The Legend of the Twelve Zodiac Signs and the Animals of a Mythical Valley

The designs of antique porcelain wares typically depict the mysterious workings of fate and fortune, as it courses through the stories of history, legends and beliefs or infuses the tableaus of natural and urban settings in which the people of antiquity lived their lives.

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On this blue and white porcelain teapot, the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac are interspersed among fields, waterways and a verdant forest in various postures and actions, like the dragon suspended, as if mid-flight, in the sky. No doubt, the chance to acquire this exquisite find, adorned in a scene both enchanting and rare, would pitch most seasoned collectors into a state of ecstasy.

The Chinese zodiac, which has been a cultural mainstay throughout the Asian continent for over 2000 years, is familiar to most of us today. As an important source of order and meaning that has had a widespread influence on Eastern cultures, the Chinese zodiac continues to frame the beliefs, astrological models and practices of fortune telling in the region, as well as provide a measurement of time and a system for divining auspicious signs for Chinese people in the past. Perhaps what is less well-known is the story behind the origin of the zodiac: the tale of twelve animals pitted against each other in an epic contest to determine where they would rank in the cosmic order.

One version of the tale begins with the Jade Emperor’s descent to a mountaintop to admire the view of the forest, rivers and animals in the valley below one day prior to the first day of the new year. There, he decided that the animals in his dominion should be put towards some useful purpose. At that moment, he declared to all the animals in the land, “Tomorrow morning, on the first day of Zhengyue (the first month in the traditional Chinese calendar), let us celebrate the new year. I will select twelve animals to represent the twelve zodiac years in the order that you finish my race, from first to last place.” All of the animals took care to remember this date, except for the lazy cat, who was prone to forgetfulness, so it asked the rat for a reminder on the morning of the race. However, the cat was tricked by the wily rat, who told it that the race would begin on the second day of Zhengyue, and so it missed the race and was eliminated. The strong and hard-working ox, knowing that it walked slower than the other animals, set out at midnight. When the rat saw the ox setting out, it quickly jumped onto the ox’s back. When the sun rose on the first day of Zhengyue, the ox had arrived at the gates of the Jade Emperor’s palace, and bellowed to be let in. As the gates began to open, the rat leapt off the ox’s back and scurried ahead. Thus, the Jade Emperor declared, “Congratulations, rat. You are the first to finish the race, and the first place in the zodiac is yours.” And so it came to be that the rat is the first animal in the zodiac, and is followed by the ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, chicken, dog and boar.


According to a Qing Dynasty text,“ Gai Yu Cong Kao (陔餘叢考)” (Collection of Literary & Historical Thoughts & Studies) written by Zhao Yi ( 趙翼 ), the story of the zodiac race likely predates the Eastern period of the Han Dynasty (also known as Later Han), and was introduced into the Zhongyuan region by “呼韓邪 Huhanye”, the leader of the Xiongnu (a federation of tribes), during the Western period of the Han Dynasty (also known as Former Han), whereupon it became a fixture of Chinese culture. The zodiac race is also narrated in great detail in the “論衡: Lun Heng” (“Philosophical  Essays”) penned by “Wang Chong”, a pre-eminent scholar of the Eastern Han period.

Lot 506

A blue and white porcelain teapot painted with twelve zodiacs (cover not original) (1 pc.)
Style: Chinese
Dimensions: W 19.5 cm. H 15.5 cm.
Circa: 19th Century
Estimated Price: 5,000 - 7,000 THB
Starting Price: 5,000 THB