There are usually two times a year when I introspect deeply: the New Year and my birthday. Since I’m a Cancer in the Western zodiac, with my birthday falling between June 21 and July 23, it’s almost time for my second round of contemplative growth. While I don’t follow daily or annual horoscopes, I do find the personality traits associated with particular Western zodiac signs to be highly accurate. Recently, I’ve wondered about the characteristics of the Chinese zodiac, a cosmic system I know nothing about, outside of vague glances over paper placemats at Chinese restaurants.
As art and historical artifacts often have deeper, more tangible, impacts on me, I visited The Metropolitan Museum’s exhibition “Celebrating the Year of the Pig” to better understand the Chinese zodiac and to glean any wisdom about how to make this a fruitful year.
The traditional East Asian lunar calendar repeats every 12 years, and each year corresponds to an animal in the Chinese zodiac. Similar to how each monthly sign of the Western zodiac correlates to a constellation with specific personality traits, the 12 Chinese animals from each year have their own unique personalities.
Depending on what year you are born, you’ll share the traits of either the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, ram, monkey, rooster, dog, or pig.
The Met’s exhibition displays a charming set of 18th-century jade figurines, called the “Twelve Animals of the Chinese Zodiac.” The carved animals are hybrids—both animal and human—artistically suggesting that people do, in fact, have the characteristics of these zodiac animals.
In an audio interview on The Met’s website, the curator of Chinese art, Jason Sun, says, “The artist worked very hard to present the 12 animals in 12 different postures and to give them 12 different things to hold in their hands—fans, whisks, staffs.”
Each animal is only 2.25 inches tall, making their unique physicalities particularly impressive since jade is such a hard stone to carve. Made of flawless pale green jade, this set of carvings must have been especially treasured, as two other sets identical to this one are part of the imperial collection held in the Palace Museum of Beijing.
“When you look at them, it’s really [then] that they talk to you,” says Sun in the audio interview, pointing out their lifelike features.
A Disciplined Pig
In the West, there are no positive connotations associated with being called a pig. However, in the East, if you’re born in the year of the pig—which includes 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, and 2019—you have many positive, and even adored, qualities.
The pig is a symbol of prosperity and wealth, stemming from the animal’s importance in an agrarian society. A person born in the year of the pig is also a joy to be around, often friendly, generous, and hardworking.
In the exhibition, the figurine “Zodiac Figure: Pig” from the Qing Dynasty perfectly embodies the charisma and fun-loving spirit of the animal. Like the Twelve Animals, this six-inch porcelain pig has been anthropomorphized and stands like a person, and certainly radiates the pig’s cosmic traits.
His turquoise and aubergine-glazed clothing gives his character a brightness that’s also reflected in his physicalities, like he’s giving a speech to a large crowd, or is the epicenter of a party. With his mouth curved upward in a jubilant smile and his fingers of one hand poised, the pig seems like he’s about to deliver the punchline of a hilarious story. One could even imagine an audience surrounding him, hanging on his every word, ready to erupt.
Interestingly, while a pig in the West is synonymous with gluttony and insatiable desires of all sorts, pigs in the Chinese zodiac let themselves enjoy life, but they can also be disciplined and are not wasteful spenders. A pig personifies Confucius’s wisdom—“When prosperity comes, do not use all of it.”
Pigs as Talismans
Pigs were depicted on pottery as far back as 5,000 B.C, illustrating the animal’s societal importance. The Chinese character for the word family—“jia”—even depicts a roof over a pig. Not only was the pig the first domesticated animal to be used as livestock, but homes back then had two levels: the upper for people; the lower for pigs. Later, the pigpens were detached from where the people lived, but the sentiment remained the same—where there’s a pig, there’s a home.
During the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 220), it became common practice to bury the deceased with small jade pigs and architectural models of pigsties to summon good fortune in the afterlife.
The Met’s exhibition showcases several of these good luck charms found inside tombs. “Pig in Recumbent Position” from the 6th century is particularly timely since its medium is earthenware; 2019 is the year of the Earth Pig.
Like all animals in the Chinese zodiac, there are five types of pigs, each repeating every 60 years, and named after the elements of metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. The Earth Pig is recognized for being particularly organized and clean, which again is an ironic twist on the Western connotations for words like pigsty, associated with messiness.
Being authoritative is also a characteristic of the Earth Pig Year. While another figurine also called “Pig in Recumbent Position” but made of dolomite doesn’t exactly represent an authoritative nature, the piece does exude an almost noble quality, with its simple aesthetic. The pig seems relaxed, like he’s just taking a quick break before heading back to work.
Like many of the pig’s seemingly paradoxical traits, what I glean most from the art in this exhibition is that lifelong prosperity, of which the pig is famous for, requires a balanced perspective—hard work and rest; sacrifice and enjoyment.
“Celebrating the Year of the Pig” is showing now until July 28, 2019, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
J.H. White is an arts, culture, and men’s fashion journalist living in New York.