Welcoming the Year of the Snake

Our Lunar New Year Festival is fast approaching! Make sure to mark your calendar for February 2, when our huge festival takes over the museum and parking lot for a full day of fun. (And if you’d prefer to celebrate with a more low-key approach, check out the artists and performers of the Jiangsu Intangible Heritage Troupe on Thursday, January 31 and Friday, February 1.)

As this event was looming last year for the Year of the Dragon, we looked at how Lunar New Year is celebrated around the world. This year, we look forward to the Year of the Snake beginning February 10. While snakes don’t always have the most positive connotation in the U.S., in many parts of Asia they’re an auspicious symbol. Zodiac mythology holds that snake years are of steady progress after the dragon years of good luck.

dragon bowl

Chinese bowl from the Ming dynasty with a dragon motif.

In China, the snake is closely associated with the dragon, and it’s not hard to see why from artistic representations of dragons (see left). Especially in rural or farming communities, snakes are considered good luck and command respect. If a snake comes into the house, it is said that the family living there will not starve. The snake represents wealth and fortune, and because of this, people born in the Year of the Snake are said to be good at business, as well as introspective and intuitive. However, they can also be jealous and stubborn.

The Chinese legend of the White Snake is one of the most well-known traditional stories, and has been repeatedly adapted for stage and screen. While there are many versions, the basic plot follows a white snake who transforms into a woman and falls in love. A disapproving monk discovers her secret and conspires to reveal her secret and imprison her. Though he does both, the white snake, her husband and later her son triumph over the evil monk and are reunited. In most versions of this story, the snake is a positive character that demonstrates love, dedication and determination.

Japanese snakeAs in China, in Japan snakes are also associated with a good harvest and fertility. Snakes protect crops by eating mice and other pests, resulting in better chances for a good yield. Because snakes shed their skin, they are also symbols of regeneration. Japanese legend also associates the snake with jealousy, a trait ascribed to those born in a snake year. The story of Kiyohime tells the tale of a woman so infatuated with a monk that she follows him far and wide, even transforming herself into a snake to swim across the river she encounters. In our recent exhibition Masterpieces of Tsukioka Yoshitoshi we featured a woodblock print telling this story, which we wrote about previously here.

So while in the West snakes have an almost universally bad reputation, in many parts of Asia they’re considered quite lucky. Here’s hoping that your Year of the Snake is an auspicious one! ~CM

Bowl, China, Ming dynasty; Wanli period (1573-1620 AD), Porcelain, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert M. Snukal, 1998.67.74

Snake, Japan, c. 1860, Ink on paper, Gift of Mrs. Herrad T. Marrs in honor of Professor Ludwig Doederlein, 2001.24.5



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