Vipers and Beasts in the Year of the Little Dragon

A certain wariness surrounds the Snake, one of the twelve zoological signs of the traditional Chinese calendar, and not only because the reptile inspires fear and repulsion. The Chinese word ‘snake’ she 蛇 is homophonous with she 折 ‘to break’ or ‘lose’. Business people in particular regard the snake with some trepidation since she ben 折本‘diminished capital’, hardly chimes with the usual New Year’s benedictions to make money 发财 and enjoy good fortune 吉利. Even greater is the anxiety that things may start out with a ‘tiger’s head only to end in a snake’s tail’ 虎头蛇尾. People attempt to ward off maledictions by employing sayings about ‘not losing out in the Year of the Snake’ 绝不蛇本 or ‘hoping for the Golden Snake [of wealth] to come out of its hole’ 金蛇出洞. In recent years, bureaucrats too have become increasingly alert to any ominous snakes that may she, break or foreshorten, their ‘progress along the path to official success’ 官运 resulting in a side-tracked career or even abject failure.

In the early 1960s, the artist Huang Yongyu 黄永玉 produced his own ‘devil’s dictionary’ (The Devil’s Dictionary is the title of Ambrose Bierce’s famous 1906 collection of satirical, and cynical, re-definitions of commonplace terms). Huang compiled his pithy sayings and made pictures to accompany them. Most took their inspiration from animals and insects. Below we reprint the snake from Huang’s bestiary which is known in English both as A Can of Worms and Animal Crackers.


(They say the path forward is tortuous; that’s why I have such a supple body.)


In the People’s Republic of the 1960s, anyone who saw (or heard about) Huang’s snake and the accompanying epithet would have appreciated the pointed reference to Chairman Mao and his famous statement about the troubled path of the Chinese revolution: ‘The future is bright, but the path forward is tortuous’ 前途是光明的,道路是曲折的.

Mao is said to have made this remark during his September 1945 visit to the wartime capital of China, Chongqing, where, following the end of the war with Japan, the Communists and Nationalists attempted to negotiate another truce in their decades-long hostilities. While there Mao met with the noted left-wing writer and Communist agent of influence Guo Moruo 郭沫若. Guo presented the Chairman with an Omega watch that he used for the rest of his life; for his part Mao uttered his lapidary words about the winding road to victory. Mao included the line ‘The future is bright, but the path forward is tortuous’ in the conclusion to his ‘On the Chongqing Negotiations’ 《关于重庆谈判》, his report on the talks offered to Party cadres back in the Communist base of Yan’an on 17 October 1945 (the speech is collected in the last volume of the Chairman’s previously much-studied four volume Selected Works).

Huang Yongyu started making his ‘animal crackers’ at the end of a lapse in the rising tide of Maoist extremism. As the artist recalls:

I started creating these ‘animal tidbits’ during moments of boredom and frustration while in in Xingtai in 1964. It was just before the earthquake and I’d been sent to a commune production brigade there as part of the ‘Four Cleans’ Campaign. Eventually, I found I had a collection of over eighty of them. Some comrades who saw them thought they were great fun, laughing so hard they couldn’t stand up straight. I too was pleased with the result and thought I’d try and publish a small volume of them, with illustrations, when I got back to Beijing.

The Four Cleans 四清运动 was the rural prelude to the Cultural Revolution, but many writers and artists had thought that following the depredations of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and early 1960s more moderate policies, and economic growth, would continue. Among the most famous writers to take advantage of the relatively relaxed post-Leap policies was Deng Tuo 邓拓, a Party loyalist and noted essayist. His Evening Chats from Yan Mountain 《燕山夜话》 remain a delight; another is Huang Yongyu and his far less-well-known ‘animal crackers’. While Deng’s musings appeared in the Beijing Evening News, Huang’s ‘tidbits’ circulated only among his intimates, a group that included members of ‘The Layabouts Lodge’ 二流堂, one of the only pre-1949 literary salons that survived into the People’s Republic (for details, see ‘The People’s Republic of Wine‘ in the March 2011 issue of China Heritage Quarterly). However, as is so often the case with pithy humour and private social commentary, ‘animal crackers’ soon found a wider audience.

During his ‘re-education’ in the following years, the artist was repeatedly interrogated about the comic lines and their heinous politics. The originals were lost in the maelstrom of the Cultural Revolution, and the image above is part of a set of images that Huang published under the title Jottings from the Bottle Studio《罐斋杂记》in 1983 just as the Party’s Anti-Spiritual Pollution Campaign and attack on Bourgeois Liberalisation were taking shape. For the full set of animal crackers, images and text in English and Chinese, see ‘Huang Yongyu: A Can of Worms‘ in the multimedia section of the Morning Sun archival website.


The landscape conjured up by Chinese political metaphors features an impressive menagerie of creatures. A recent example relates to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute between Japan and China. In January 2013, Colonel Liu Mingfu 刘明福 of the National Defence University in Beijing (a man also know for the celebrated 2009 book China Dream 《中国梦》), warned Australia to be careful to shun the US ‘tiger’ and the Japanese ‘wolf’. According to the Fairfax journalist John Garnaut, General Liu ‘blamed America’s “orchestration” and Japan’s “militarism” for rising tensions over disputed islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China.’

‘America is the global tiger and Japan is Asia’s wolf and both are now madly biting China’, Colonel Liu is quoted as having said. ‘Of all the animals’, according to Garnaut’s report, ‘Chinese people hate the wolf the most.’ Continuing with his Chinese IR menagerie Liu advised Australia to be a ‘kind-hearted lamb’; to that end China would ‘discourage it from being led astray’. He further opined that:

Australia should never play the jackal for the tiger or dance with the wolf.

Here one is reminded again of Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary which contains the following definition of ‘peace’:

A period of cheating between two periods of fighting. (Bierce also quipped that ‘war is God’s way of teaching Americans geography.’)

Animal metaphors have been prominent in the Chinese cultural imaginary from pre-Qin times (and commonplace in Western political thought and literature from long before the Christian era). Such became particularly prevalent, and politically significant, during the late-Ming dynasty in the seventeenth century, when attacks on the invading ‘barbarian’ Manchus were frequent. The language of bestial denigration has framed Chinese discussions of virtue, power and civilisation ever since, even though the imprecations of the Ming were unsuccessful in preventing the Manchus from eventually establishing their Qing dynasty in the former Ming capital, Beijing, in 1644. (The ramifications of the barbarian vs. civilised will be the subject of a future essay in The China Story Journal). Furthermore, our colleague Kerry  Brown at Sydney University reminds us that nests of vipers are hardly unique to the Chinese socio-political scene. Kerry recently commented that Rupert Murdoch of News Corp fame,

whose great plans for conquest of the Chinese media market in the 1990s caused him to attack the Dalai Lama in a Vanity Fair article as ‘a very political old monk’ is now bellyaching about his own papers being hacked by his former pals in Beijing (in those days he was courting the profoundly unpopular 1990s propaganda Czar, the late Ding Guan’gen).

And on top of that, in view of last year’s events over the way his journalists behaved in the UK breaking into mobile voicemails etc, Mr Murdoch complaining about hacking is, well, a little surreal. As he once said about Ted Turner, quoting Disraeli, ‘I know I am a mean, low snake. But you, sir, are so low you could walk under me wearing a top hat!’

Meanwhile, the Year of the Snake, the start of which is celebrated on 10 February, is also known by the more auspicious name of the Year of the Little Dragon 小龙.

We take this opportunity to wish our readers well with this Spring Festival greeting card designed by Markuz Wernli for our Australian Centre on China in the World 澳大利亚中华全球研究中心: