For our New Year’s cardfor the Year of Ox, I chose the painting ‘Laozi (Lao Tzu) Riding an Ox’ [老子騎牛] by Ming Dynasty painter Zhang Lu [張路].
According to historian Sima Qian (ca. 145–86 BC):
- ‘Laozi cultivated the Tao and the Inner Power.’
- ‘He advocated the hermit’s life, a life lived in obscurity.’
- ‘He lived in Zhou for a long time, but when he saw that the Zhou dynasty was in a state of decline, he departed.’
- ‘When he reached the Hangu Pass, the Keeper of the Pass Yin Xi said to him: “You sir are about to retire into seclusion, I beseech you to write a book for me!” ’
- ‘So Laozi wrote a book in two parts, treating of the Tao and the Power, in a little over five thousand words.’
- ‘And then he went on his way.’
- No one was able to tell who he really was, no one knew where he went to in the end.’
According to legend, Laozi rode up to the pass on a blue ox, wrote The Way and Its Power [Daodejing/道德经] and then rode through the Pass on the ox and away from civilization forever.
- Artists depicting this scene show Laozi riding the ox on the side (as here) or even backward and thus demonstrating his mastery and stability.
In this painting you can see Laozi holding a scroll, presumably the Daodejing.
- [Note: Since Mr. Biden was elected, I keep thinking of the line in the Daodejing: 'Govern a great country as you would cook a small fish.']
And, if you look closely, you'll see that Laozi is looking up at a bat.
- The bat is a common motif in Chinese art and is a symbol of wealth.
- This comes from the Chinese love of puns (and there is no better language for punning I know).
In the Beijing dialect the character for bat is fú 蝠; the character for wealth is fù 富 .
- The characters have the same sound and the only difference is that the one for bat has an insect radical 虫 on the left.
- There is even a saying, 蝠子天来 [fú zǐ tiān lái] - literally ‘bats come down from the sky,' but meaning roughly, ‘may wealth suddenly come down on you.’
- (I have also heard that because bats hang motionless upside down, they are a symbol longevity.)
So all in all,‘Laozi Riding an Ox’ conveys my wishes to you and your family during the Year of the Ox. May this year bring:
- The wealth of a bat falling from the sky, the health and longevity of a Daoist Immortal, and the wisdom of Laozi.
- Or as Ben Franklin put it: Healthy, Wealthy, & Wise.
恭喜发财 | Happy New Year!
With my very best wishes,