Art exhibition celebrates ox’s role in culture
Beijing art exhibition celebrates the ox’s role in Chinese culture, Lin Qi reports.
Bovines and humans have had close interactions since prehistoric times. Figurative drawings of animals, including bison, horses and deer appear in the oldest art, for example, the Cave of El Castillo in Spain that dates back some 40,000 years.
The ox has played an important role in agriculture in Chinese history. Considered both loyal and reliable, the animal has hugely benefited farmers. It is also seen as a spiritual animal in human communication with the world of deities.
Today, the images of ox, symbolizing diligence and prosperity, are found in many aspects of Chinese everyday life, although the animal as a harnessed force is much less needed in the industrial age.
From archaic ceremonial bronze objects that feature bovine patterns to modern sculptures, an exhibition titled Lucky Ox opened at the National Museum of China on Feb 9, showing more than 160 ox-themed objects in its collection to celebrate the Year of the Ox and the arrival of spring.
The exhibition reviews the cultural meanings, ranging from the ox as a symbol of power, good harvest and wealth to the yearning for an idyllic, rustic life.
Zhai Shengli, the exhibition’s chief curator, says: “One will find the images of ox on artifacts, from different historic periods on display, including the bronze ware of the Shang (c. 16th century-11th century BC) and Western Zhou (c. 11th century771 BC) dynasties, Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 220) murals, Tang Dynasty (618-907) jade ornaments and Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) ceramics.”
Zhai says the ox’s significance in political and social life during the Shang and Zhou dynasties is visible in bronze vessels, used for royal activities, which have been carved with related motifs or sculpted into the shape of an ox or body parts such as horns.
He says oxen were major offerings for ritualistic sacrifice at the time, and before being killed, they were fed quality grains and even dressed up. Sometimes kings themselves led the oxen into ancestral temples where the sacrificial ceremonies were held. Bovine bones were also used to make oracle bones, and burned and drilled through to create cracks on the surface that “told of good or bad signs”.
Wang Xiaowen, the exhibition’s assistant curator, says: “Besides symbolizing supremacy and fortune, the ox was also seen as a spiritual animal by people at the time to connect the mortal world with heaven. They believed that after being sacrificed, oxen would deliver people’s wishes for harvest and peace to deities.
“This belief is also reflected in the bronze ware of the ancient Dian Kingdom, which flourished more than 2,000 years ago in today’s Yunnan province in Southwest China.”
Several bronze objects that were excavated from Dian relics sites and ornamented with exquisite ox motifs are on display at the Beijing exhibition.
Wang says while few written documents about the kingdom exist, the bronze objects reflect a booming agriculture and the skilled craftwork shows its developed culture.
The ox also recurs as a subject in the art genre gengzhitu (pictures of tilling and weaving) in ancient China. Complete sets of such paintings depicting activities related to agriculture and sericulture are said to first appear on the imperial court walls of the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127).
Then, Southern Song Dynasty (1127-1279) scholar Lou Shou produced a set of 45 gengzhitu paintings, each accompanied by verses, which became popular and generated social and cultural influences. The paintings inspired later rulers to order the making of gengzhitu to encourage farming and raising silkworms to produce silk.
The current exhibition shows Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) gengzhitu paintings and porcelain pieces bearing the same motifs, which also featured poems written by emperors Kangxi and Yongzheng. The rulers, father and son, attached great importance to agriculture as the economic pillar of their empire.
The human-ox motif is common in artworks illustrating folk custom and legends such as a scholar riding on an ox or a boy herding an ox in a picturesque landscape of distant mountains. A popular legend about Laozi describes the philosopher going out of the Hangu Pass while seated on the back of an ox. A Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) porcelain vase and a bronze sculpture by contemporary artist Wu Weishan shown at the exhibition both depict the tale.
Also on show is a stone rubbing made between the late fourth century and the early sixth century that points to the trend at the time of rich people traveling by ox-driven carts.
While a modern bride may prefer a car on her wedding day, a painting at the exhibition shows a Ming-era wedding where the bride is being carried by an ox to the groom’s house.
Besides symbolizing supremacy and fortune, the ox was also seen as a spiritual animal by people at the time to connect the mortal world with heaven.”
Wang Xiaowen, exhibition assistant curator at the National Museum of China