Chinese Zodiac: Part 1 – Monkey

Today’s post is by Fang from the Visitor Team at Manchester Museum. We are each bringing our own interest and insight into Manchester Museum and its collections.

For more about the museum’s collections, please visit the Curator blogs; Ancient WorldsNature Manchester.

Symbolic Animals in Living Worlds – Part 1: Monkey

In 2016 the Chinese New Year is on 8 February. It is based on a 12 year cycle; each year is associated with one of 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. 2016 will be the Year of the Monkey.

Every Chinese person is born with an animal sign, which becomes one’s birthmark and a life-long mascot. Your sign is derived from your birth year in the Chinese lunar calendar. The chart below is a rough guide, although if you were born in January or February it may differ as the date of the New Year varies between 21 January and 20 February.

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Chinese Zodiac (Available at: telegraph.co.uk)

The Chinese zodiac evolved from the peoples’ age-old experience of daily life, as well as connection with nature. Many symbolic meanings have been imbued into the 12 animal signs.

To celebrate the Monkey Year in 1980, China issued the first Chinese zodiac stamp. On an auspicious red background, a monkey with a golden face raises his head and gazes into the distance, reflecting the strength of Chinese tradition and culture. This ‘Golden Monkey’ stamp is highly collectable and is now valued at more than £1200. These stamps continued to be published each year until the Ram in 1991.

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Chinese Zodiac Stamps (Available at: chinastampshere.com)

In Manchester Museum’s Money gallery you can also see a bronze, Chinese zodiac coin from the 18th-19th century, with the 12 animal signs and the respective Chinese characters.

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Chinese Zodiac Amulet. Money Gallery, Manchester Museum

In the 2nd episode of the BBC 2 TV series The Story of China, Michael Wood travelled along the Silk Road to India in the footsteps of the Chinese monk who brought back Buddhism to China. It also showed the most famous mythical Monkey in Chinese culture, the ‘Monkey King’, who was the bodyguard or assistant of the monk, and was the leading figure in one of China’s favourite novels – Monkey or Journey to the West.

In Living Worlds you can find many taxidermy monkeys.

Here are some Old World monkeys from Africa. The Mandrill is the world’s largest monkey.

Mantled Colobus, Diana Monkey, Lesser Spot-Nosed Monkey, Olive Baboon and Mandrill (Living Worlds, Manchester Museum)

Of all the 12 symbolic animals, Monkeys share the most similarities with humans. People born in the Year of the Monkey are characterised as being clever, curious, innovative and mischievous. There is a Chinese phrase ‘as clever as a monkey’. A ‘monkey’ person is seen as smart and intelligent, especially in their career and wealth.

Monkeys are also believed to be auspicious. As the Chinese character ‘猴’ (Hou, monkey) is a homonym of ‘侯’ (Hou, nobleman), the monkey is regarded as a symbol of promotion to the nobility. A Chinese painting depicts a monkey sitting on a maple tree (Feng, the same pronunciation as ‘appointing’), which implies wishes for promotion as a government official. Similarly, the image of ‘Bei Bei Feng Hou’, in which an adult monkey is carrying a baby monkey on its back, reflects the usage of the pair of ‘背’ (Bei, meaning ‘back’ or ‘carrying’) and ‘辈’ (Bei, meaning ‘generation’), implying that an official rank will be passed on from generation to generation.

What a good coincidence! There is a ‘live statue’ of this in the Living Worlds gallery.

‘Bei Bei Feng Hou’ image on an ancient roof tile, and Kirk’s Red Colobus

Wishing you all promotions in the New Year of the Monkey!

Fang Zong

For more about the museum’s collections, please visit the Curator blogs; Ancient WorldsNature Manchester.

Read more about nature from the Visitor Team:

Talk English – Birds and Butterflies
The War of the Snails, Round One: The Home Favourite
Kiwi and Egg Syndrome
Museum versus zoo – summer holiday showdown
See Living Worlds in 3D!
A Wolf’s Tail
Birds of Fancy
Maurice de Trafford – Hunter / conservationalist?
The Art of Taxidermy

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