Herald of spring: we find out what the rooster means in traditional Chinese culture

Herald of spring: we find out what the rooster means in traditional Chinese culture

There’s plenty to learn about history, culture and craftsmanship at the Chinese University's Art Museum


Ornament with Phoenix Motif.
Photo: Chinese University's Art Museum

Happy Year of the Rooster! Some traditions may seem to make little sense until you take the time to understand the thinking behind them. I was invited to the Chinese University of Hong Kong Art Museum for a guided tour of the Heralds of Spring: Celebrating the Year of the Rooster exhibition, a special event to celebrate the Lunar New Year.

You might think it is just something that ends up on your dinner plate, but in fact the rooster, the 10th animal in the Chinese zodiac, is important in Chinese culture. While being a symbol of punctuality, prosperity and honesty, the rooster also represents the end of darkness and the arrival of dawn due to its unique morning call. The rooster is seen as brave and fierce. The red “crown” on its head is even seen as a symbol of the heavens.

Four items caught my eye at the exhibition:

Emperor’s colours

The exhibit I liked the most was Pair of Famille-Rose Bowls Decorated with Magpies and Prunus on a Yellow-Glaze Ground (above). These bowls were created for the Tongzhi emperor during the Qing dynasty, and were made in Jingdezhen, a city in Jiangxi (江西) province famous for its porcelain. The yellow colour of the glaze is a symbol of the emperor and nobility, while the prunus (plum blossom), being a national flower of China, is a symbol of spring, peace and reproduction, while also representing high social status. The use of such patterns was restricted to the emperor, and so even copies of the bowl might have high value.

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Peonies, Cocks and Stones
Photo: Chinese University's Art Museum

Sense of movement

The painting Peonies, Cocks and Stones really interested me. Created by artist Gao Jinfu in 1902, it depicts a cockfight. What I really loved about this work of art was its dynamism. The wide range of shades and colours creates a vast contrast between each object in the piece, and the fact that all the objects are so close and intertwined really gives a sense of movement, speed and power. It reminded me of the style of futurism that was popular in Europe in the early 20th century. I liked not only the contrast, but also the actual colours that were used in the painting.


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Incredible detail

Pair of Famille-Rose Bowls Decorated with Magpies and Prunus on a Yellow-Glaze Ground
Photo: Chinese University's Art Museum

The Ornament with Phoenix Motif was in the Mengdiexuan collection. It originates from the Song dynasty, which ruled from the mid-10th century to the 13th century, and preceded the Mongol invasion of China. It is a gold design of a phoenix. What makes this item so special is the unbelievable amount of detail and work that has been put into the design. The design is fairly small, but each narrow, wafer-thin line adds a whole new dimension to the motif. This was completely different from all the other pieces on show, not just in terms of materials, but also size and detail.

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Pouring Vessel in the Shape of Mandarin Ducks
Photo: Chinese University's Art Museum

Art from a shipwreck

Roosters aren’t the only animals that are featured in the exhibit. Pouring Vessel in the Shape of Mandarin Ducks is a ceramic artwork created for the Hongzhi emperor during the Ming dynasty. Some of these pieces have even been found in a shipwreck in the South China Sea. What makes this piece interesting is the glaze that has been used on the ceramic, and the fairly realistic shapes that resemble a duck’s feathers.

I had a great day at the Art Museum. I got tonnes of insight into Chinese mythology and history, and I was able to see genuine artworks and ceramics that I would never have known about otherwise. Not only were the artworks beautiful, but they were curated in the most intricate and detailed manner possible, and the serene atmosphere added to a great experience. A big thank you to Walter, our guide, and the Chinese University for not only introducing me to the exhibits, but showing me the deeper meaning of each artwork.

Edited by Pete Spurrier

This article appeared in the Young Post print edition as
Herald of spring: the new year in artworks


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