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A Prosperous Year of the Snake

We help welcome the Year of the Snake with tales of the almost lost tradition of snake worship in ancient Chinese culture

02·09·2013

After the stroke of midnight tonight, the Dragon will pass the baton to the Snake and a new lunar year begins for the Chinese. The animal of the year apparently has been taken very seriously by some people. Since the Dragon is regarded as extremely auspicious, many families planed to have children in the Year of the Dragon because Dragon babies are believed to have good fortune. The same thing happened in the Year of Pig (2007), when the hospital was crowded with pregnant women trying to gain a life time of fortune for their children. (However, People’s Daily reported the sudden surges of birthrate may actually caused the particular generation of children to have less access to educational resources in the future.)

How about the Year of the Snake? Well, the Chinese’s view on snakes is far more complicated, judged from various legends and phrases related to the Snake. On one hand, the creature is associated with malevolence and evil. The phrase 佛口蛇心 (fó kǒu shé xīn, having the mouth of the Buddha, but the heart of a snake) means to disguise evil intention with pretty words, while 蛇蝎心肠 (shéxiē xīncháng) refers to evil as having the state of mind of snakes and scorpions. The phrase 牛鬼蛇神 (niúguǐshéshén) literally means “ghosts with an ox’s head and gods with a snake’s body”, referring to all kinds of evil people.

If snakes are so evil, why are we celebrating the Year of the Snake (蛇年 shé nián) then? It turns out that there is a connection between the Dragon and the Snake and the Snake is also viewed as the Dragon’s less accomplished brother. The Year of the Snake is also referred as the Year of Little Dragon (小龙年 xiǎolóng nián). Explanation for this belief might be simpler than you think — as a mythical creature, the image of the Dragon is largely based various other animals including the Snake, which is a primary component. With the head of a camel, face of a horse, nose of a tiger, ears of an ox, eyes of a leopard, horn of a deer, sideburns of a lion, scales of a fish and the claws of an eagle, the Dragon undulates with it’s serpentine core —the body of the Snake.

Stone figures of Nüwa and Fuxi depicted as snakes from their waists down in Wu Liang Shrine (武梁祠), built in 147A.D.-198A.D., Shandong Province

Stone figures of Nüwa and Fuxi depicted as snakes from their waists down in Wu Liang Shrine (武梁祠), built in 147A.D.-198 A.D., Shandong Province

The Snake did not always represent evil in Chinese culture. As a matter of fact, the world is created by a deity with a human face and a snake’s body according to Shan Hai Jing (《山海经》, Classic of the Mountains and Seas), a collection of mythologies that have been in existence since the 4th century B.C.—zhu long (烛龙). It is said that he created the day and night by opening and closing his eyes and the season winds by breathing. In the same book, the Chinese Adam and Eve, Nüwa (女娲) and Fuxi (伏羲) are also recorded to have similar forms. The couple was also depicted as snakes from the waist down in many Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-220 A.D.) artifacts, such as the silk paintings excavated from Mawangdui tombs.

Apparently, the ancient Chinese worshiped the Snake and viewed it as the beginning of life and universe. It is only until later that the Dragon overshadowed the Snake and became the number one auspicious creature in the minds of the Chinese. But the Snake still holds that special place in Chinese culture evidenced by our Year of the Snake. Now that you learned all about the Snake, we hope that you can now better connect with the centuries-old mythologies and have a very prosperous new year. Happy the Year of the Snake!

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