NEW YORK- On February 19 2015 we welcome the Lunar New year. We say good bye to the year of the horse and welcome the year of the ram.  In Chinese the word for ‘ram’ is yang, but the word yang does not specifically refer to rams, but is a generic term for a category of ruminant mammals, commonly referred to as caprids, that also includes goats, antelopes, sheep and ibexes. Since rams and goats were domesticated by the Chinese, they are the two that most often appear in Chinese art.


LUNAR NEW YEAR DECORATIONS ON SALE IN SINGAPORE FEATURING RAMS, SHEEP, AND GOATS. PHOTO COURTESY OF DWI  SISWAT
I.

Bronze vessels featuring ram’ heads have been around since the Shang dynasty (1600 BC to 1046 BC).  An example of such a vessel dating to the Warring states period (475-221 BC) is in the upcoming Chinese Art sale to be held on March 21st, lot 802. 


LOT 802, AN ARCHAIC BRONZE RITUAL FOOD VESSEL AND COVER, (DING), WARRING STATES PERIOD, ESTIMATE: $6,000-8,000.

Rams not only provided sustenance for the ancient Chinese, but also formed an important part of their ritual sacrifice, and the word for ‘ram’ and the word for ‘auspicious’ were synonymous.


(LEFT) THE ARCHAIC CHARACTER FOR ‘AUSPICIOUS’ RESEMBLES THE FRONTAL VIEW OF A RAM’S HEAD WITH HORNS. (RIGHT) THE MODERN CHARACTER FOR ‘AUSPICIOUS’ TAKEN FROM A TRADITIONAL GILT- AND BLACK LACQUER SHOP SIGN.

During the Han dynasty (206-220 BC) representations of rams where used as auspicious symbols. The modern word for ‘auspicious’ xiang is composed of the character for ‘manifest’ shi, on the left and the character for ram on the right. In modern Chinese, the word for ram is a homophone for the word ‘sun’, and forms the basis of visual puns for greetings common during the Lunar New Year, which are especially popular during the year of the Ram.  


TRADITIONAL CHINESE DECORATIVE PAPER CUTTINGS FOR THE YEAR OF THE RAM, WITH GOATS AND SHEEP.

In Chinese cosmology, everything in the universe can be divided into opposites - negative and positive, coldness and warmth, female and male, darkness and light. These opposites are represented by yin and yang. The first three months of the lunar year, which is spring, are considered yang months because they represent growth and rebirth. Three rams, sanyang, san being the word for ‘three’, therefore symbolize spring. This motif can be seen in lot 298, from the Important Chinese Art sale on 17th and 18th March.


LOT 298, A CELADON JADE ‘ THREE RAMS’ CARVING, QING DYNASTY, 18TH CENTURY, FROM THE IMPORTANT CHINESE ART SALE ON 17TH AND 18TH MARCH ESTIMATE: $150,000-250,000.

The image of three rams can therefore be combined with other auspicious objects in the hope that spring brings good fortune and anything else one’s heart desires


A TRADITIONAL CHINESE WOOD BLOCK PRINT. THE VASE SYMBOLIZES PEACE, THE ORANGES REPRESENT GOOD FORTUNE, THE CHIME DENOTES CELEBRATION, THE SCEPTER MEANS ‘MAY YOUR WISHES COME TRUE’ AND THE CHILD HOLDING THE SPRIG OF CORAL REPRESENTS A NOBLE SON. DURING IMPERIAL TIMES THESE WERE ALL DESIRABLE THINGS TO HOPE FOR IN THE NEW YEAR.

The yang principle is also represented by an unbroken line, while yin is represented by a broken line.  Three unbroken lines forms a trigram called qian which represents heaven, and three broken lines forms a trigram called kun, which represents earth. There are eight of these trigrams called the bagua, which can be seen as decorative motifs on lot 266 in the Important Chinese Art sale on 17th and 18th March, and on lot 759 from the Chinese Art sale on 21st March.  


(LEFT) LOT 266, A BLUE AND WHITE 'EIGHT TRIGRAMS' JAR, LATE MING DYNASTY, FROM THE IMPORTANT CHINESE ART SALE ON 17TH AND 18TH MARCH, ESTIMATE 5,000-7,000, WITH THE KUN TRIGRAM IN THE MIDDLE. (RIGHT) LOT 759 A BRONZE 'EIGHT-TRIGRAMS' VASE, YUAN DYNASTY, FROM THE CHINESE ART SALE ON 21ST MARCH, ESTIMATE:  3,000-5,000, WITH THE QIAN TRIGRAM ON THE EXTREME RIGHT.

The kun and qian trigrams together form a hexagram called tai.  Sixty-four of these hexagrams form the basis of the divination system known as the Yijing (commonly spelt I-ching).  Since tai includes the trigrams for earth and heaven, it is the most auspicious of all.


CONTEMPORARY CHINESE CLOTHING BRAND HUSENJI USES THE TAI HEXAGRAM AS THEIR LOGO. 

Since the tai in taiji has the same sound as the name of the auspicious tai hexagram, the motif of three rams with a taiji symbol therefore forms the rebus sanyang kaitai, Spring brings renewal and good fortune. This motif can be seen in lots 317 and 353, both from the Important Chinese Art sale on 17th and 18th March, where the taiji symbol is supported on clouds issuing from the rams’ mouths.


LOT 317, A WHITE JADE 'RAM' GROUP, QING DYNASTY, 18TH CENTURY, FROM THE IMPORTANT CHINESE ART SALE ON 17TH AND 18TH MARCH ESTIMATE: $100,000-150,000. 


LOT 353, A CELADON JADE 'THREE RAMS' CARVING, QING DYNASTY, 18TH CENTURY, FROM THE IMPORTANT CHINESE ART SALE ON 17TH AND 18TH MARCH ESTIMATE: $25,000-35,000. 

Rams also symbolize filial piety, the most important of Chinese virtues, because rams kneel to nurse from their mothers.


SHEEP REPRESENT FILIAL PIETY BECAUSE THE LAMB KNEELS TO BE FED BY ITS MOTHER.

Apart from being considered filial, rams are also believed to be peace-loving and kind. In addition to these characteristics, people born in the year of the ram are also believed to be polite, wise, gentle and compassionate with special sensitivity towards art and beauty.


FLORAL DISPLAY AT THE MARINA BAY FLOWER DOME IN SINGAPORE. PHOTO COURTESY OF DWI SISWATI. 

It would therefore not be surprising to find lots of people born in the year of the ram at Sotheby’s.