Celebrating Lunar New Year: Oxen in Early China

Posted: February 11, 2021 - 17:00 , by Diana Lu
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February 12, 2021, marks the beginning of the year of the ox牛, the second animal in the Chinese zodiac. While people born in the year of the ox are said to be docile, they are also said to be stubborn. 

The ox is one of the earliest domesticated animals of early China. The strength of the ox and its ploughing ability helped speed up the farming process and allowed for an increase in productivity. The ox was often used as a vehicle of transportation, materials used in the military, as well as people. Also, the bones of the ox were often used to make decorative objects such as hairpins; and the hide when dried were excellent material for making carrying pouches and chariot seats.

Burial model of a two-wheeled ox-cart with two attendants
Northern Dynasties Period (Northern Qi) - Sui Dynasty
550-618 AD
Moulded, slab-built, hand-finished earthenware with hand-made components and glaze
The George Crofts Collection

More significantly, ox bones were unearthed in important archaeological sites such as Daxinzhuang in Jinan city, Shandong province and at the Xiaotun site, Anyang city, Henan province. Most ox bones excavated at these sites contain inscriptions. These are known as oracle bones - various animal bones once used for pyromancy during the Shang dynasty (1766-1050 B.C.). The ROM houses one of the richest collections of oracle bones outside of China, most of which were collected by Dr. James M. Menzies and Bishop William C. White in the 1920s and 1930s.

Figure of an ox
Qing Dynasty
Worked and polished jade
The George Crofts Collection

The ox was also a figure commonly used in pottery for burial goods in early China. Often pottery figures of humans and animals were placed in the tombs with the deceased to accompany them in their afterlife. The ox is also a popular motif in paintings, particularly during the Tang and Song dynasties. For example, one famous drawing of “Five Oxen” 五牛图, by Han Huang 韩滉 (723 –787), a court official and painter, is now housed in the Palace Museum in Beijing.

A papercut showing an ox
Gift of Dr. Ken Dent

To celebrate the year of the ox, a special display presents a selection of exquisite objects from the ROM’s Chinese collection, located in the Joey and Toby Tanenbaum Gallery of China on Level 1.

This blog is by Kara Ma.