Twelve: Shengxiao Zodiac Creatures in Art and Words

Page 1

十w 二

e l v e










G U R - A R I E E .



Look to the voices in my stories: the textures and the temperaments of the creatures I have divined will tell you who I am, where I have been, and the shapes and shadows of my dreams. A l i c e G u r- A r i e


A R T I S T ’ S V I S I O N The idea for this book took shape in my mind when my f r i e n d J o h n V o l l m e r, w h o s e international reputation as a r e s p e c t e d A s i a n a r t s c h o l a r, curator and consultant is as firmly entrenched as his generosity of spirit, invited me to create the image for h i s Ye a r o f t h e H o r s e C h i n e s e N e w Ye a r g r e e t i n g c a r d . Using as inspiration the short curatorial synopsis John w a n t e d t o i n c l u d e , I created Tianma, and redesigned the existing piece of communication. The result was a sophisticated eCard that John sent to his network of curators, galleries, dealers 3

and academics around the world. John

I invite the viewer to replace the win-

But creating the animal images was

was delighted with the response he

dow through which they see the world,

only the beginning of what has become

received, and we have collaborated on

with a lens that interprets visual expe-

Tw e l v e . O n e d a y, i n a n e m a i l e x c h a n g e

C h i n e s e N e w Ye a r g r e e t i n g c a r d s e v e r

rience into something that is at once

about my snake artwork, John recount-


familiar and foreign. How to apply that

ed a Chinese tale about Bai Suzhen, or

a p p r o a c h t o t h e a n i m a l w o r l d , I k n e w,

Lady White Snake, casually suggesting

The experience of reinventing the

would be a challenge, but I set about

it would be amusing if she had snake-

Chinese zodiac for these animals was

finding the zodiac animals to photo-

s k i n s l i p p e r s . H e n c e t h e s t o r y, T h e

so satisfying that somewhere between

graph, the first step in the process.

Slippers of Bai Suzhen was born. And I k n e w t h e n , w i t h a b s o l u t e c e r t a i n t y, t h a t

T i a n m a a n d Ya n g ( Ye a r o f t h e S h e e p ) , I decided to create the entire collection

An d a w o n d r o u s p r o c e s s i t h a s b e e n .

I had to write a story relating to each

of all twelve creatures.

A m o n k e y, i s a m o n k e y, i s a m o n k e y ?

zodiac animal.

Absolutely not. When I lear ned from My work sits in the “sweet spot” where

John that there are at least 17 names

I b e g a n m y c a r e e r a s a w r i t e r, s o t h e

fine art and photography converge.

for monkeys in Chinese, I dared myself

idea of conceiving twelve short stories

Tr e a t i n g m y p h o t o g r a p h a s a c a n v a s ,

to explore one of the most haunting of

was far from daunting; Slippers was

images are interpreted as they are

my images in as many ways as possible

completed in two short sessions. The

repainted by hand digitally with a

—17, to be exact. The result is a fasci-

parameter of 750-1000 words per story

"brush", sometimes in layers to create

nating continuum that evokes a range

was entirely self-imposed; a creative

washes, sometimes pixel by pixel where

of emotional responses and anthropo-

challenge I set for myself because I

detail demands. But understand: my

morphic attributions, and has enormous

wanted the reader to be able to quickly

work starts with having a vision; it is


and effortlessly enter and exit the world

not about digital manipulation.


o f a n y a n i m a l Ye a r a t t h e i r p l e a s u r e .

O u t o f o r d e r, a s a b e d t i m e p r e a m b l e ,

situations that if distant, are distinct

enthralled by a particular image or

and familiar; possibly archetypal, but

simply wanting to read a story—the

above all, in some way touching.

contents had to be accessible, inviting, memorable and rewarding.

There are facets of me everywhere. I am the wise poet and the agonising

While some of the stories exist only

Emperor in Mandate; I am the self-

in their own space and time, closer

a w a r e P i g g y, V i o l e t , w h o i s d i f f e r e n t

reading reveals that in about half the

from the others; I am the resolute

s t o r i e s , c h a r a c t e r s – h u m a n o r o t h e r-

Grace in Bequest, the daring child

w i s e – c o e x i s t i n t h e s a m e r e a l i t y, d e -

compelled to explore the forbidden

spite different locations and temporal

m y s t e r y o f t h e s l i p p e r s ; t h e b i t t e r,

c o n t e x t s . T h e y k n o w, o r k n o w o f , e a c h

almost-mad rat, the doomed dragon,

o t h e r, a d d i n g a n o t h e r d i m e n s i o n t o t h e

and the stubborn ox. Perhaps most

w o r l d o f Tw e l v e . E n j o y f i n d i n g t h e s e

telling, I am each of the seventeen

cross references as you read through

monkeys, trying to make sense of “6

the cycle.

s i d e s t o a d a y ” , w a n t i n g w h a t ’s b e y o n d their reach.

I strived to create voices that find their truth in a mix of myth, fable, anecdote, i m a g i n a t i o n , a n d o c c a s i o n a l l y, h i s t o r i cal fact. Characters for whom it is easy to suspend disbelief, living through







生 肖

生 肖五 行

F O R E W O R D Ancient Chinese efforts to harmonize human experience in the world with the universe, and find meaningful correlations that could affect the future, resulted in a cosmology that structured concepts and relationships through an immense system of associations. Based on numeric patterns, it includes the Shengxiao (生肖, literally “birth

likeness”) and Wuxing

( 五 行 , l i t e r a l l y, “ f i v e t r a v e l l e r s ” ) . Both systems are related to observations of the motions of the planets against the groupings of stars, as the planets rotate counterclockwise around the pivot of the 7

north celestial pole. Shengxiao is based

norms. It also serves as the foundation

cycle is counted in years, each repre-

o n a l u n i s o l a r c a l e n d a r a n d J u p i t e r ’s

for concepts as diverse as Chinese

sented by an animal.

repeating 12-year cycle. The Wuxing is

medicine, and Feng shui (风水, literally

associated with the five planets visible

“wind-water”) for arranging spaces and

The origins of the quirky collection of

to the naked eye.

the art of cooking.

familiar farm animals, powerful wild beasts, plus a mythic dragon and a

Wuxing can also be translated as five

While the waxing and waning moon

rooster (the only gendered sign) are

“Elements” or “Phases”, in part because

marked other measures of time, the

l o s t t o h i s t o r y. E v i d e n c e o f d i v i n a t i o n s

each planet was identified with one of

number of annual lunar months did not

dates to the Shang dynasty (ca.1600-

the elements: wood, fire, earth, metal

c o i n c i d e w i t h a s o l a r y e a r. R a t h e r, t h e

1046 BCE) and associated animals with

a n d w a t e r. T h e P h a s e s w e r e t h o u g h t t o

Chinese preference for twelve expressed

celestial events. The present grouping

relate to each other and interact in

in an early counting scheme, known

of signs was given official recognition

sequential ways: generating, controlling,

a s D i z h i ( 地 支 , t r a n s l a t e d a s “ Tw e l v e

d u r i n g t h e H a n d y n a s t y.

destroying. And, being dynamic, they

Earthly Branches”) resulted in the divi-

animated all the other Chinese group-

sion of the solar year into 12 months.

I n a d d i t i o n t o t h e Tw e l v e E a r t h l y

ings of five: colours, senses, directions,

C o n s e q u e n t l y, J u p i t e r ’s 1 1 . 8 5 e a r t h

Branches system, ancient calendar

seasons, and stages of life.

year cycle was also rounded up to 12.

making in China used a second counting system, the Tiangan (天干, translated


During the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220

Shengxiao is often translated into

a s “ Te n H e a v e n l y S t e m s ” ) . C o m b i n i n g

CE), Wuxing thought became a distinct

English as “zodiac”, a generic term

these two systems created a sixty

p h i l o s o p h y, w h i c h i n c l u d e s t h e d e s c r i p -

that reflects superficial similarities to

y e a r c y c l e . Tr a d i t i o n a l l y, s i x t y y e a r s ( 5

tion of aesthetic principles, historical

Wester n systems. Both divide cycles

times12) marked a full life, in which

events, political structures and social

of time into twelve parts. The Chinese

o n e ’s z o d i a c a n i m a l c y c l e d f i v e t i m e s ,

each time associated with a different el-

opposite bank of a river they all had to

running around, and missed the actual

ement of the Wuxing: wood, fire, earth,

cross. Just as the ox was climbing out

start of the race. He came in second

m e t a l , a n d w a t e r.

o f t h e w a t e r, t h e r a t s c a m p e r e d d o w n

to last, for eleventh place. The pig got

t h e o x ’s m u z z l e a n d j u m p e d o n t o t h e

hungry waiting and decided to forage

Chinese folk culture presents us with a

r i v e r b a n k a t t h e J a d e E m p e r o r ’s f e e t t o

in the fields on a far bank. Once he

charming story about how the sequence

claim first place.

had eaten his fill he took a nap and also missed the start of the race, thus

o f a n i m a l s i n t h e z o d i a c w a s d e t e rm i n e d . T h e J a d e E m p e r o r, R u l e r o f a l l

The all-powerful dragon finished fifth

finishing last, and was awarded twelfth

Heaven, invited animals to congratulate

because it delayed leaving in time, in

p l a c e b y t h e J a d e E m p e r o r.

h i m o n h i s b i r t h d a y. T h e J a d e E m p e r o r

order to make rain to put out a house

set the conditions for a race that would

fire in a nearby village. The sheep,

So, in order of their finishing the race:

be the centerpiece of the birthday fete.

m o n k e y, a n d r o o s t e r a r r i v e d t o g e t h e r o n

r a t , o x , t i g e r, r a b b i t , d r a g o n , s n a k e ,

Each of the twelve years of the zodiac

a r a f t . B e c a u s e o f t h e s h e e p ’s c a l m i n g

h o r s e , s h e e p , m o n k e y, r o o s t e r, d o g ,

cycle would be named for an animal in

demeanor on the rather rough passage,

and pig.

the order it finished the race.

his raft mates insisted the sheep exit the raft first, taking eighth place. The

The longer version of this tale informs

monkey was next off, followed by the

us that the reason the cat was omitted

r o o s t e r, t h u s c l a i m i n g n i n t h a n d t e n t h

w a s b e c a u s e t h e c a t ’s b e s t f r i e n d , t h e

p l a c e s r e s p e c t i v e l y.

J o h n E . Vo l l m e r

rat, misinformed him of the day for t h e r a c e . F u r t h e r, w i t h h i s k e e n e y e -

The dog and pig were last, despite

sight, the rat offered to guide the ox, a

being good swimmers. The dog was

strong swimmer but nearly blind, to the

distracted by interesting scents and


十w 二 10

e l v e S H E N G X I A O





一 1


鼠 A

T 13


I am a rat.

Jews. The Nazi talks in metaphors,

No, not in the sense of genus Rattus,

to the part about rats, you know he is

but the Chinese zodiac animal meaning. I was about 13 when I first heard

of the Chinese zodiac. But it affected me immediately, in a stunning way,

making me think that someone or something out there knew about me, in fact knew me. Knew I wished I had Jordie B u c k ’s s c o o t e r , k n e w I c o p i e d K e i t h

talking about himself. The hiding place is revealed, and the Jews are shot. I

was repelled by the whole rat business before I saw the movie, but this scene etched a yawning, disagreeable mark o n m y p s y c h e . Yo u c o u l d s a y I n e v e r got over it.

M e r r a l y ’s a n s w e r s o n t h e e x a m . A n d

Once, I Googled “Chinese zodiac rat”,

the headaches. Knew about the fine,

I found a tidy little square char t on

all these years later, knew I lied about straight, still-purple scars on the back

of my arms. Knew me better than I knew myself…knew I would be writing all this down.

I am not happy about being a rat. It

conjures up all kinds of negative images. My brain cannot help but play a h o r r i d 1 9 5 0 ’s s t y l e v i d e o c l i p o f a

woman screaming when she sees one

in her basement. And of course, I’ve never forgotten the Brad Pitt movie (Brad Pitt isn’t very good in it, but

the other actors are) where a nasty Nazi officer arrives at the home of

a French farmer suspected of hiding


and when the story he makes up gets

just to see whether I fit the profile.

the Wikipedia page that cites positive traits as: ambitious, intelligent,

persuasive, sociable, charming, god

like, charismatic, shrewd, industrious, meticulous, tenacious, artistic,

eloquent. Not that I didn’t like it, but the “god like” bit I didn’t get. Just

beside it, the negative traits are listed: vindictive, manipulative, selfish, cunning, self-destructive, exploitative,

scheming, arrogant, amoral, jealous, suspicious, ruthless, critical, venal, envious, greedy.

I’d give the author of those lists a

pretty good review, although you have

to admit, many people have a little of

all those characteristics. I wonder how they decide what words to use. No, I need to go back and re-write those

l a s t s e n t e n c e s . Fo r o n c e , I w a n t t o b e honest, not flippant, or rude. I am all

those things on the list - the negative o n e s . T h a t ’s h o w t h e w h o l e J o r d i e

t h i n g c a m e a b o u t , a n d t h a t ’s w h y i t ended the way it did.

It was, in fact, Jordie who explained the order of the zodiac cycle of

animals to me, reading from a piece of paper he had copied from somewhere. “ I t ’s a c o m m o n m y t h , ” h e t o l d m e ,

although he didn’t say where he found it. When he finished, I felt like I had

stopped breathing. I have committed it to memory, exactly as he told it,

but I still have the blue-lined, 3 hole

punched scrap of notepaper with his writing on it:

The most important Chinese god, t h e J a d e E m p e r o r, i n v i t e d t h e

n a m e d d a y, a n d t h e J a d e E m p e r o r

t h e c a t t h e w r o n g d a y, s o t h e c a t

lined them up on a riverbank and

misses out on the chance to win

gave them the task of getting to

the honor of being assigned one

the other side. The year cycle was

of the years.

to be set by the order in which the animals reached the other bank.

Ye s , t h e r a t h a d p u r p o s e f u l l y m i s informed the cat about the actual

date of the contest, to increase his H e r e ’s t h e p a r t a b o u t t h e r a t : The cunning rat was afraid of

own chances of success. And Jordie

thought it was hilarious. He could have been a rat too.

water and requested a ride on the back of the ox, in exchange f o r g u i d i n g t h e p o o r- s i g h t e d b e a s t . Just as the ox stepped on shore, the rat jumped off and finished the race first, becoming the sign for the first year in the cycle. The ox, t i g e r, r a b b i t , d r a g o n , s n a k e , h o r s e , s h e e p , m o n k e y, r o o s t e r, d o g a n d p i g followed.

I don’t exactly remember how I got

from that day to this one. I have tried to write about it, but I end up writing around it, as I have here. I have tried talking about it, but when I do, that sick, almost-dead feeling star ts to

come back and chokes me. I only know that that harmless little story

p o i s o n e d m e . Po i s o n e d J o r d i e , t o o .

F u n n y t o t h i n k o f i t t h a t w a y . Po i s o n e d A n d t h e r e ’s a s e c o n d e n d i n g t o t h e

story too, as if the first deception was

the rat who poisoned the rat. Lucky the lady in my head wasn’t harmed.

not bad enough.

animals to his court to be select-

When the rat gets the invitation

ed as the sign to represent each

f r o m t h e J a d e E m p e r o r, t h e c a t

of the years in the twelve-year

i s a w a y, b u t t h e r a t s a y s h e w i l l

cycle. The animals arrived on the

pass on the news. The rat gives



二 2

牛 O




Yo u w i l l b e - s h o u l d b e - s u r p r i s e d t o hear from me. I was not supposed to

be a character in this book, as you will

when I learned of the ruse.

know if you read the rat story. But

I doubt you need to be reminded that

constant friend the Ox, whose recent

vented my friend from receiving the

here I am, to pay tribute to my dear,

experience in deception destroyed his faith in the balance of the universe, and ultimately led to his demise.

Yo u d o n ’ t h a v e a n y t h i n g t o g o o n ,

really, in terms of my character, other

i t w a s t h e R a t ’s d e c e p t i o n t h a t p r e -

highest of honours bestowed by the Emperor: first place in the race to cross the river. First in the zodiac

cycle. The details have been confirmed by many who were present.

than perhaps, some experience with

But I digress. The point of this story

you will know that I possess a rever-

highly respected character; one who

someone in my extended family. If so, ence for independence, the determi-

nation to live life on my terms, and an abhorrence of all things intended to

curb my passions for - well, the list is

rather long… But that does not mean I

am not a loyal friend. I am proud of my reputation for standing by those for

whom I have affection, and this com-

is to honour a decent, steadfast,

cared about others, and who embodied a sense of social duty and responsibility for the general well being of those

h e e n c o u n t e r e d . Ye s , o c c a s i o n a l l y h e

could be stubborn, but he himself was a forgiving character, and I cannot praise him enough.

mendation is testament to that.

Where was he when his friend the

I recall the facts of the situation quite

pranks with mud holes? When the

clearly, but I will not repeat them to you in detail, because you already know what transpired, and telling

the story only causes me to become breathless and pant, and feel again


the flush of anguish that I endured

Monkey got into trouble playing Rooster was sick and his golden

feathers faded to an unlucky, sickly

white? How far did he travel to bring back his lost friend, the Rabbit? I

will tell you: he was the first to take

action, and sometimes the only one

Of course, many tried to comfor t and

crisis through to resolution. He was

into sipping spring water, or nibbling

who had the determination to see the there for his friends, the community and of course, the Emperor.

Look at the images of him, and you will see what I mean. There, in the bushes,

console him. Others tried to cajole him s o m e o f h i s f a v o u r i t e g r a s s . To n o

avail. And so he languished, until his

eyes closed and his heart slowed to a stop.

smiling in the sunlight. There looking

What are we to understand from these

- purple, blue. A magnificent beast.

Phases also battle for favour and

up at us, all aglow in his lucky colours Unashamedly simple, but honest and industrious.

So here we are. My friend the Ox, relegated to second in a race he

should have won; the petulant, picky,

too-cheerful Rat with first place in the cycle. A privilege, an honour for all

time, gained in the most despicable of ways. So aggrieved was my friend, so

events about the universe? That the

dominance? That balance can become unbalanced? That yang is stronger

than yin? I do not have the answers. I am just a cat. And now I am out of

words, so I will leave you to consider the meaning of it all. The sunshine

b e c k o n s f o r m y a f t e r n o o n n a p . Pe r h a p s I will come to some conclusion before I fall asleep. If I do I will let you know.

tormented that he had been tricked, he could not converse with family or friend, nor eat what was put before him, nor return to his daily routine.

He simply lay down and stared blankly upward towards the sky, showing

neither comprehension nor reaction to anything or anyone around him.


三 3

T 20


虎 G





Pe r h a p s I s h o u l d h a v e b e e n s u r p r i s e d ,

Please forgive me, but I can’t really

Dragon appeared at the door, but I

and the story of how I became a

or afraid, or confounded when the

wasn’t. I remember looking up from my work and thinking, oh, what a beautiful creature. Not, oh, am I

imagining things, or oh, a Dragon is staring at me, or oh, what do I do

now, but something quite different. I was calm, possibly because I was

completely mesmerised by its endless tail, squarish jaw, and iridescent

scales. I do not recall feeling even one moment of disbelief.

s i l v e r s m i t h i n t h e E m p e r o r ’s c o u r t , l i k e t h e D r a g o n ’s t a i l , i s l o n g a n d

circuitous. But I can tell you, with

modesty and pride, that I am an artist - a silversmith - of rare ability. My body may be frail, but my eyes can

still focus on the smallest point; my

hands know the secrets of formation; my grip is strong, and my fingers so

steady that the finest lines are etched without worry or pause.

Now I’m sure you’re doubting my

But now, may I refer you to the

look of apprehension on your face as

h a v e n ’ t r e a d i t , i t ’s t h e o n e a b o u t

reliability as a narrator. I can see the you read about my encounter. But let me assure you, while my story is only o n e p e r s o n ’s a t t e s t a t i o n , I c a n p r o v e that what I’m about to tell you is the truth. After all, this whole book is

based on events that have survived

the wrath of Nature and the ravages

of men for centuries. Why would you feel any differently about my story,

t h a n y o u w o u l d , s a y , V i o l e t ’s , o r t h e strange tale about the snake skin slippers?


start at the beginning. I’m too old,

D r a g o n ’s 6 t h d r e a m o n p . 3 1 . I f y o u the Tiger, not the Rat, winning the

E m p e r o r ’s r a c e . T h e p o i n t i s , i n t h e

dream, the Dragon gives the Tiger a prize for winning the race: a silver necklace. I know this may confuse

you, as it is a confluence of dreams and reality, but I am the silversmith that made that necklace. And there

is more jumble to come, because the story I want to tell you is not really a b o u t t h e D r a g o n , i t ’s a b o u t t h e

Tiger! And so much to relate: how it befriended Tianma, how it slept 40

nights with the sheep counter the

I never met the Tiger, of course; I

shall have to approach it, as there is

how it came to own the necklace when

images Alice gave me for reference.

through the door way. I’ll be right

summer of the butterfly swarm, and it didn’t win the race.

But first - I’d like to tell you about

the silver necklace, which, along with four finely cast silver goblets I made for the Emperor last year, is one of

my greatest achievements. I designed it myself: 12 shiny rounds linked

together, each bearing the form of

one of the animals in the race, each

created the drawing based on the

It was her idea to use the pattern of

t h e T i g e r ’s f u r , b u t w i t h o n l y w e e k s t o go before the race, I decided on the

Inches’ intense black eyes, or follow the curves in his muscular body to

know it is the Tiger, and understand the strength behind the face.

whole. The tiger medallion, in honour

not have to worry about whether it

the Dragon presumed would be the

winner), is larger than the others, and looks like this:

see what it wants.

i s s p l e n d i d . Yo u d o n o t n e e d t o s e e

Needless to say, the necklace is large,

of the winner (or more correctly, who

back to finish the story... I’ll just go

T i g e r ’s h e a d , a n d I t h i n k t h e r e s u l t

boldly cast in unambiguous lines that identify the creature in part or in

no way the creature can manage itself

a n d q u i t e h e a v y . T h a n k Fo r t u n e I d i d would weigh too much for the Tiger -

the big cats in our forests are known

for their strength as much as for their courage and intelligence (and yes,

sometimes their arrogance and short temper). All I had to figure out was

how an old man like me would lift the silver nugget onto my work bench.

One minute please...The Dragon is at my door again, sniffing the air, and I can’t tell whether in pleasure or

d i s t a s t e . ( Pe r h a p s h e s m e l l s t h e a r o m a of my dinner, pan roasted rabbit in

ginseng wine and garlic sauce...?) I


四 4

R 24


卯 B






I just have a couple of minutes to

chat with you. The race is set for

tomorrow, and there is still so much to d o . T h i s i s w h a t ’s o n m y l i s t :

find my lucky pink bunny slippers.

I wanted to wear them to the Starting

Po i n t , b u t I h a v e n ’ t g o t a c l u e w h e r e I might have lef t them. They’re my

favourites, and they’ve been missing for several days. Fluffy candy floss stuff inside and out, with a button

nose and sof t floppy ears just like mine. I MUST get in the habbit of putting away my things.

• send a birthday greeting to dear

little Bea, the dog, who will be 7 years

old. I adore Bea - just as a friend, you understand, but still...she is - was? the sweetest, most joyous of all the

farm animals. I can’t tell you how much I miss her since she disappeared. But don’t get me star ted; I remember the whole thing like I remember where I

planted all my carrots. Thinking about it again just makes me miserable. I know she won’t get my message. I

know I’m doing it just because I do it every year, but I can’t help myself.


• speaking of carrots, I need to

recheck the supply of my greens before the weather changes. I’m quite concerned that I may have

underestimated how much I needed to

plant for the season, especially since I want to give some of it to Violet and the other pigs. They’ve had a really rough time with the swine flu.

• last but not least, I absolutely

MUST try to talk sense into Jessica. I MUST make the most beautiful

rabbit in the whole world understand

she is the love of my life. I know this

should be first on my list, but I’m torn between giving her some distance to calm down af ter our argument, and

pleading with her to give me another chance. Hesitant and stubborn -

t h a t ’s m e a l l o v e r . A n d w h e r e h a s i t

gotten me. I ask myself that question o v e r a n d o v e r . Yo u ’ d t h i n k i t w o u l d

be impossible to be both those two t h i n g s , b u t c l e a r l y i t ’s n o t .

Now, if there is one thing that drives m e C R A Z Y, i t ’s a l l t h e f a i r y t a l e s a n d

comic strip wannabes that HAUNT me everywhere I go. If I hear one more

chorus of “I’m late, I’m late, for a very

t h i s t o m y To D o l i s t : g e t r i d o f t h e

manners, which I won’t go in to. She

in a rabbit stew” line, I shall cut off

adventures. If Jessica is going to take

habbits and I like them. But what

important date...” or the dreadful “I’m one of my feet. Br’er rabbit etchings, B u g s B u n n y c a r t o o n s - a n d l e t ’s n o t forget all that showbiz razzmatazz

list of names from previous amorous

me seriously, this is nothing short of U R G E N T.

about being “pulled” out of a hat.

Yo u k n o w , I ’ v e b e e n t h i n k i n g ( a n o t h e r

equipped to argue that point with you,

ask your opinion about something?

I’d call it “yanked” - and I’m well

a s I a c t u a l l y H AV E b e e n p u l l e d o u t o f

a hat. One of my first jobs, when I was a youngster and didn’t know better,

and cer tainly the worst. Unforgivable n o n s e n s e . A c t u a l l y , i t ’s w o r s e t h a n

was nattering on to you. I AM pleased.

to join the group of

white rabbits who live on the other

side of the field, quite some distance from where I Iive now.

so this makes me hum with pride and

in my eyes has gone white. How I will

manage to get through the race I don’t know.

Usually, I’m a sensitive soul. I’m

likeable. I make friends everywhere I g o . C h i l d r e n a d o r e m e . Ye s I k n o w

I fall in and out of love easily. But I try not to hurt anyone. I just crave a f f e c t i o n - w h a t ’s w r o n g w i t h t h a t ?

Which reminds me, I had better add

just to her, living so far away?

I’ve been invited

have been quite depressed about this twitches uncontrollably, and the red

whenever I can. Could I commit myself

O h H U R R AY ! I j u s t f o u n d m y s l i p p e r s .

O n t h e o n e h a n d , i t ’s a n h o n o u r t o

mixed up world. I can’t sleep. My nose

about Jessica? Right now I see her

bad habbit, if not my worst). Can I

n o n s e n s e . I t ’s m e a n a n d h u r t f u l - i n

the full sense of the word! Lately, I

says I’m stubborn, but they are MY

be asked. I’m a very modest rabbit, I think I should consider it. On the other hand, I would have to start a

I was looking for them all the while I

They are SO comforting. I shall wear t h e m a l l d a y a n d a l l n i g h t , u n t i l i t ’s

time for me to leave for the race. One thing on the list DONE. Now, I have to mull over what to say to Jessica,

and decide about moving. Maybe they

are connected. I’ll have to think about that.

whole new life, and give up my habbits - and there are a lot of them.

Jessica says these are the worst:

shif ting from foot to foot while making up my mind about something; turning up my nose at broccoli and brussels sprouts - especially rude in the

company of others; splashing through puddles in the woods and getting her m u d d y . . . a n d t h e n t h e r e ’s m y t a b l e


五 5

D 28


龍 A






foundational text. And I don’t have a lot of space to elucidate.

So consider if you will my stupendous

tail. Comprehend the power and lethal force of my claws. And listen while I

permission to make this claim, it is a

matter of fact. Consider: what other mythological creature was invited to

j o i n t h e a n i m a l s i n t h e J a d e E m p e r o r ’s race? Name me a symbol more omnipresent, more revered in ancient or modern Chinese culture than I. I thought so: you cannot.

that designed him, and defiance of the battle that will deliver his demise.

Six numbered dreams I can recount

(three lucky, three hapless) and three missing without explanation. They are out of order, scattered across time,

connected by characters you have met elsewhere in this book, and scenes

Alice has painted that illustrate the Phases.

one features a colour of my own good

o r d i n a r y p e o p l e l i k e y o u . Ye s , t h e r e are clues revealed in the Wuxing,

but I suspect you aren’t interested

enough to undertake a study of that


makes in deference to the mysteries

centuries, fed by the imaginations, rulers, scholars, magicians and


know that roosters do not sit on

The first three dreams are labelled

inclinations and aspirations of

s i n i s t e r , a n d u n e a s y . Yo u ’ l l s e e w h a t I

breathtaking, fire-breathing dragon.

How this came to be - how I came to be - is a story that has grown over

purple and black. The settings are

I n t h e 1 s t d r e a m , m y f r i e n d Fo l l y i s

Yo u w i l l h e a r t h e s o u n d a d r a g o n

a magnificent beast. I do not need

unlucky (for me) colours - red, green,

recount the dreams that parallel my

transformation from mortal creature to

If I say so myself - and I do - I am

favourites), are told in ominous,

with my lucky numbers 1,6, and 7. Each Fo r t u n e : g o l d , s i l v e r a n d g r e y m a k e cameo appearances integral to the

sitting on a golden egg. Now we all e g g s , b u t w e a l s o k n o w t h a t Fo l l y

is a bit eccentric. The egg was the

size of a goose egg, but otherwise

perfect in contour and complexion, and glittering, as the expression

suggests. Most of us gathered in the yard to discuss what to do about

it, with the hens clucking emotional

outrage and Bea, the dog, chasing her tail in delight. After much debate, all w e c o u l d a g r e e u p o n w a s Fo l l y ’s l u c k , s o w e n i c k n a m e d h i m G o l d e n Fo l l y .

T h e r e ’s a p a i n t i n g o f G o l d e n Fo l l y o n page 65, if you’d like to have a look. H e w a s g i v e n t h e h o n o u r o f Ye a r o f

the Rooster, and so proud of that he was.


In dream number 3, daylight had

The last three dreams, bearing

liked the colour red; it scares me.

the numbers 3, 8, and 9 (not my

turned the purest colour red. I never I t m a k e s m e t h i n k o f J o r d i e ’s p l a c e :

a ratty den of deep black shadows

Have you heard of dragon boats?

and the Costa del Sol. I have come to

It always seemed full of shapes you

not see myself in any of the cartoon

goodbye. And that is all. The sunrise

encircled with glowing crimson light. couldn’t quite make out and were sure to trip over. Keith was nearby, half

hidden in hazy, forest green shadows.

Just like in the picture. He and Jordie were conspiring about some business deal. Seemed to me they were always exchanging secrets. Awful what

happened to Jordie, but I woke up

before the dream ended, and the story leaves you to wonder.

In the 6th dream, the Tiger, not the

R a t , w i n s t h e E m p e r o r ’s r a c e . E x t r a ordinarily different from the tale as

J o r d i e t e l l s i t . ( Yo u c a n r e a d J o r d i e ’s version of the race on page 15.) How could that be? Surely the universe

would have unfolded differently...? And I watch it happen. I note the

(A fitting compliment, although I do

monster faces attached to the prows.) In this dream (number 7, for those

of you not paying attention) I watch

(Clearly I had “race” on my mind!)

shadows. Black is the colour of

The bridges are alive with everyone

shouting and waving on their favourite team. All the boats are painted with crude and silly depictions of my

s c a l e s . Fa c s i m i l e h e a d s t o s s b a c k a n d forth, threatening to come loose or

come off. All except one. One dragon head sits firmly on the prow, looks

steadfastly for ward and moves with the grace of flight. I watch as the

boat passes: it is my new face, and I know my boat will win.

and the air of certainty as he crosses

reminds me of the impermanence of

o t h e r o u t c o m e . Yo u c a n s e e i t i n h i s portrait. The attitude of knowing.

But there - I’m in the dream too! I’m the one that gives the Tiger a silver necklace as the prize.

King, and I know I am doomed.

B l a c k i s f o r o u t l i n e . Fo r a l l c o l o u r s ,

d a y i n Ve n i c e f o r a d r a g o n b o a t r a c e .

It is the eighth day of a purple sky.

it, as if he never expected any

or sunset (?) holds my gaze. I am the

as excited crowds gather on a grey

e l e g a n c e o f t h e T i g e r ’s b o d y a s h e stretches to reach the finish line,

join the cloudless morning in a last

But skies change, so the 8th dream

Kings and Emperors. I am standing at

the steps of my mountaintop lodging, wearing my armour and bearing my

s h i e l d w i t h i t s d r a g o n e m b l e m . To t h e

a n d n o c o l o u r . Fo r e m p h a s i s a n d

soldiers, and poets, and jesters who cannot see. It defines and it denies, and it is the signature of the 9th

dream. It will not be my final dream,

but it will be the last I share with you.

This dream is full of faces that scream the rage and wretchedness of my

friend the Monkey. I count 17 faces,

but I do not know any of their names.

So. Make what you will of the dreams. The time for pleasantries is over.

My skin has shed, and my new body is revealed. Unchanged in colour, I

am defined by a strong jaw, delicate ears, and a long, serpentine body. I

cannot see all of it, but I think myself awe inspiring. And now I must join the others in a race. Wish me luck.

southeast, beyond the hills layered with hope and forgiving, is the sea,



六 6





E 33


I know you can hear me, although my

all the courage a young boy can bear,

moon you cannot see. I was born in the

sheen. Ask me: were they gold? Silver?

voice is a shadow, like the side of the

north, on the 5th day of the 5th month, a date that marked the first day of

summer, but rained with snowflakes

I cannot tell you. I simply knew they held the answer to her mystery.

from which there was no escape. My

But this tale is not about my mother, it

only the powers of enchantment can

endless rivers, and cloud covered

story begins and ends with magic, for explain why you listen as I speak, but

cannot see my face, or hands, or delicate body.

I am the son of Xu Xian and Bai Suzhen,

is my story; a tale of shivering silence, nights. It began with a touch of the snakeskin slippers, a moment when

t h e w a r m t h o f Fo r t u n e c u r d l e d l i k e o l d milk, and changed my life forever.

the White Snake demon, whose marriage

Oh, I remember the quiet of the day;

parents lived simply and honourably,

humming butterflies, and red poppies

was a union of love and distinction. My devoted to curing the sick and helping the desperate. But my mother, beauti-

ful and generous as we believed her to be, had a secret.

Every morning, she would come to my room and awaken me with sweet tea

and ginger fruit. Her robes were the softest silk, and I would gather her

sleeve in my hand, and as the fabric melted between my fingers, I would

breathe in the scent of tea, and know a c h i l d ’s h a p p i n e s s . O n h e r f e e t w e r e slippers made of snakeskin, and I re-

call that as she walked, I wanted, with


to catch a glimpse of their heavenly

a n o r d i n a r y d a y , w i t h s u m m e r ’s

reaching for the sun. I was ten years old, and full of desire to see, taste, touch the world beyond my room, beyond the garden, beyond the

borders of my experience. My father and mother were in the next village, visiting one of the elders who was

dying. I was always told the stories

of their days; about the people they

ser ved and cared for, but I was never allowed to travel with them. And so I

was without any playmate, or sentinel, unable to push away the sudden

realisation that I could explore my

m o t h e r ’s r o b e s i n s e a r c h o f a c l o s e r

look – and perhaps lay a hand on – her wonderful snakeskin slippers.

I knew the way. I had been down the hall that led to the wardrobe many

times; my parents did not forbid me to

visit any rooms in the house. But I was not allowed to open the closet that

held their clothes, just as I was not permitted to open the drawers that held the herbs and potions used in their craft.

And so I walked, following the line of

cold terra cotta tiles that made a path from my room to the kitchen, past the table where we ate, past the cellar

where we stored our rice and dried

fish, past the terrace adorned with

scented lilies and hanging baskets of fuchsia. There I stopped, pausing to still my pulse.

It stood just ahead, tall, deep and

There was no spring to the clasp, it

or drink from the rivers. I was touched

opposite door. When I calmly slid it

moment, my human form forsaken. I do

was held in place by a ring on the

out of the fitting, there was no movement but a soft whisper of air coming

from within. And so, without wisdom or fear, I embraced the moment that had unfolded before me, and I pulled the

to – I had never dared.


glorious than any springtime valley

could promise. I could smell the rose oil my mother wore, and traces of s m o k e f r o m m y f a t h e r ’s p i p e . B u t

nothing prepared me for the radiance

of the slippers, which smouldered like moonlight on still lake water, on the clearest, finest, most perfect night. I thought: the light glows… will my

fingers burn? Or is it ice that hangs in a mist? I do not know.

to touch the halo, the skin of the

mysteries inside. I had never wanted

the wind that keeps her eyes from

opened them I would see hues more

leaves and birds and dragonflies on its ple latch that separated me from the

am the fire that flows from her breath,

My eyes were shut, but I knew when I

I stood there watching – I have no

doors. But I had never opened the sim-

not understand her secret, but I know I

doors open.

black. A thousand times I had traced w i t h a c h i l d ’s d e l i g h t t h e c a r v i n g s o f

b y m y m o t h e r ’s m a g i c , a n d i n t h a t

measure of how long – and reached out slippers, and my destiny.

S o h e r e I a m . Yo u c a n h e a r m e , b u t I a m not beside you. I do not live in a place you can name, or eat from the forest




七 7

H 38







15th day of the plum month in the f i r s t y e a r o f t h e r e i g n o f t h e Ta i z o n g Emperor

thoughts or ambitions. Never. Never. I can say the words are true - did I

To d a y i s t h e d a y , a n d I a m s t i r r e d b y

n o t v i s i t t h e E m p e r o r ’s s t a b l e s t o s e e

constant in my demeanor, but here

not stand before the piebald one they

thoughts. I have ser ved the Emperor

for the arrows he received in battle?

poems to celebrate the seasons, and

flesh, did I not recoil from the sight?

t h e y u n f o l d e d . M y t a s k ? To w r i t e a

but I must present it this evening, and

there are no creatures he loves as

do no better than I have done.

as closely. Six horses, famous for

He breathes the sound of a shiver

a mix of emotions. I know I must be

the animals with my own eyes? Did I

in my diary I will explain my private

call Qingzhui, and commend him softly

- and his father before him - writing

A n d a s I l o o k e d a t t h e b e a s t ’s t o r n

applaud the occasions of honour as

No, this is not the poem I intended,

t r i b u t e t o t h e G r e a t O n e ’s s t e e d s ;

read it with cer tainty and calm. I can

dearly, esteems so highly, or guards their beauty, and boldness in battle. My brush did not falter, yet I

digressed, as if a silent spirit guided my hand, ignoring my thoughts. One

stroke at a time, first a word and then

and the wind withdraws its design. A hoof stamps in the damp shadows where they stand and rest, a n d t h e E m p e r o r ’s k i n g d o m a w a k e n s to wonder why the earth trembles. Blinded with bridle, always-open eyes

a phrase, the text was set down,

showed no fear in battle, and now

see. I’ve read the poem a hundred

is hurt, and the rider hurries to wash away

dictated by some spirit I could not

betray no pain in suffering. But there

times, and I am cold with the

the blood and cover the wounds.

cer tainty that the verses will anger the Emperor, for he does not like


ambiguity, and we do not question his

The Emperor bans death, whether horses or babies, and we share the duty to

k e e p i t a t b a y. L i k e a l l h i s b e a s t s , w e r u n or bring or pray or speak when ordered. And at night, in the quiet of rule, we work to serve up magic so the flowers smell sweet and the fields stay rich. The battle was won but the day was squandered; too many left on the wet fields to rot, too many drowned by an unclear

provoke me; when selfish princes

abroad eye the har vests of my farms, and the treasures of my seas.

believed to be divine - and it cannot be other wise. I follow the laws of my

v i r t u o u s f a t h e r , a n d r u l e f o r w h a t ’s

best for my people and the land. So

Spring will come and the horses will parade

who paints a battle he cannot fathom?

s h i n i n g w i t h s i l v e r. W e w i l l c h e e r t h e m o n and bow as they pass. Songs of honour will be taught to our children, but chants will be sung in the temples, of doom.

* * * 16th day of the plum month in the f i r s t y e a r o f t h e r e i g n o f t h e Ta i z o n g Emperor I record here - for my own peace of

mind - that my decision is not without

emotion. I would like to say, I seek no vengeance when I am wronged, nor

forgiveness when it is not deser ved. I

would like to say, I lead my armies into

war only when I must: when my enemies

can do no better than I have done.

But none of this is true. I am Emperor,

purpose, too many lost to a virtue wronged.

again, festooned with magnolias and

and read it with cer tainty and calm. I

what will I do with this faithless “poet” Who comes to cour t and dares to judge? What wise teacher would have chosen

differently? What priest would advise other wise? I hur t for the horses who

ran with rage as I demanded, but here in my garden I cannot weep for the

s e r va n t w h o t e l l s m e I a m w ro n g . Wa s I

not there with my armies to sample the s m e l l o f d e a t h ? Wa s I n o t w re t c h e d a s I roared commands to slaughter and

fell? Did I not fall from my saddle when Qingzhui was shot, and stumbled? I close my eyes and feel the ear th

tremble. I know the sentence I must

pass, and write it with a steady hand.

I will present my decision this evening,


八 8

S 42


羊 E





y e a r. A t t h a t t i m e , t h e b l o s s o m s had opened, and the valley was intoxicated with the scent of new blooms. I shall note the count as t h i s : ⼆ 百 ⼗⼆ There is no artful way to undertake

one, and I do not err through either

repetition or omission. My number is exact, and certain.

Count: 294. I remember this number b e c a u s e i t i s m y m o t h e r ’s b i r t h d a y .

Fo r t u n e c o n s p i r e d a t m y b i r t h t o m a k e

the task, and there is no point trying

Sometimes there is no meaning to

life of a shepherd, ruled by the

complicated, in the hope of appearing

m e a n i n g s o t h e d a y i s m a r k e d . To d a y ,

me the son of a shepherd. And the

to deceive, or make the explanation

a d a y ’s c o u n t ; s o m e t i m e s I g i v e i t

calculations of the planets, is the

more masterful than what I am.

I shall note the count as this:

to count my life in moons: 396 just

Pe r h a p s t h e o t h e r s h e e p c o u n t e r s

only life I have known. I indulge myself passed.

take short cuts with their accounts,

I know how the river courses through

simply conjure up a number that

to guide the flock to drink. I can make

year - that would, no doubt, feed

birth, and the balm that heals a

grander description of his wealth. But

or seek mystical concoctions, or

the mountains, and the quickest way

swells season by season, year after

the sound that calms a ewe giving

a n y m a s t e r ’s i n s a t i a b l e a p p e t i t e f o r a

broken hoof. I am able to stir myself

no, that is not what I do.

resting hours to awaken through the

The only way is the old way: I count

scape my father shepherded with the

for ward, one following the other, and

youth, and the affirmation of a man

or caring or attention to anything

before the sun rises, and pace my

night. I have crisscrossed the land-

as they move in no order other than

glee of a child, the exuberance of a

the next after that, without knowledge

accepting that what is, will always be.

other than this way or that, towards

Count: 212. This is close to the starting number of early Spring last


I can, and count I do. I know each

or away. If they are close enough,

some blink an empty glance as they

pass, and the number changes. Count


What is the purpose of contemplating the silent, unquestionable contracts that govern who and what and where

and when. That is not a question that follows me through the day and leans

up against me when I pause my work to rest or eat. The duty to ask why - or dare to ask why not - was shed with

my youth, left behind, like the skin of a beautiful snake.

C o u n t : 8 5 4 . S u c h a b i g n u m b e r. B u t that is because the sheep from the eastern valley have joined our flock. Strange creatures with black patches that hide their eyes, some entirely black, many the colour of sand that darkens as it descends the legs. But they are no different in temperament,

stamina, or fortitude, and I do not

keep them all suckling, and moving

distinguish in the care I allot. And

steadily with the ewes, but there is

on this day I shall note the count as

no other joy that travels to my heart

this: 八百五十四

i n s u c h a w a y. I n h o n o u r o f t h e n e w ones, I will set the count today as

The things that give me pleasure: I

have stood atop a hill and felt small

this: 一千一百二十一

b u t g l o r i o u s i n t h e s u n ’s w a r m t h . I

The heat of the af ternoon refused

itself into white froth crests, and then

clammy skin. Sitting in the meagre

there are mysteries I have understood

eyes and tried to repaint the scene

have witnessed an agitated sea beat

to give up its suffocating grip on my

c o n s u m e t h e m i n a n g e r . Ye s , I c a n s a y

shadows of a dying bush, I closed my

and moments that I liken to the magic

from memory.

of a wish come true.

In the background, running across

But there also are shadows that I

the top edge of my mental canvas,

hungers I cannot aver t with patience.

lowlands from the coast. I was far too

have no language; nameless, quiet,

ascending paths or the jumble of

that taste like an unripe seed. I can

nothing except the outlined shapes

them. So they linger in my mouth and

Everything else came and went, in and

and unwilling to dissolve into

blue sky, creating the appearance of a

cannot fill with expectation, and

were the hills that separated the

There are things I want for which I

far away to see the puzzle of their

creeping bits of dissatisfaction

boulders hanging on to gorge cliffs;

neither spit them out, nor swallow

that created the horizon were evident.

on my mind, both seeking definition

out of focus, the haze dimming the


cheap, gauzy stage backdrop.

Count: 1121. The birthing season has b e e n g o o d t h i s y e a r. T h e r e a r e m a n y new little ones. It is hard work to

I f I l o w e r e d m y m i n d ’s e y e , b r i n g i n g my gaze closer, I could see that

t h e l a n d w a s f e r t i l e . Te l l t a l e t r e e s ,

boughs bursting in spotted layers of green, stood with brazen assurance

against the heavens, the wind, and the s t o r m s of next winter, still months away. But i t w a s n’t t h e t re e s t h a t h e l d m y attention.

From lef t to right, no matter where I

concentrated my effort to reconstruct the picture, I saw clouds of stirring.

Shapes nudging up against each other on one side, or both sides. Like a beast caught in a pit beneath the

ear th, the slow, ever-shif ting shape s i l e n t l y c h u r n e d . M y m i n d ’s e y e

looked at the scene, and I took a deep breath, the scent of reality waking me from my mental artistry, forcing me to replace memory with the consequences of sleep.

When I opened my eyes, the day was

brightly lit with morning, the distant

hills were still blurred, and I was still a sheep counter.

Count: 1200. I have slept through the night, and arrived at a number I cannot explain. I do not understand, but I shall record the count as this: ⼀千⼆百


九 9

M 46


猴 N






1 7 N A M E S , 1 7 FA C E S This is a story whose ending does not conclude with the last of the pictures. It flows with the cycles, covering the heavens with a discomforting glaze of moisture, weaving between the shoots of what might become a pinecone, or the bud of a hibiscus, if the earth is fertile and generous.

Yo u c a n c h o o s e t h e p a t h o f the telling; you do not need to follow the direction I have set out, or what the page encourages.


A face not so unlike your own. Eyes that are clear but not insightful. Skin lined with the events of simply being.



T h e r e a r e s i x s i d e s t o a d a y, a n d n o number of days. There are no rules but there are edges and areas of loneliness, if you can call it that. “Who will know?” the fingers seem t o g e s t u r e . “ W h o c a n s a y, ” y o u r i n n e r voice answers back.



Perhaps begin with the golden ones, whose abstract eyes are flat or h o l l o w . O r, i f y o u h a v e f a i t h , d a r e t o l i n g e r i n t h e a b s e n c e o f c o l o u r. The garish madness may not appeal - it does only for a few - but once encountered it must be endured.



Next you must choose between light and dark. Go to the light and you are momentarily safe; an onlooker on the other side, peering in. Examine in your space their space which does not alter with the day or s e a s o n o r t h e i r L e a d e r ’s w h i m . Go to the dark, and you face the masks. They are black, deep, moving.


Without the light there is no glass. And we ask ourselves: what desires are lined up to be fed by hands we can only imagine? No two are the same, do you see? But they all share the same beginning. 17 different names and faces, the mood of each determined by tone; tones arranged by neighbouring tones, as much as by me.



Read me a soldier Who dares to explain T h e p r i s o n o f Fo r t u n e A jumble of pain

If a day is my captor I want only grace I am here, you are staring My eyes and my face

The telltales are sagging The clown is undone No shape-shifter magic No garden begun

I am here, you are laughing I am there, swing the stars To t h e c o r n e r s o f m a y h e m And outside these bars

Seventeen faces, seventeen names I pretend you pretend me In these jungle gym games...



十 1 0

R O O S T E R 61


society. I did not marry, foolishly, and

- European Jesuits, serving in the

h i g h s c h o o l a n d t ra i n e d a s a b o o k-

designed the Hall and the water

until I retired over twenty years ago.

- The twelve bronze zodiac

therefore I have no children. I finished

c o u r t o f t h e Q i a n l o n g E m p e r o r,

keeper, which is how I made my living

f o u n t a i n i n t h e 1 7 0 0 ’s .

Any attention that my name may

animal heads atop stone bodies

garner in future will be because of

only one thing: I am in possession of

the rooster head that once decorated the royal fountain at the Haiyantang, t h e H a l l o f N a t i o n a l Pe a c e , n e a r To W h o m I t M a y C o n c e r n : M y n a m e i s G r a c e Va r b l e s . I w a s b o r n in Whitchurch, a dot-on-the-map

town in Hampshire, England, on 21

November, 1926. That makes me roughl y 8 9 y e a rs a n d 8 m o n t h s o l d . I ’ m a s king my friend Marion to help me with this letter, so that before I die, I’ve

set out my wish for disposing of something in my keeping that I know has

g r e a t w o r t h . Yo u ’ l l s e e M a r i o n ’s s i g n a ture next to mine, at the bottom, and I hope that makes this letter legal. The story of my life is not of any significance to anyone. I was not

famous or wealthy, or important for

any particular contribution I made to



Whitchurch is approximately 7039 miles from Beijing - I know this because

originally functioned as a water clock-fountain. - I n 1 8 6 0 , Yu a n m i n g y u a n , w h e r e t h e fountain stood, was ransacked by French and British troops, and the heads were looted. A British soldier by the name of Richard Harrison witnessed the event. - Seven heads survive: the rat and rabbit, owned by some private

I asked Marion to find out for me.

collector somewhere in the West;

not sure I would have gone all that

pig, in private Chinese collections.

is a different matter. I do know a few

c o p p e r- b a s e d m e t a l s o i t w o u l d n ’t

I have never been to China, and I’m

a n d t h e o x , t i g e r, h o r s e , m o n k e y a n d

way if I had had a reason. But that

- Each animal head was made of a

things about the rooster head, mostly


because Marion went to the trouble

of going to the library in Basingstoke

Of course, I could have told you what

b o o k s o n a n i m a l s ; s h e ’s v e r y s m a r t

i n a b o o k . A n d t h e r e ’s m u c h m o r e

formation about the Chinese zodiac, the

here, but I’ll leave that for you to

rooster, which I have copied out for

as I can tell, the rooster is still

and putting in a special order for

it was made of, I didn’t need to read it

that way. She overloaded me with in-

information than what I have included

rooster sign, and a few facts about my

follow up if you are so inclined. As far


c o n s i d e r e d “ m i s s i n g ” . O n l y i t ’s n o t . I t is in my shed, where it has been,

forever. It looks like it weighs a ton -

and a feather duster. (The irony of

final decision. I am aware that a fa-

takes up a fair bit of space.

made me smile to myself…). I knew

Weiwei has sculpted all the zodiac

I have never been able to lift it - and

I was born in this house, and I have

lived here all my life. I guess I should

have asked my parents, but never did, about where the rooster came from.

Or even what it was. I was simply never curious about it. About anything

using feathers to dust the rooster

what it was, of course, I had seen it several times as a child. But I had

never examined it. I had not looked into the folds of the bruised eyes,

or run my hand along the curved but broken beak.

really. So time passed, and it was just

To m y e y e s , t h e r o o s t e r i s o r d i n a r y ;

things waiting to be sorted by my

that can be forgiven - it is, af ter all,

always there, wrapped up, with other mother, piled on top.

M y f a t h e r d i e d f i rs t , w h e n I w a s t h i r t y - f i v e . The story about how that happened

is not for here, and neither do I want to remember how my mother suffered

before she died, when I was forty. But that is how I acquired the house I still

live in, and the shed, which is home to the rooster.

After my mother passed away - quite some time after, actually, as I could

not face the task for many months - I

I c a n n o t e v e n s a y i t ’s i m p r e s s i v e . B u t many hundreds of years old, and the hands of looters conspired with the

Hands of Time so it has not aged well. If it once inspired admiration from an E m p e r o r , i t w o u l d n o t d o s o n o w . Ye t

fountain; a few years ago I saw a

picture of them displayed in an out-

d o o r p l a z a i n M a n h a t t a n , N e w Yo r k . H e calls his work a “reinterpretation” of

the animals. I think they are beautiful - the rooster is perfect: confident,

honest looking - just like the rooster personality described in the books.

So I wish to bequeath my rooster to Mr. Ai Weiwei. How he will get it, or w h e n , I h a v e n o i d e a , b u t t h a t ’s h i s

problem. I leave it to you to please let him know.

S i g n e d : G r a c e Va r b l e s

believe it was fashioned for an


belong in a shed in Overton, waiting


Marion Alma

antique dealer in Hungerford, 20 miles


20 July, 2015

has a strange sort of air. Easy to

Emperor; but you know it does not

for an auctioneer to sell it to a local

2 0 , J u l y, 2 0 1 5


So here is my instruction, upon my

armed with scissors to cut away the

p o s a l . Yo u m a y t h i n k i t o d d , o r s i l l y ,

sheets that covered it like a shroud,

animals that decorated the water

even in its pockmarked condition it

decided to take a close look at the rooster, and went out to the shed

mous Chinese artist by the name of Ai

d e a t h , f o r t h e p o o r c r e a t u r e ’s d i s -

or the wrong thing to do, but it is my





十一 1 1


狗 O

G 67


shor t tempered, as usual, wanted to

little knowledge goes a long way. And

a b o u t i t . Wa s n’t i t p o s s i b l e , h e

down to a little daydreaming - about

know why anything had to be done

suggested, that we could all just live with whatever outcome transpired? Delicious. My favourite state of being. Of course I have always known when

something was “delicious”, but I have only just learned the word for that incredible sensation when all your

senses hum with exquisite delight. A

meal of fresh fish, a loving look from my master, a jaunty few minutes of

r o u g h p l a y n i p p i n g m y s i s t e r ’s e a r , trying to catch a butterfly, or a

scratch behind my ears from the child... all these create that intoxicating feeling that I call “delicious”.

And delicious it was to find myself in

the sunshine on the grassy spot in the

yard, when the Dragon, the Rabbit, the Sheep, and the Tiger gathered for a conflab.

The way the Dragon tells the story, the purpose of the gathering was

to discuss the golden egg that had

appeared out of nowhere. The Tiger,


so this was the scene when I settled my nemesis, Bea, the dog.

Surely the golden egg was not really

Now you might remember that I wrote

shy, timid and very conser vative,

Ox, and I stand behind every word I

going to hatch...? The Rabbit, usually agreed.

Being a cat, I was always excluded

from these gatherings, so although everyone thought me clever, I knew

my opinion wasn’t going to be sought. I was not offended, though, I simply pretended that something else had

caught my attention. The Sheep looked completely blank, but usually had

nothing to say anyway, so no one was

expecting her to speak. Bossy, one of the elders in the coop, had poked his

head around the fence to make sure his presence was known.

Generally in these situations, which occurred fairly regularly, I played one of my favourite games, “Dis-

interested”, yawning, curling up and

generally looking sleepy. Between you and me, I use these occasions to sniff out what really is going on; I know a

a commendation for my friend the

wrote. When loyalty is called for and

feelings are at stake, I am the first in line. But a dog is a different matter entirely. I cannot for the life of me

understand what they are about. They display neither common sense nor the seriousness one would look for in a

friend or mate. They are stubborn and emotional. And they adore frivolity

- not only are they happy to waste a whole day playing, they’re happy to

play the same game over and over and over. Ridiculous! That would bore me to tears.

I’m a little stuck on this subject,

because Bea has been nothing but a

pest. When I find a warm place to lie

down for a nap, she comes and sniffs

at my nose. When I saunter over to the barn for a drink of water, she runs

ahead and waits at my bowl. If I stretch my legs on the side of the willow

tree, she runs circles around the tree

But then, in a rare moment of what can

Now, I am usually pretty easy going,

And if I climb the tree, she sits there

sation, our expressions changed. The

Po s s i b l y I s h o u l d h a v e f e l t r e l i e f , g l e e ,

yelping, in a very unattractive tone.

looking up at me and barks as if I were the postman. I suppose if you like

dogs, you could call her attractive.

Her chocolate coloured fur frames her face very nicely, and I do approve of

her long bushy tail... But the constant, annoying over tures for play! Af ter

three lives of this with Bea, I am at the end of my patience.

I decided to raise the issue with the others, and ambled over to join the

conflab. They had not found a resolution to the golden egg situation, but

were listening to the Rabbit expound

on his latest romantic adventures. As soon as I could politely intervene, I listed my complaints, providing

examples to illustrate my points. Everyone was quite sympathetic,

actually. When I reached the end of

my authoritative sounding discourse, there was silence. We just looked at

one another, the Dragon wide eyed,

the Rabbit blinking, the Sheep looking sheepish (as they do), and the Tiger appearing bored.

only be described as collective reali-

D r a g o n ’s b a c k a r c h e d a n d h e r a i s e d h i s head; the Rabbit (drooping ears and

all) looked horrified; the Sheep turned this way and that on the spot, and the T i g e r ’s e a r s t w i t c h e d a s t h o u g h

electrified. We all uttered the same question out loud: where was Bea, anyway?

Not one of us could remember exactly

but I have to say, this was disturbing.

even, that my tormentor was gone. But I was not happy. Bea had been a part of our little community since she was

born. And now she was gone. I tried to offer some possible reasons for her disappearance, but in the end, only

one seemed plausible: Bea had been

adopted by another family, and there was nothing we could do about it.

w h e n t h e y h a d l a s t s e e n h e r . Wa s i t

The summer lingered a little longer

being milked? No, the Rabbit was sure

Tiger and Dragon gathered as usual

yesterday morning when the cows were B e a h a d n o t b e e n a ro u n d . Wa s i t l a s t evening when the child came out to

check the gate was closed? No, the Sheep was certain she alone had witnessed that.

As the only one allowed in the house, I took it upon myself to carry out a

search. No, no Bea in the barn. Nor in the kitchen. I noticed her water bowl

this year, but the Rabbit, Sheep, well into the cooler season. Life

carried on. But somehow, without the barking and the chasing and all the annoyances... without the playful

affection that drove me to distraction but which I have come to anticipate... well, all right, have come to count on, everything is just a little less “delicious”.

was not there, and her basket by the

hear th was missing. Even more troubling, her favourite ball was gone. In

fact, there was no trace of Bea any-

where, I repor ted back to the others.





十二 1 2


家 I

G 73


“Butterball”), blessed with a perfect

fat). But it was the combination of

bloodline I mentioned, a purple ear. I

come to know as talents, that really

complexion, and thanks to that

g u e s s t h a t ’s w h y I w a s n a m e d V i o l e t . ( I know another Violet, a Lily, a Daisy, a

I had a temper, which everyone I knew

to me it shows a remarkable lack of

Fo r y e a r s a n d y e a r s , I c o n s c i e n t i o u s l y

imagination). But Violet I am. stock goes back to the Middle Ages. We know (but he didn’t) that images

of pigs have been found on Neolithic

pottery in Zhejiang, China, so clearly his tracing our lineage back to the European origins of the family is recent history. It never occurred

to me to question why he bothered. I supposed, in his last years, he

yearned for what we all long for -

me included - an understanding of

o n e ’s p l a c e i n t i m e , a n d t h e d a r e - I -

t h i n k- i t p o s s i b i l i t y t h a t y o u m i g h t b e remembered af ter you are gone. But I digress... This is a picture of me when I was a

lot younger. Still plump with baby fat (my father affectionately called me


set me apart.

Pa n s y , a n d t w o R o s e s . I t ’s b e y o n d m e

why offspring are named af ter flowers;

According to my father, our paternal

character traits as well as what I would

From Day 1, my beautiful violet ear played an impor tant role in the

development of my identity. My

mother had a favourite story of giving bir th to a violet-eared female, but

being brought a nondescript brown

eared piglet to suckle. She caused a

ruckus, and all was worked out, but I have always wondered - what if I had ended up with a different family...?

I might have grown up in Svinbergen, Scandinavia, rather than Swindon, England (the latter not exactly a

said was related to my purple ear.

endeavoured to assess whether there was any substance to this proclam-

ation, but I cannot say I have seen any evidence of it in my own behaviour.

But there were other things too. I was stubborn. (The other piglets called

me “pig headed”, which always hurt my feelings.) And I was a day-dreamer,

always wanting to be somewhere else, to see new and wondrous things,

curious to know what life was like in other places. I had a predisposition for intellectual musings, I wrote poetry, and I could sing.

place you boast about coming from!)

Most of the other pigs pretended

A violet ear was just one physical

but this little piggy knew - and so

manifestation of being different. Of

course I was self conscious about my

weight (“porker” was a frequent taunt I endured, to which my mother always replied that I was “big boned”, not

they knew something about something, did they, really - that most of it was bluster and pretence. I knew I could s i n g . I m e a n , I c o u l d R E A L LY s i n g . I

could tap any rhythm on command with absolute accuracy. I could harmonise

to any melody. I could close my eyes,

Indeed, this little piggy went places

But even though the timbre of my voice

tone-true melody.

about, if they dreamed at all. I put on

lost its lustre. Nowadays, my eyes feel

see the notes clearly, and breathe a

No one else was par ty to my secret,

except perhaps my father, who once said to me, “I always can tell when

you’re happy, because you sing to y o u r s e l f . ” Yo u p r o b a b l y a r e t r y i n g

not to laugh at the idea of me singing

(especially if you’ve heard me lately), but if you suspend disbelief for a

moment, you might be able to concede

other little piggies only dreamed

my dancing shoes, tied a ribbon behind my purple ear, and quietly edged my way onto the stage. I wasn’t greedy

about the quest for fame, I was hungry for acknowledgement of my talents. (Note to self: does that mean I am

not a “hog” but a “porker”??? Ha ha.

So clever with words am I. And what a sense of humour.)

that in my younger years, I could have

Within a few years, I was rewarded.

pigs have been held in high regard by

n o t a b l e p e r f o r m a n c e o f Tw i n k l e To e s .

been a star. And may I remind you that many cultures down through the ages; we are not revered for nothing.

But I’ve gone off on another tangent... It was many years before I realised

that standing out from the crowd was

actually a good thing, and understood that being different was who I am, and who I was meant to be. Now, older,

and able to look back at my life as

if it were a self-scribed epic poem, I

can see that it wasn’t about singing or dancing at all, it was about choosing

to sing and dance, just because I could.

has grown richer, my purple ear has heavy before the af ternoon is over.

Sometimes I forget the words to songs. My joints ache at any hint of rain, and even on a warm summer day I cannot count on a pain-free ramble around

the yard. My friend Charlotte says I

have to be philosophical about it, but I find it all difficult to take in my stride. (Apologies, dear reader, I can’t resist

inserting another pun into the story...)

First there was a blue ribbon for my

Ye s t e r d a y I g o t w i n d o f p l a n s t o

Then, a rancher in the next county

of the country. A place where the air

offered to pay for me to breed his

prize swine Golden Boy. In the end,

t h a t d i d n ’ t h a p p e n ( t h a n k Fo r t u n e ) , but making the list was added to my

transfer us all to a more rural par t

i s f r e s h e r , t h e y s a y . To d a y t h e r e w a s

news of a new swine flu coming out of China. The world has changed.

pedigree, so I can’t complain. What followed was a string of small but

meaningful shout-outs; a feature here, a l i t t l e p r o m o t h e r e . Pe o p l e k n e w m y

name (how could you forget “Violet”?), and applauded when I showed up at fairs. In a highly competitive world

where ungenerous, unlikeable wheelerdealers determined your value and

called the shots, I tried to be satisfied.




十w 二

e l v e











Tw o



gold, green, blue, 2,3

red, blue, purple, 1,9

g r a y, b l u e , w h i t e , o r a n g e , 1 , 3 , 4


y e l l o w, b ro w n , 5 , 9

white, green, 3,4

g o l d , s i l v e r, b r o w n , b l a c k , 6 , 7 , 8








adaptable, smart, cautious,

honest, persistent, patient,

tolerant, loyal, valiant

Force Strengths

cheerful, acute, alert, positive, flexible, outgoing We a k n e s s e s

B i r t h Ye a r

timid, unstable, stubborn,

1936 1984

1948 1996

1960 2008

cautious, level-headed,

courageous, virtuous,


inattentive, querulous



牛 O X

t r u s t w o r t h y, i n t e l l i g e n t

obstinate, inarticulate,

obstinate, arrogant, short-

prudish, distant

t e m p e r e d , h a s t y, t r a i t o r o u s






















蛇 S NA K E




red, blue, pink, purple, 3,4,9

g o l d , s i l v e r, g r a y, 1 , 6 , 7

b ro w n , d a r k y e l l o w, w h i t e , 1 , 7 , 8

red, green, purple, black, 9,8,3





gentle, sensitive,

decisive, inspiring,

compassionate, amiable,

magnanimous, sensitive,

modest, merciful

ambitious, romantic

amorous, hesitant, stubborn,

eccentric, tactless,

timid, conservative

f i e r y, i n t o l e r a n t , u n r e a l i s t i c

re d , l i g h t y e l l o w, b l a c k ,


white, gold, brown, 1,6,7 fire yin















soft-spoken, humourous, sympathetic, determined, passionate, smart jealous, suspicious,

1976 2024

s l y, f i c k l e , n o n c h a l a n t 1941














b ro w n , y e l l o w, p u r p l e , 2 , 3 , 7

red, green, purple, 3,4,9

green, red, purple, 1,7,8


blue, white, gold, 1,5,6

gold, brown, black, 6,7,8

b l a c k , g r a y, d a r k b r o w n , 1 2 , 5








warm-hearted, upright,

gentle, soft-hearted, thrifty

enthusiastic, self-assured,

considerate, persistent,

sociable, innovative

Force Strengths

easygoing, independent, patient We a k n e s s e s

attractive, hardworking

spendthrift, vain, spontaneous

B i r t h Ye a r

1942 1990


猴 M O N K EY



1954 2002





indecisive, timid, vain, moody

jealous, suspicious, cunning,


selfish, arrogant





1967 2015

1979 2027





1968 2028

1980 1




猪 P IG



Tw e l v e

Te n


g o l d , b ro w n , y e l l o w, 5 , 7 , 8

green, red, purple, 3,4,9

white, green, 1,3,9

blue, white, gold, 1,6,7





independent, capable,

valiant, loyal, responsible,

warm-hearted, self-respecting,

c l e v e r, c o u r a g e o u s , l i v e l y,

quick thinking

sensitive, conservative

impatient, critical, eccentric,

stubborn, emotional

y e l l o w, g r a y, b r o w n , g o l d , 2 , 5 , 8 red, blue, green, 3,1,9 water yin honest, frank, chivalrous, gallant, tolerant, optimistic, faithful naive, hot-tempered, impulsive

narrow-minded, selfish 1945




























f i v五 I O N S


木W O O D Azure dragon

Ve r m i l i o n b i rd























Heavenly stems

甲, 乙

丙, 丁

Earthly branches

寅, 亥

卯, 戌, 午

new yang

full yang



















Heavenly creature Direction Season We a t h e r Planet Positive quality Negative quality Ta s t e

Phase Energy State Action


火F I R E

水W A T E R

金M E T A L

土E A R T H

Ye l l o w d r a g o n

White tiger

To r t o i s e & s n a k e




late summer







Ve n u s











戊, 己

庚, 辛

壬, 癸

子, 丑

辰, 酉

巳, 申, 未

yin yang balance

new yin

full yin















old age


Tw e l v e i s d e d i c a t e d t o m y m o t h e r, Frances Gurarie, who was a friend and saviour of many creatures large and small.






Bai Suzhen.


G o l d e n F o l l y.

Before the Rain. p.37


p.66 John.


p.21 p.39 Bea.



H a y B a r n B a b y.



Ya n g .


G o l d e n B o y.




Rain Dance.

S h a p e s h i f t e r.


B o s s y.


F i n e a r t p r i n t s o f i n d i v i d u a l S h e n g x i a o z o d i a c c re a t u re s c a n b e p u rc h a s e d d i re c t l y f ro m A l i c e G u r- A r i e . O rd e r s a n d e n q u i r i e s a l i c e @ a l i c e g u r- a r i e . c o m . For licensing enquiries contact: To s e e m o r e o f A l i c e G u r - A r i e ’s c o n t e m p o r a r y a r t p o r t f o l i o g o t o h t t p s : / / w w w . s i n g u l a r t . c o m / e n / a r t i s t / a l i c e - g u r - a r i e - 2 4 5 5 9 . 89

Alice Gur-Arie © 2021. All rights reserved under the International Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system without the prior written permission of the copyright owner, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review, where credit must be attributed.

All artworks are created entirely by the artist. The stories are works of fiction. With the exception of names of public persons used to provide context, all names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to any actual person, living or dead, organisations, events or locales is wholly coincidental.


A C K N O W L E D G E M E N T S I am deeply indebted to my friend John Vollmer for his contribution to this book. Without his guidance, encouragement, knowledge - and tenacity - it is highly unlikely that Twelve would have seen the light of day. Since I started the project in 2014, John has guided my efforts to honour the Chinese zodiac animals in art and words, and this past year, designed the layout and contributed the Foreward.

Many thanks for help along the way to Eleanor Goldhar, Jacqueline Simcox and David Kamen.

And a special bow to Jack Verkruysse for putting up with a temperamental artist/ writer as she negotiated with the demanding demons of creativity. 91

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