This work is dedicated to Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with the fifth movement, The Tomb of the Soulful Dog written in memory of my mother, Alice Cheng, who was born in the year of the dog and passed away on February 8th, 2005.
Every Chinese person is born in a zodiac year represented by a specific animal that accompanies each person throughout his or her life: the year of the mouse, the buffalo, the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the serpent, the horse, the ram, the monkey, the rooster, the dog, and the pig.
However, we know that the Chinese were not the first to create the notion of the zodiac calendar. Other ancient civilizations such as the Greek, Egyptian, Indian, and Babylonian also cultivated the concept that all the planets in the heavens are divided into twelve constellations, represented by twelve animals, although some of these animals are different from those in the Chinese system.
We also know that, approximately four thousand years ago—around the time that zodiac belief reached China—the Chinese started studying astronomy and astrology. However, the first detailed astrological writing in Chinese literature did not appear until over two thousand years later. During the Eastern Han Dynasty (23-220 A.D.), a Chinese philosopher named Wang Chong discussed the relationship of nature and the twelve constellations in his famous treatise, “Weighing the Measurement,” and noted that each constellation represented a year symbolized by an animal. Through the ages, the Chinese gradually changed some of the iconic animals to the ones that were part of their daily lives, but kept the symbol of the dragon.
In this work, it is not my intention to tone-paint the legends of these astrological animals as they appeared throughout Chinese history. Instead, some of the most vivid images of these largely fictional tales provided me with inspiration as a point of compositional departure.
1. The Rain God
Also known as the dragon, The Rain God is the only mythical animal among the twelve. According to Chinese tradition, the dragon symbolizes the highest celestial power. Its appearance is a combination of nine animals, the head of the qiu (a Chinese mythical animal between a small lion and large dog), the antler of the deer, the eyes of the rabbit, the ears of the bull, the body of the serpent, the belly of the giant clam, the scales of the carp, the paws of the eagle, and the palms of the tiger. Among the twelve, it is the mightiest who rules for the affairs of the rain and water. Throughout history, the Chinese have built temples all over the country to honor the dragon god, praying for a good season of rain for the crops and for protection from the flood.
2. Of Mice and Cats
A pair of mice can reproduce almost a thousand young mice over the period of one year; and each three-month-old mouse is mature enough to reproduce again. With the mouse, I see different images: from one mouse to hundreds, to thousands, and even millions of mice all in one place.
According to the legend, the cat did not make it into the zodiac because of the mouse. They were good friends at one point, but when the Jade Emperor (a god-like figure in Chinese mythology) summoned the animals to his court for zodiac designations, the mouse intentionally did not wake up his sleeping friend as he had promised he would. The mouse, arriving by himself, was the first animal to appear before the Emperor and was designated number one of the twelve zodiac animals. The cat and mouse became enemies ever since…
3. Three Lambs under the Spring Sun
Chinese myth believes that the ram is the sun god. Here, the picture of three lambs resting under the sun in early spring signifies the good omen of happiness and a generous harvest for the year.
4. The Elephant-Eating Serpent
Although the serpent is not as powerful as the dragon, it still has much strength and is known for its ability to swallow much bigger objects than the size of its own body. This metaphor that describes a person’s extreme greediness is called ‘the serpent who craves to eat an elephant’.
5. The Tomb of the Soulful Dog
The notion that ‘the dog is the best friend of men,’ or in American culture, ‘Man’s best friend,’ has also been part of Chinese culture for a long time. The most well-known story is about the dog of Emperor Liu Bang, the founder of the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-220 A.D.). The Emperor’s dog saved his master’s army by sacrificing himself to put out a fire set by the enemy as they besieged and surrounded the Emperor’s army. Emperor Liu later buried the dog in a serene ceremony and built a large tombstone inscribed with ‘The Tomb of the Soulful Dog’.
6. The Flying Horses
In Chinese mythology, the heavenly horses could travel as much as a thousand miles a day across the sky—an image that is truly inspiring—with visions of thousands of them dashing over the horizon together.