捕魚為業。緣溪行,忘路之遠近。忽逢桃花林,夾岸數百步,中無雜樹,芳草鮮美,落英繽紛。漁人甚異之。復前行,欲窮其林。林盡水源,便得一山,山有小口,徬彿若有光。便捨船,從口入。初極狹,才通人。復行數十步,豁然開朗。土地平曠,屋舍儼然,有良田美池桑竹之屬。阡陌交通,雞犬相聞。其中往來種作,男女衣著,悉如外人。黃發垂髫,並怡然自樂。

— Translated by J.R. Hightower, in Minford and Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, I, 2000, p.515.

Editor’s Notes:


As we observed in A Golden Monkey’s Journey to the East, published in these virtual pages on 1 January this year, the squawking outline of then US president-elect, Donald Trump, was used by an enterprising shopping mall in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, to create an effigy for the Year of the Rooster in anticipation of Chinese New Year’s day on the 28th of January. The international media reported that a Chinese factory in Jiaxing, Zhejiang province, inspired by the original statue in Taiyuan, was manufacturing inflatable Donald Trump-shaped roosters which sold for US$2080 on Taobao. For the details of this story, see here and here.

A selfie with blow-up Cock Trump. John Woo / Reuters
A selfie with Cock Trump, Taiyuan, Shanxi province, 30 December 2016. Photograph: Jon Woo / Reuters

Given Trump’s prodigious priapism and his stance on minority rights, we include here an Italian reference to sodomy 雞姦 that is related to another loud-mouthed demagogue and self-important political strongman, Benito Mussolini.

The Fascist leader was born in Dovia di Predappio, a small village in Emilia-Romagna. His mother, Rosa Maltoni, was a school teacher and his father, Alessandro, was a blacksmith. His lowly origins, and his disastrous leadership of Italy, would later feature in a pasquinade:

If Rosa, lit up by divine light
The night The Leader was conceived
There, in the forge at Predappio
Had presented her anus instead of her twat
The one who got it up the ass would be
Just Rosa — not the whole of Italy.

Se Rosa, illuminata de alma luce,
La notte in cui fu concepito Il Duce,
Avrebbe, in lo fabbro predappiano,
Invece della fica, presentato l’ano,
L’avrebbre preso in culo quella sera
Rosa soltanto, ma non l’Italia intera.

— Robert Hughes, Rome, 2011, pp.426-427.

The Tiny Bird-track

Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio 聊齋誌異

A Jesting Judgement on a Cut Sleeve

And here we return to Tao Yuanming’s ‘The Peach Blossom Spring’, but in the form of a double-entendre-laden lampoon of moralists who disapproved of male-to-male anal sex, 雞姦 (literally ‘chicken fucking’), although an older orthography is 㚻姦 (for a man to forcibly have sex with a man ‘like a woman’; 㚻 is also pronounced ). The modern, formal term for anal sex is 肛交.

This ribald text comes from the pen of the early Qing fiction writer Pu Songling 蒲松齡 (1640-1715), author of Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio 聊齋誌異. As he writes in his ‘Jesting Judgement’ 笑判 to the story ‘Cut Sleeve’ 黃九郎 (in John Minford’s unstinting translation):

I have written a Jesting Judgement, which I here append, in the light of the teaching of the great sage Mencius: ‘The coming together in sexual congress of man and woman is one of the great natural bonds in human relations.’ 余有 ‘笑判’,並志之:男女居室,為夫婦之大倫。

Light and dark,
Hot and cool,
Dry and moist,
So it goes,
True counterpoint
Of Yin and Yang.
Illicit trysts
Twixt men and women
Were once thought foul;
How much fouler reeks
The passion of Cut Sleeve,
Of Half-eaten Peach,[1]
Of love twixt man and man!
Only the mightiest warrior
Can penetrate that tiny bird-track![2]
That narrow grotto
Leads to no Peach Blossom Spring:[3]
Surely the fisherman
Poled up it by mistake!

… …













The traveller's boat moored at the mouth to the cave leading to Peach Blossom Spring. Painting by the Ming artist Zhou Chen 周臣
The traveller’s boat moored near the cave leading to the Peach Blossom Spring, by the Ming artist Zhou Chen 周臣

Translator’s Notes

Jesting Judgement: Pu Songling’s witty envoi, as I read it, pokes fun at the anti-homosexual lobby, in the form of a brilliant and highly lascivious parallel-prose pastiche of pedantic neo-Confucian prudery. It is roundly condemned as vulgar and obscene by no less as scholar than Zhu Qikai (see his edition, note 85, p.317), who refuses to interpret its real sense, obliging the reader only to the extent of providing the raw meaning of individual allusions (most of which he takes straight from the nineteenth-century commentator Lü Zhan’en). This strange little piece should surely be seen as a humorous counterpart to Pu Songling’s more famous tour de force, the Author’s Preface. It is certainly just as crammed with literary allusions. Judith T. Zeitlin calls it ‘an amazingly arcane and rather hostile parody in parallel prose on homosexual practices’ (Historian of the Strange, p.91). I find it not so much hostile, as a deliberately exaggerated spoof. …

Pu Songling’s time was one of considerable sexual tolerance. … The classic homosexual collection Tales of the Cut Sleeve was probably published during the seventeenth century. While homosexual practices are described in other stories in Strange Tales, this [‘Cut Sleeve’ 黄九郎] is the principal full-length story devoted to the love between a man and a male fox-spirit.

[1] Of Half-Eaten Peach: Mi Zixia, one of the most celebrated homosexuals in Chinese history and the favourite for a time of Duke Ling of Wei (534-493BC), ‘was strolling with the ruler in an orchard and, biting into a peach and finding it sweet, he stopped eating and gave the remaining half to the ruler to enjoy’ (Bret Hinsch, Passions of the Cut Sleeve (Berkeley, 1990), p.20).

[2] bird-track: This is playing with the expressions from the famous poem by Li Bo [701-62), ‘The Road to Shu Is Hard’ 蜀道難: ‘West on Taibo Mountain, take a bird road there … When earth collapsed and the mountain crashed, the muscled warriors died’. [西當太白有鳥道 … 地崩山摧壯士死] (Minford and Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, I, pp.723-5). The Chinese character for ‘bird’, normally read niao, when read Diao [鳥, also 屌], is a slang expression for the penis.

[3] Peach Blossom Spring: The title of the famous idyll by Tao Yuanming (365-427), in which a fisherman stumbles upon an earthy paradise. (See Minford and Lau, Classical Chinese Literature, I, pp.515-17.) The relevant passage in Tao’s original reads: ‘The fisherman left his boat and entered a grotto, which at first was extremely narrow, barely admitting his body; after a few dozen steps it suddenly opened out on to a broad and level plain.’ [Quoted above. — Ed.] ‘Grotto’ [小口] was one of the standard terms for vagina.

— From Pu Songling, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, translated and edited by John Minford, Penguin Books, 2006, pp.275 & 538-539.

Editor’s Note: For the full the text of Pu Songling’s ‘Jesting Judgement’ with translator’s notes, see Reprints here.

The Cock’s Never-ending Cry

A Painting by Xu Beihong

The cock's never-ending cry. Xu Beihong, spring, 1937.
‘The cock’s never-ending cry.’ Xu Beihong, spring, 1937.

Wind, rain and the dark
as it were the dark of the moon, 風雨如晦,
What of the wind, and the cock’s never-ending cry. 雞鳴不已。

In the spring of 1937, shortly before the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War, the noted artist Xu Beihong 徐悲鴻 (1895-1953) used this line from The Book of Poetry, quoted earlier in Ezra Pound’s translation, as the theme of a painting made in Guilin, southwest China. The inscription on the painting reads: 風雨如晦,雞鳴不已,既見君子,雲胡不喜。丁醜始春,悲鴻懷人之作。桂林。The expression 風雨如晦,雞鳴不已 is still used as a metaphor about the relentless dark of night pierced by the sounds of hope for a new day. It often refers to outspoken individuals who dare confront political oppression.

In 1943, Xu would also create a painting using the line ‘The cock has crowed and all under heaven is bright’ 雄雞一聲天下白 from the Tang-dyansty poet Li He 李賀. In 1950, this same line was adapted by Mao Zedong for one of his own poems (see below).

Now the Cock has Crowed

A Poem by Mao Zedong

Written in response to a work composed by Liu Yazi at Mao’s request, the following poem from October 1950 is famous for the line ‘Now the cock has crowed and all under heaven is bright’ 一唱雄雞天下白.

In his poetic imagination Mao extends the reign of peace under the Communist Party and the newly established People’s Republic of China as far as Yutian (Xinjiang). Tibet was yet to be ‘liberated’.

In light of the devastating effect of Mao’s rule over the People’s Republic, as one reads this poem it is worth reconsidering the pasquinade offered in the Intermezzo above.

The poem in Mao's hand.
The poem in Mao’s hand.

The night was long and
dawn came slow to the Crimson Land.
For a century demons and monsters
whirled in a wild dance,
And the five hundred million people
were disunited.

Now the cock has crowed and
all under heaven is bright,
Here is music from all our peoples,
from Yutien too,
And the poet is inspired
as never before.


— From Mao Tsetung, ‘Reply to Mr. Liu Ya-tzu — to the tune of Wan Hsi Sha’, October 1950, in Mao Tsetung Poems, Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1976, pp.28-29, online in Chinese with Liu Yazi’s sycophantic original here.

Urgent Letter

A Film by Shi Hui

In pre-modern times, feathers, in particular chicken/ rooster feathers, were attached to urgent military documents, messages and letters carried by couriers. Feathers indicated that the message had to be delivered at the speed of flight. Called ‘feather documents’ 羽檄 in the past and ‘chicken feather letters’ 雞毛信 in modern times, they form the theme of the first feature film made for children in the People’s Republic of China, one that extolled the patriotism of children during the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance.

Made by the actor and director Shi Hui 石揮, Urgent Letter (雞毛信, also known as The Letter with Feathers) was released in 1954. It was one of the only films still to be screened during the Cultural Revolution era (1964-1978), at a time when nearly all other cultural works created from 1949 to 1966 had been denounced and banned. Urgent Letter has remained a popular fixture in China’s offical patriotic canon and it has frequently been adapted and recycled in stories, children’s books and cartoons.

A still from Urgent Letter showing a letter affixed with feathers
A still from the film showing a letter affixed with feathers.

Editor’s Note: See also Shi Hui, ‘There Was No Confucius Before Confucius’, trans. G. Barmé, Chinese Literature, August, 1983, pp.105-112. Despite his devotion to the new party-state, Shi Hui was denounced as a Rightist in 1957 and committed suicide by drowning himself.