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Image from China Highlights

Today is Chinese New Year, also known as Spring Festival or, in Chinese, Chūn jié(春节). In the days of old, Chinese New Year fell on the first day of the lunar calendar. Using the solar calendar, it can start anytime between January 21 and February 20.

Each year features one of the twelve animals of the Chinese animal zodiac, shēng xiào (生肖): rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. 2018 is the Year of the Dog, an auspicious animal known for its loyalty, independence, and courage. Those born in 1922, 1934, 1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, or 2018 may claim the Year of the Dog as their zodiac year, běn mìng nián (本命年).

According to legend, a race determined which animals formed the zodiac and in what order they placed. The dog won 11th place. (For a more detailed account of this legend, I recommend this article.)

Through Chinese mythology, dogs make many appearances, legends highlighting their loyalty and strength. The Yao and She ethnic minorities of China regard the dog as an ancestor, according to the myth of the dragon-dog Panhu, who slayed the Quanrong invaders and enemies of Emperor Ku and brought the emperor the head of the dreaded Marshall Wu. Emperor Ku had promised gold, a title, and marriage to his younger daughter to he who killed Marshall Wu, and so grudgingly granted Panhu the reward. Panhu and the princess removed to a southern mountain, where they gave birth to the forefathers of the Yao and She.[1]

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Panhu is assumed to be a shar-pei (Photo from Dog Breeds List)

Other ethnic groups revere the dog for obtaining precious grain seed for humans. As the myth goes, grain thrived on earth, but humans did not appreciate it, so the God of Heaven determined to take the grain back. A dog grabbed the god’s trousers to stop him and, touched by the dog’s determination, the God of Heaven left seeds from each grain for the dog.[2] Among the Miao people, the Dog Carrying Day Festival, called Tai Gou Jie, celebrates the dog for having legendarily led their ancestors to water during a not uncommon period of water shortage in their native Guizhou Province. [3]

Ancient Chinese folklore also credits a black dog in the sky, called Tiangou (天狗) or “Sky Dog”, for solar eclipses. Tiangou aims to devour the sun, and no amount of shooting of arrows or banging of pots by royal astronomers would deter it. [4]

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Tiangou (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

Many Chinese sayings and proverbs reference dogs, in both positive and negative lights. One, “狗不嫌家贫,儿不嫌母丑”, translates, “A dog won’t forsake his master because of his poverty; a son never deserts his mother for her homely appearance”, which speaks to the devotion of the dog. This saying cautions one to not turn against those close to oneself. The proverb “狗嘴里吐不出象牙” says, “Out of a dog’s mouth will never come ivory tusks”, which implies the baseness of dog and observes that one should not expect good words to come from an evil mouth.

To all of the dogs out there, seek the rabbits this year! According to Chinese belief surrounding dogs’ compatibility characteristics, rabbits (such as myself) make for great companions.

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祝你狗年大吉!Wishing you huge blessings in the Year of the Dog!

(zhù nǐ gǒu nián dà jí)

笑口常开!May you smile often!

(xiào kǒu cháng kāi)

[1] Chinese Myths and Legends, by Lianshen Chan, pp. 92-94

[2] Handbook of Chinese Mythology, by Lihui Yang, pp. 54-55

[3] Dogs and the Miao people

[4] Tiangou and the solar eclipse