The Chinese New Year of the Tiger
in the Element Metal

written and photographed by Dr. Klaus G. Muller

Twelve zodiac signs and five elements

       The age of a Chinese is traditionally counted from the day of conception. Thus he is nine months old when born. But according to Chinese belief, it is only at the moment of birth that the sign of the corresponding animal of the zodiac is burnt into the heart of the newly born and determines his character. The Chinese begin their new year at the new moon, approximating our fifth of February.

       On 14 February 2010begins the year of the tiger in the element metal. Age was once reckoned in moon years; sun years were taken over from the Europeans. The years are named after the twelve animals whose names in ancient China were also given to each of the two-hour divisions of the 24 hours of the day: rat, water buffalo, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. Some animal signs, their years and those born in them are considered especially lucky. This superstition has led to planned “baby booms”, nowadays often helped by caesarean delivery.

       The years are counted in cycles of 60, comparable to our centuries. This stems from a combination of the twelve animal signs and the five elements, metal, water, wood, fire and earth. These elements form the chain of life. Metal (container) collects water, water allows wood to grow, wood feeds the fire’s flames, fire turns into ash, or earth, the earth contains metals. Like yin and yang they complete the great harmony of the world. Just as the animal cycle of the years affects the character, according to Chinese astrology the elements do too, as far as the characteristics of the zodiac sign allow. We are now in the element metal.

The year of the Tiger

       The tiger is in most Asian countries what the lion is to us: the king of the animals. It symbolizes the power and strength of the ruler. In most parts of Asia it was the privilege of the ruler to kill it when it was hunted. Warlords often dressed their troops in striped uniforms to frighten their adversary. Even today a tiger cap and tiger shoes shall protect children from bad influences and tiger balm chases away diseases of all sorts from headache to swollen feet. A paper tiger, a dummy, is suspended from many doors in China as a protection against evil spirits.

       People born in the year of the tiger are thought to be powerful, courageous, fearless, headb and command respect. Sensitive, thoughtful, sympathetic, loving their families, they ward off the three disasters: thieves, fire and evil spirits. This is certainly true of Beethoven, perhaps less so of Karl Marx.

Glass snuff bottle with painted interior

       The figure shows a particularly beautiful, very expressive inside painted glass bottle with a tiger entering a water surface. It is only 8 cm high to be worn in the sleeve, (photo by / collection of the author). Glass snuff bottles with painted interiors are a charming invention of the Peking school during the nineteenth century. Such complete paintings are made with almost unbelievable skill by inserting, through the small opening of only 5 mm, a hair, a bamboo splinter or a thin, bent brush dipped in enamel paint, to create miniature pictures inside the glass. A single moment of inattention, a tremble or slip of the hand or a deviation of one fifth of a millimetre can irrevocably spoil the work of art. The artist lies on his back with the bottle held up to the light and first draws the outline from the bottom of the bottle to the neck before he fills in the colour. According to a tale, the procedure was invented when an unjustly held prisoner scratched his glass bottle with an earpick hoping to find a last lump of brown snuff. Involuntarily he created a lovely pattern in the brown film coating the interior. His fellow prisoners and the jailer encouraged him to continue developing the technique.

Seal of the artist

       The letters are “tiger” and the signature of the painter. For the Chinese, only the four traditional disciplines qualify as art: calligraphy, i.e. “beautiful writing”, painting (developed from calligraphy), poetry and music. Everything else, including sculpture, jade carving, or the production of articles for daily use such as simple snuff bottles, was considered, with a certain disdain, as a handicraft. This distinction arose in part because handicraft depended on expensive materials and so was mostly commissioned. The craftsman had to work for a living. The artist was free of such earthbound considerations. The craftsman usually did not sign his products, in contrast to the artist. Exceptions such as a few bronze casters and the famous jade carver Lu Zijiang in the sixteenth century only confirm this rule. The painters who decorated the interior of glass snuff bottles are also an exception. Their products were considered as real art and often show the seal of the artist. Properly speaking, they are original paintings, although on Peking glass or crystal.

       In an old Chinese legend, once every year an enormous evil beast came out of the sea on the first day of the New Year. It was found out that it did not like the red colour and loud noise. So the Chinese dressed in red - the colour of luck, carried red lampions and ignited crackers on that day to drive it away. This custom has lasted to the present day and now cheers the New Year.

Klaus G. Muller, 2010