Reading and writing in the Year of the Ox

As we move into the Year of the Ox, an animal symbolising hard work, intelligence and reliability, Young Poets’ Stories is celebrating its one year anniversary. To celebrate this turn of the year, Richard and Sue have been delving into the symbol of the Ox in different faiths, beliefs and in poetry. We hope the images, stories and poems will inspire your own writing. Fellow poetry researcher Yuka Nakai has also given us permission to share her delightful New Year drawing with you. You might want to challenge yourself to write your own version of one verse or the whole Oxherding story below or perhaps write a poem about transformation of some kind – from one animal or state of mind to another. We’d love to read what you create.

Year of the Ox The Ox is the second of all zodiac animals. According to one myth, the Jade Emperor said the order would be decided by the order in which they arrived to his party. The Ox was about to be the first to arrive, but Rat tricked Ox into giving him a ride. Then, just as they arrived, Rat jumped down and landed ahead of Ox. Thus, Ox became the second animal. Source:

Poems about Oxen

Jane Yeh, ‘Musk-Ox’ : This is a terrific poem and a new discovery for both of us. The Guardian review focuses on the almost nature documentary-like description of the muskox and the third person detail with which the writer assesses the creature. It also acknowledges how the poem charts the dramatic shift at the end when the ox cartoon-like imagines his transformation from a lumbering “minibus/made of hair” into another life as salmon with scaly –and not woolly – skin. The ox takes on new characteristics in doing so. Yes, it is slow and sturdy, consistent with its traditional symbolism, but it also has envy for a different life: the life of lumbering up a grassy hill is exchanged for the more challenging existence of a fish spending its life swimming upstream. The poem allows for the ox to reject its usual conceptualisation as reliable and sturdy and reimagined as envious, a day dreamer, and dissatisfied with its current life.

Thomas Hardy, ‘The Oxen’: In his widely anthologised poem, Hardy draws on a West Country myth that on Christmas Eve animals take to their knees as the animals in the stable at Jesus’ birth did. He implies an inter-connectedness exists between animals on this special day, a theme that takes on added resonance in 2020/2021 when we are apart but are acutely aware that we are acting similarly because of one significant cosmic event. Above all, the poem ends with a profound sense of hope. Over the course of his life, he has become cynical and has lost his faith. In spite of this, the person in the poem nonetheless goes to check anyway:

If someone said on Christmas Eve,

“Come; see the oxen kneel,

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb

Our childhood used to know,”

I should go with him in the gloom,

Hoping it might be so.

In Hardy’s poem, the oxen maintain the traditional Chinese representation of strength and reliability. But they also symbolise the persona’s persisting faith – even though it has been diminished. The poem invites us to jump for our highest ideals, even though we may think we know better. In 2021, this message allows us to breathe out in relief.

The Ox and Zen Buddhist poetry: The Ten Oxherding pictures and accompanying poems The Rinzai priest and writer Harada Shodo provides an introduction to The Ten Oxherding Pictures, one of the oldest documents in Zen history which date from the twelfth century. Kakuan Shion wrote the text and his grandson disciple Gion added the pictures. The poems were short and accessible They reached many people because they could be easily heard and remembered. The story they tell is about how a wild ox is caught and tamed. In India oxen are sacred, precious animals, messengers from God to be treated with respect. Shodo states that “to raise an ox meant to work on your divine self” and notes the inclusion of a teaching in the Buddhist sutras which says “we have to grab the ox’s snout and not let him rough up the neighbour’s garden”. This taming can be compared with a person’s process in their Buddhist practice. Source: (Translation by Priscilla Daichi Storandt. Accessed 3/2/21.)

A number of different poem translations and versions of the pictures are included at the above site. Try comparing the English translations of text 4 to give you a flavour of the differences:

Getting Hold of the Ox: Urs App (translator) with 17th century Japanese woodcut prints

Catching: John Daido Loori and Kazuaki Tanahashi (translators) with a link to original images and texts

The Ox in (Chinese) Mythology Source: “The ancient Egyptians and the Persians believed that oxen were their ancestors, and the ancient Chinese nation worshipped the Yan Emperor and the Yellow Emperor as their ancestors. The Yan Emperor had the head of an ox but a human body, his tribe used an ox as their totem, and the ancient people offered sacrifices to him during the Spring Festival. As a result, the Spring Festival was closely related to the workshopping of oxen as ancestors. 

The Tibetan genesis myth, The Origin of Things, creates a romantic story of the creation of heaven and Earth, and it records that head, eyes, guts, hair, hoofs, and heart of the ox turn into the sun, the stars, the rivers, the lakes the forests, and mountains respectively after its death’.

The ox also functioned as both God and a sacrificial object in ancient times. It was a custom for the ancient people to offer oxen to their ancestors as sacrificial objects. The bones of oxen were buried with the dead in the prehistory period, which was the start of sacrificial offerings of oxen to God to the ancestors of humans.”

Sue Dymoke and Richard Bromhall


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