“My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings. I think there’s a strong humorous aspect there.”
The 12 Zodiac Heads
- Rat (laoshu老鼠)
- Ox (niu 牛)
- Tiger (hu 虎)
- Rabbit (tu 兔)
- Dragon (long 龙)
- Snake (she 蛇)
- Horse (ma 马)
- Ram (yang羊)
- Monkey (hou 猴)
- Rooster (ji 鸡)
- Dog (gou 狗)
- Boar (zhu 猪)
Rat (laoshu老鼠)According to a Chinese fable, the rat came to be ﬁrst in the twelve-animal cycle because, in a race set up by the Buddha to determine the order of the twelve animals, the rat surreptitiously rode on the ox’s back, dismounting just before the ﬁnish line to rush ahead and win the race. This story highlights the qualities of the rat, an animal generally believed to be shy and mean, but which in China is also a symbol of intelligence, innovation, industry, and wealth. The good qualities that Chinese tradition attributes to the rat (or mouse) stem from these animals’ uncanny ability to ﬁnd and hoard food—qualities that also can be seen in a negative light, and so the rat sometimes appears in Chinese fables and paintings as the emblem of corrupt ofﬁcials or proﬁteers.
Ox (niu 牛)The ox played a key role in agriculture, rituals and religion in China. Its association with the plowing of ﬁelds in springtime made the ox a symbol of that season and the earth. Archaeological evidence shows that since antiquity this animal was employed in ritual sacriﬁces to natural deities or royal ancestors and that its bones were used in divination by ﬁre and as writing surfaces. Aside from being an important agricultural symbol, the ox and ox herding were adopted by Chan (Zen) Buddhists and Taoists alike with reference to the patient training of the mind towards greater awareness and as symbolic of the return to the source. The legendary Taoist philosopher Laozi is often represented riding an ox or a water buffalo, because legend has it that he wrote the Daodejing on the back of this animal.
Tiger (hu 虎)The tiger appears often in Chinese literature and art and is considered the king of animals. In a Neolithic tomb in central China, a tiger and dragon mosaic was found arranged around the body of the deceased. This is one of the earliest representations of the mythical white tiger, the emblem of the west and a symbol of the constellation by that name that occupies the western quadrant of the sky. In one story, the immortal Xiwangmu (Queen Mother of the West), who presides over the orchard of longevity peaches, is shown either sporting a tiger tail or accompanied by a tiger. Tigers are also represented in schematic designs on Bronze Age ritual vessels and are frequently seen in Taoist paintings, either alone or accompanying immortals and sages.
Rabbit (tu 兔)The rabbit or hare has in Chinese lore a close connection with the moon, of which it is thought to be an emanation. According to a famous fairy tale, on the moon there is a jade rabbit, who stands at the foot of a cassia tree pounding a pestle in a mortar to crush the ingredients for the elixir of immortality. A Buddhist story tells that the image of the rabbit was placed on the moon as a reward for this animal having offered its body to feed a hungry beggar who turned out to be a god. In China, the rabbit is also shown preparing its elixir in the company of the Queen Mother of the West, the female immortal. This animal is a symbol of longevity and fertility. Legend has it that rabbits conceive by looking at the moon and that they live to be one thousand years old. Once they reach ﬁve hundred years of age, they turn white and, if seen, are omens of good things to come.
Dragon (long 龙)The dragon, the most auspicious of the twelve animals, was a symbol of the emperor’s power in dynastic China. Its origins are very ancient and its image was prominent on imperial robes and porcelain. Archaeologists have traced the earliest images of the dragon to the prehistoric period, when they were painted on pottery or fashioned into jade pendants. The dragon, the only imaginary creature among the twelve, is said to be a composite with the horns of a deer, a camel’s head, the eyes of a demon, the body of a snake, and the scales of the carp. The dragon has 117 scales, 81 of them yang and 36 yin. The dragon is also linked with astronomy because the green dragon constellation is a symbol of the east and the rising sun. In modern China, this creature is still perceived as fortunate, and the year of the dragon often causes an upsurge in birth rates.
Snake (she 蛇)The snake is believed to be closely related to the dragon and is said to have supernatural powers. Though snakes are considered cunning and even evil, they are venerated and feared because they are thought to be the embodiments of demons and spirits. Therefore, to buy a captive snake with the intention of liberating it is a virtuous action, even though Chinese tales caution against befriending these creatures. According to the legend of the White Snake, a young scholar fell in love with a white snake demon that had turned itself into a beautiful maiden. When her true identity was revealed, disaster ensued and the snake demon was thrown into a well. Not all images of the snake are so daunting. In antiquity, immortals were thought of as half-human, half-animal creatures featuring long snake tails. Images of such creatures appear often in the interior decoration of early dynastic burials.
Horse (ma 马)The horse appears for the ﬁrst time in the Yellow River valley during the Bronze Age alongside the chariot, having been introduced probably through contacts with inner Asian nomad pastoralists. As witnessed by the numerous life-size statues of horses in the terracotta army of the ﬁrst emperor of China, horses played a paramount role in China’s history. Good horses often had to be imported from Central Asia at great cost because of local breeding difﬁculties. For these reasons, the horse was seen as a valuable and, to a certain extent, exotic animal. Tang dynasty writers often marveled at the fabled heavenly horses of Ferghana, hardy and fast animals thought to sweat blood. The famous ceramic Tang horse ﬁgurines, which are much appreciated by collectors, represent this breed. Horses also were commonly portrayed in paintings.
Ram (yang羊)The ram or goat is a domestic and sacriﬁcial animal that appears very early in Chinese history. The character for its name is seen in the earliest Chinese inscription, its likeness is found on Bronze Age ritual vessels, and ancient books mention its use in ceremonies in honor of ancestors. This animal is also linked to the pastoral nomads that lived on China’s northern and western frontiers. Simply carved images of various types of sheep and mountain goats abound on the rock cliffs of these territories, which are now part of China. The ram is sometimes associated with justice because a legend tells that the mythical emperor Gao Yao had in his court of law an insightful one-horned ram who would strike only the guilty and not the innocent.
Monkey (hou 猴)The monkey is a complex ﬁgure in Chinese animal symbolism. Praised for its ability to drive evil away by controlling spirits and demons, it is also thought to be a trickster and a clown. Some consider it an emblem of deceitfulness and ugliness, while others, Buddhists and Taoists in particular, regard it as a clever animal very close to humans and a sign of humanity’s link to nature. In Daoism, the gibbon’s long arms were thought to be conducive to absorbing the universal qi. In Chan (Zen) Buddhism, the monkey is the mark of the as-yet-unenlightened mind. A well-known monkey ﬁgure is Sun Wukong, the main character in the sixteenth-century Chinese classical novel Journey to the West, which tells in fantastic terms the story of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang’s pilgrimage to India.
Rooster (ji 鸡)The rooster is a revered animal in Chinese lore as it is thought to be able to ward off evil inﬂuences. It is also said that a picture of a red rooster attached to a wall can protect a house from ﬁre. The rooster is the principal embodiment of yang, the male and active force, and the force of ﬁre. The association with yang, ﬁre, and the sun links the rooster to the Vermilion Bird, which is the symbol of the south and a constellation. The connection with the cosmic sphere extends to the chicken’s eggs, which are emblems of the universe. The body and qualities of the rooster are emblems of the ﬁve virtues: the rooster’s crown, which resembles the cap of Confucian ofﬁcials, symbolizes its scholarly and literary ambitions; the spurs indicate its military prowess; its propensity to ﬁght is a sign of courage; its ability to rule the henhouse is a mark of benevolence; and its early morning crowing is a sign of reliability and faithfulness.
Dog (gou 狗)When a wandering dog chooses to settle down in a home, it is thought that that family will prosper. The dog also is considered a symbol of loyalty. Dogs were buried in Bronze Age tombs as sacriﬁces at the bottom of the pits, below the cofﬁns. A Chinese legend holds that in the sky there is a Heavenly Dog, which is the spirit of a woman who died unmarried and without children. The Heavenly Dog is said to steal the souls of infants in order to adopt them or to have a chance to return to earth. For this reason, newly married women keep in their rooms the image of a spirit in the act of shooting an arrow to the Heavenly Dog. The Heavenly Dog, which is actually a star, was also supposed to devour the moon and cause eclipses. Dogs appear in various guises in Chinese art. Ceramic or porcelain ﬁgures were formerly buried in tombs as protectors. Statues of lion-dogs often guard the entrances of temples or important buildings.
Boar (zhu 猪)The boar, one of the earliest animals domesticated in China, played an important role in Chinese culture and diet. It was a symbol of wealth in ancient China, and pigs’ heads are found as offerings in some rich Neolithic burials of north China. Images of pigs are not uncommon in prehistoric art, and in tombs of the early dynastic period archaeologists often discover miniature pigsties ﬁlled with animals, a reference to the earthly wealth of the deceased. Zhu Bajie or Monk Pig, a half-man, half-pig creature, plays an important role in the novel Journey to the West, which narrates the pilgrimage to India of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang. According to the tale of the twelve-animal race by which the Buddha determined the order of the zodiac animals, the boar arrived late at the ﬁnish line, but in its last few steps managed to trample the cat, who, having just awakened from a long sleep, was trying to rush ahead.
The International Tour for the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold
- Vero Beach Museum of Art, Vero Beach, FL | June 1 – December 15, 2019
- Arken Museum of Modern Art, Skovvej, Denmark | extended loan July 2013 – June 2019
- K20 and K21, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen, Düsseldorf , Germany | May 18 – Sept. 1, 2019
- Farnsworth Museum, Rockland, ME | March 24 – December 30, 2018
- Mucern, Marseille, France | June 19 – November 12, 2018
- Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Germany | November 17, 2017 – March 18, 2018
- Nevada Museum of Art, Reno, Nevada | July 23 – October 23, 2016
- Tucson Museum of Art, Tucson, AZ | February 12 – June 26, 2016
- National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, Australia, Andy Warhol | Ai Weiwei | December 11, 2015 – April 24, 2016
- Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, AZ | October 3, 2015 – January 31, 2016
- Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR | May 23 – September 12, 2015
- Palm Springs Museum of Art, Palm Springs, CA | December 20, 2014 – May 15, 2015
- Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, United Kingdom | September 28, 2014 – January 15, 2015
- The Crow Collection of Asian Art, Dallas, TX | September 14, 2013 – March 2, 2014
- The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow, Russia, Personal Choice group exhibition | February 14 – April 6, 2014
- The LongHouse Reserve, East Hampton, NY | August 2 – October 12, 2013
- The Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, CA | February 22, 2012 –July 29, 2012
- Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal, Canada, The Zoo Exhibition group exhibition | May 24 – September 3, 2012
History of the Zodiac Heads
Ai Weiwei’s iconic series of sculptures, the Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, is a significant international project that simultaneously signals his position as China’s most pervasive artist whilst exploring themes of globalization and identity that inform his work. The series recreates the twelve traditional Chinese zodiac sculptures that once adorned the Yuanming Yuan fountain clock, an artistic and architectural centerpiece of the imperial gardens outside of Beijing enjoyed by several Qing dynasty rulers in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The original zodiac head sculptures were subsequently looted from the fountain by French and British soldiers during the Opium Wars. This devastating plundering was one of a series of episodes that are now collectively known as the “century of humiliation,” spanning approximately 1840 to 1945. In 1976 following the death of Chairman Mao, the demise of the Cultural Revolution which sought to destroy cultural artifacts, and the subsequent reopening of China’s economy towards the end of the 20th century, there was a renewed interest in the zodiac heads both in China and abroad. Only seven of the original heads still exist and the whereabouts of five remain unknown. As a result of the increased fervor for the ancient Chinese zodiac heads over the past several decades, their monetary value on the international art market has soared and they have since become touchstones of an ardent—and at times contentious—sense of nationalism.