Happy Chinese New Year 2014: The Year of the Horse

Posted by Edna Zhou & Siting Ke on February 01, 2014

The Horse and What It Symbolizes

This Chinese Lunar New Year is the Year of the Horse and will last from January 31th, 2014 to February 18th, 2015. In Chinese astrology, the horse year is often considered to be a lucky one that brings good fortune. In addition, according to the Five Elements in Fengshui (metal, wood, water, fire, earth), 2014 is a wooden horse year.

People born in horse years are bright, cheerful and popular, and find people and crowds exciting. The horse’s childish innocence and natural charm attracts many friends, and as a highly intuitive animal, they often follow their hunches.

Thought to be a smart animal, the horse usually stands for the wise man. In western culture, for example, Jonathan Swift depicts a utopia in Gulliver’s Travels that is guided by complete rationality – and governed by horses.

In Chinese culture, ancient adoration for horses is seen in historic relic and objects: from the Terra Cotta Warriors of the Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) to tri-colored glazed pottery of the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), there are countless horse handiworks in different colors, characters and postures. Many ancient generals’ tombs had great horse statues as monuments, and in the Chinese language, at least 150 characters have 马 (horse) as a component.

Symbol of Productivity and Fighting Capacity

The horse was one of the first animals domesticated by people, starting at least 4000 years ago. The Chinese have a list of the six most useful domestic animals, called Liù Chù (六畜), and the horse is the first one (the other five being the ox, goat, chicken, pig and dog).

In both agricultural and nomadic civilizations, horses take on most of the heavy work, and in some less developed areas, horses are still a major source of power and important family members today. In other words, the horse is the symbol of productivity.

Horses also played an essential role in wars, and are thus considered heroes in China. In old ages, a cavalry composed of men and horses was the most credible threat; Genghis Khan built up a vast empire across the Eurasian continent with an overwhelming Mongolian cavalry. Few animals have shaped human history in such an extent as horses.

Classical Allusions about Horses

It is said that in Central Asia, there used to be an excellent breed called Ferghana horse. It had special red hair that made sweat looked like blood in the sun, and could cover a thousand (里) in a single day (1 Li = 0.5 mile). People praised these as “the horse from the sky”. During the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the famous Emperor (汉武帝) started a war against a small kingdom in Central Asia where the spoils were merely a dozen Ferghana horses. Afterwards, people refer to the most valuable treasures as Hàn Xuè Mǎ (汗血马), the Chinese name for the Ferghana horse.

In the Romance of Three Kingdoms, general Guān Yǔ (关羽) had a swift horse named Red Horse; after the general’s death the horse refused to eat, and died a few days later. Nowadays, a useful and loyal assistant is often compared to the Red Horse.

Horses are also associated with immortal beings, and worshipped in some parts of China. In mythology, some horses have supernatural powers, are heroic, strong and tactical, and can even fly. In the famous story Journey to the West, Xuán Zàng (玄奘) has a magic horse named White Dragon Horse, a member of their group to Western Paradise who was transformed from a prince and could save its master in urgent situations.

In Buddhism, the White Celestial Cloud Horse was sacred to the Goddess Guān Yīn (观音), and her white horse could fly through the sky, bringing peace and blessings to people.

Metaphors about Talent

The most important connotation of the horse is with talent. Finding and choosing a good horse is a difficult task; doing so requires special insight and judgment.

Professional horse scouts existed by the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC); the most famous being Bó Lè (伯乐). According to legend, Bo Le once saw an old horse struggling with a heavy salt cart in the road – and he recognized that this was a potentially swift steed that was undiscovered. As time passed more legends were attributed to Bo Le, and to this day, people who have a gifted ability to identify talent are sometimes called Bo Le.

The great literary master Hán Yù (韩愈) wrote a widely-known prose called "About the Horse", with the quote: “The world first has Bo Le and then a good horse. We always have the good horse, but we don’t always have Bo Le.”

The horse is not only a traffic tool, it is an icon of gentlemen as well. Which is why BMW group translated its brand name into Bǎo Mǎ (宝马) in Chinese, meaning the precious steed. This is a classic translation case, which shows the relation between original name and translated name (the initials), in addition to its inference to Chinese values.

In China, if you want to encourage a little boy, you can say he is a good colt. To prepare a gift for a male friend, a picture of horses (painting or other forms) would be appropriate.

The appreciation for a good horse reflects traditional Chinese values: as a person of noble aspirations, one should have great ability, strong will, and bear the responsibility to serve.

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