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Spring Ox & Cowherd Picture in Chinese Almanac Calendar

Updated on September 4, 2017
Chinese almanac, tong sheng
Chinese almanac, tong sheng | Source

Have you ever seen the Spring Ox Picture (春牛图) in the Annual Chinese Almanac, Tong Sheng (通胜)? Most people must be wondering what it is trying to convey.

Actually, the picture contains lots of information on the Yin-Yang (阴阳) nature of the year, the Heavenly Stem (天干) and Earthly Branch (地支) for the year and that for the Spring Day (Li Chun Day 立春日), Na Yin Wu Xing (纳音五行), etc.

Predictions regarding the weather and the agricultural harvests for the year are also hidden in the illustration. They are in the form of seven character-line poetry (七言诗) and appear on both sides of the spring ox image.

There will be two Spring Ox pictures in the Chinese Almanac. The image at the front is for the year while the other one at the end of the calendar is for the following year.

Very old Spring Ox Pictures of 30 years.
Very old Spring Ox Pictures of 30 years. | Source

Symbolism of the Spring Ox Picture

On both sides of the Spring Ox image, there are predictions written in poetic form with regard to the weather and harvests for the year.

The key components of the picture are the ox and the cowherd. However, the details will be different every year as it depends on what symbolism the illustration has for that particular year.

24 Solar Terms
24 Solar Terms | Source

Depiction of the ox

The measurements mentioned below are the Chinese length units, namely chi (尺), cun ( 寸), and fen (分).

The 4 chi height of the ox symbolizes the four seasons. Its 8 chi body (from head to tail) represents the Eight Solar Terms* (农耕八节) for Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter. The 1 chi 2 cun ox’s tail denotes the twelve months of the year.

[ *Note: The Eight Solar Terms are as follows:-

Beginning of Spring (立 春)
Vernal Equinox (春 分)
Beginning of Summer (立 夏)
Summer Solstice (夏 至)
Beginning of Autumn (立 秋)
Autumnal Equinox (秋 分)
Beginning of Winter (立 冬)
Winter Solstice (冬 至)

The above are part of the Twenty-four Solar Terms (二十四节气), which is a unique creation by the ancient Chinese. These cover the period from the beginning of Spring to the Major Cold. It shows the relationship between the universe, seasons, climate and agriculture. Over the centuries, it has served as a complete set of weather calendar to guide the Chinese in their agricultural production. ]

· Colours of the ox

The different parts of the ox have different colours which vary from year to year. Please refer to the chart for the details.

The colours in the original illustration were meant to indicate what is the Heavenly Stem, Earthly Branch or Na Yin Wu Xing of the year and that of the Li Chun Day. However, the Spring Ox Picture in the Chinese Almanac is not printed in colour.

· Mouth and tail

When the ox is depicted with a closed mouth and with its tail towards the right, it indicates that the year is Yin.

On the other hand, when the ox is shown as open-mouth with its tail on the left side, the year is Yang.

Colour chart for Spring Ox
Colour chart for Spring Ox | Source

· Colour of the rein

The colour of the rein depends on what is the Heavenly Stem of Li Chun Day.

Heavenly Stems
Jia ( 甲 ), Yi ( 乙 )
Bing ( 丙), Ding ( 丁)
Wu ( 戊 ) , Ji ( 己)
Geng ( 庚 ), Xin ( 辛)
Ren ( 壬 ), Kui ( 癸 )

· Texture of the rein

The texture of the rein depends on what is the Earthly Branch of Li Chun Day.

Earthly Branches 
Yin (寅), Shen ( 申), Si ( 巳), Hai ( 亥 ) 
Zi ( 子 ), Wu ( 午), Mao ( 卯), You ( 酉)
 Chen ( 辰), Shu ( 戍), Chou ( 丑), Wei ( 未)
Hemp (麻)
Limonene (苎) 
Silk (丝)

Description of the Cowherd

The ancient Chinese believed that there are five gods, namely gods of Metal, Water, Wood, Fire and Earth.

The cowherd next to the spring ox is actually the Wood god (芒神 or 句芒神). As he oversees crops and vegetation matters, he is considered the representative of the Spring Ox Picture.

· Appearance

How the Wood god looks like has its special meaning:

Depicted as a child cowherd - indicates the year to be Chen ( 辰 ), Shu ( 戍), Chou ( 丑), or Wei ( 未).

Depicted as a young cowherd - indicates the year to be Zi ( 子 ), Wu ( 午 ), Mao ( 卯), or You ( 酉).

Depicted as an old cowherd - indicates the year to be Yin (寅), Shen ( 申 ), Si ( 巳), or Hai ( 亥 ).

The height of the cowherd is 3 chi 6 cun 5 fen, which represents the 365 days of the year.

· Clothing and belt

The colours of his clothing and belt will depend on what is the Earthly Branch of Li Chun Day for that year.

Earthly Branches 
Hai ( 亥), Zi ( 子)
Yin (寅), Mao ( 卯)
Si ( 巳), Wu ( 午)  
Shen (申), You ( 酉) 
Chen ( 辰), Shu (戍) , Chou (丑), Wei ( 未)  
Yellow clothes with green belt
White clothes with red belt
Black clothes with yellow belt 
Red clothes with black belt 
Green clothes with white belt 

· Hairdo

The hairdo of the cowherd depends on what is the Na Yin of the Li Chun Day.

Na Yin Wu Xing  
Hair is flattened at the centre, with some hair in a bun behind both ears. 
Hair is flattened at the centre, with some hair in a bun in front of right ear and behind the left ear.
Hair is combed into the shape of two balls on top of the head.
Hair is flattened at the centre, with some hair in a bun in front of both ears. 
Hair is flattened at the centre, with some hair in a bun in front of left ear and behind the right ear. 

· Shoes

When the cowherd is depicted as being barefooted with trousers folded up, it means a rainy year. This serves as a guide to the farmers in their agricultural planning.

On the other hand, if he is seen wearing shoes on both feet, it indicates a prediction of droughts in the year. This forewarning will help the farmers to be better prepared for the situation, thus reducing the damaging impact on agriculture.

As an indication of good weather throughout the year, the cowherd will be shown as barefooted on one side and wearing shoe on the other. This serves as an advice to the farmers to make good use of the fine weather in that year.

For the weather temperature all year round, the cowherd wearing a hat means cool weather while one without a hat indicates very hot weather.

· Standing positions

The standing position of the cowherd is used to reveal when is the Li Chun for the year:

Side by side with the ox – Li Chun is within five days from the Lunar New Year or after the New Year.

In front of the ox – Li Chun is more than five days before the Lunar New Year.

Behind the ox – Li Chun is more than five days afer the Lunar New Year.

For a Yin year, the cowherd will be standing on the left of the ox while for a Yang year, he will be on the right side of the ox.

· Whip stick

His willow whip stick is 2 chi 4 cun, symbolizing the Twenty-four Solar Terms. There is a colourful knot that is always dyed with 5 colours. The type of whip knot will depend on what is the Earthly Branch of Li Chun Day.

Earthly Branches  
Yin (寅), Shen ( 申), Si ( 巳), Hai ( 亥 ) 
Zi ( 子 ), Wu ( 午), Mao ( 卯), You ( 酉)
Chen ( 辰), Shu ( 戍 ), Chou ( 丑), Wei ( 未 ) 
Hemp knot (麻 结)
Limonene knot (苎 结 )
Silk knot (丝 结)

Significance of the Spring Ox Picture

To the Chinese, the Spring Ox Picture signifies the hope for bumper harvests, abundance, happiness and good weather. It is one of the most common auspicious symbols in Chinese traditions.

Throughout the ages, the Spring Ox with the Cowherd is an ever popular subject for Chinese paintings.

© 2011 pinkytoky


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    • pinkytoky profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Singapore

      The Spring Ox Picture has been in black and white or red and white for the past several decades. This is because coloured Spring Ox Picture no longer served any purpose to most Chinese folks in modern times. But, in antique shops, you might be able to find an ancient Spring Ox Picture in colour.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Hi Pinkytoky,

      Just wondering, I normally came across with black and white or red and white ox spring picture. Is there with yellow or green combination?


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