Friday, February 8, 2013

Happy Snake Year

This weekend on Sunday, February 10th is the start of Chinese New Year. 2013 will be a Snake Year. In order to honor the occasion, I went through my collection to find some Chinese snakes. 

Recently, I gave a birthday dinner for a friend whose zodiac sign is the snake, and in honor of the upcoming Snake Year. In order to decorate for the occasion, I dug out some snakes left over from Halloween:

Although I forgot to take a picture, in the end that table had considerably more on it, including lots of balloons to make it festive.

I also got a chance to use my favorite ceramic snake platters, reminiscent of old majolica, even if not quite so fine:

Getting back to Chinese snakes, the first one I obtained was this rather elegant bamboo carving of a snake twining through a stump of bamboo:

This coiled wooden snake on a base of carved greenery may have been part of a set depicting the zodiac animals. It is reasonably large, perhaps eight or nine inches tall, and the coils form a hollow on the inside, so it is also possible that this was used as a stand of some sort. I love the simplicity and liveliness of its carving and painting. I have never seen anything else quite like this, and I feel lucky to have acquired it.

This ball of snakes is about five inches across. My favorite part is the way the snake head emerges from the central ball in the second photo.

Babies born in a given animal’s year are often provided with lucky charms to wear as pendants. Here is a boxwood charm showing a baby playing with a snake, a situation not likely to be encountered in reality. 

(Sorry about the photo quality; this was taken under harsh light, and I could not locate the object to re-photograph it.)

I’m not sure what story this votive block depicts, but it looks like an interesting one. The god is standing on a snake, and about to dispatch it with his sword. Note that the god is only wearing one shoe, whose mate is being worn by the snake. I like the naive, folk-art quality of this piece. Incidentally, the god is not holding up a fish, as it might appear. The face is the head of a trophy pelt worn around the waist; usually these represent a lion, tiger, or dragon. The body and tail of the “fish” are a fabric panel from the skirt of his costume. His left hand is holding the scabbard of the sword, or some other attribute, thus the scabbard, animal head and clothing panel are unrelated elements which seem to meld together here.  

Although only one or two of these carvings actually refer to Chinese Snake Year, they can all serve to honor the occasion and help to make this a lucky year. Do you have a favorite among these, or perhaps a special snake in your own collection?

I sincerely wish all of my readers a Happy, Lucky and Prosperous Snake Year.

(All photographs property of the author.)


  1. Happy Snake Year! My son made two great pots in art class with snakes coiling in and out that would fit in perfectly with your collection. I gave them places of honor in the house.

    Where did your carved snakes come from? The ball of snakes is very cool.

    My husband is afraid of snakes. We have a big to do several times a summer when I find a snake in our pond and am determined to get it out to protect our precious goldfish and green frogs. We attempt to relocate it to a wetlands a few miles away. He will not go near it so son and I (if I am lucky and he is home at that moment) try to outwit the snake while husband stands by with a grocery bag, we then bag him and I drive him to another wetlands that is hopefully far enough away. When we have taken it to the wetlands down the road, it comes right back the next day!

    1. Hello Cindy, You are lucky to have those snakes made by your son--perhaps you can give a glimpse of them in your blog, or let us know of a past post in which they appear.

      All of the snakes here were collected in Taiwan, mostly when I first arrived here; in the last couple of years, good vintage items suddenly are hard to find.

      That is quite an adventure with the snake in your pond. I wonder what kind or size it is--most snakes in Northern Ohio are benign, but still can be frightening when they get to be large.

  2. Fascinating collection! The table looks festive as is--I can only imagine how it must have been at the party. The platters are very cool--I've never seen anything like them. There's something charming about coiled snake on greenery, and I absolutely love the votive block!

    Thanks for sharing them.


    1. Hello Jen, I usually forget to take pictures at optimal moments, but the party was a lot of fun, and we even had some snakes coming down from the ceiling. The platters came from a store that sells mostly manufacturers' samples, and sometimes you get lucky there.

      I also love that block with the snake; if I ever learn the story it represents, perhaps I can include it in a future post.

  3. Hi, Jim ~ Welcome back! It's been tooooooooo long!!

    You have quite the collection of snake items. Love the majolica-like platters. Great way to serve and keep apart various hors d'oeuvres....very clever design.

    Happy Chinese New Year! Will you be enjoying moon cake with duck egg yolk? And exchanging lucky red envelopes?


    1. Hello Loi, Happy New Year to you, too. I love the egg-yolk pastries, but right now I am cutting back on junk food. I have stocked up on red envelopes with the snake character on them, although I still have not given up my Western prejudice of disliking to give money as a gift.

      The snake platters work just the way you described it--you can even set small bowls down in the compartments. In that sense they are more practical then the originals, which usually are so encrusted with creatures that they obviously are for display only.

  4. Dear Jim,
    I like those snake dishes too. Particularly the banded snake.
    I have a healthy respect for snakes and both AGA and I have come into contact with them in country Victoria. In fact, when my family had first moved to VIctoria I was nearly bitten by one and another one entered our garden and began sliding towards my baby sister in her 'bounce-a-nette' smelling the milk, and my father killed it with an axe! It was all very exciting for an eight year old...
    Bye for now
    (born in the year of the rabbit)

    1. Hello Kirk, Your comment brings up a good point. Real venomous snakes are dangerous and frightening, and perhaps that is why we make carvings and decorations of them, to gain control over the situation.

      That is quite a dramatic story about the snake and your sister. When I was growing up there were lots of garter snakes in Ohio, but they were non-venomous and friendly, and also never got very large.

  5. Happy Chinese New Year Jim - I really am not at all keen on being too close to snakes, but do admire them. Their beautiful colouring, the way the large ones can live on one animal for months digesting it slowly within themselves, and their ability to shed their skin and start again.
    The ornament of yours which I really like and would be happy to have around is the dear little snake twining its way through the bamboo, it even has an endearing face with almost a smile.

    1. Hello Rosemary, I can understand people being afraid of snakes, but certainly they are beautiful and graceful creatures. They have many unusual adaptations and are successful by being different from other animals, an interesting message for iconoclasts out there.

      I agree with you that the bamboo snake does have a lot of personality. His facial expression and body position make it seem that he is not doing anything in particular, but just is happy being a snake.

  6. I find snakes (plus lizards, rats, jelly fish) and a lot of other slithery animals to be a bit off-putting. Yet clearly the snake in this context is given to loved ones for good fortune in the year to come.

    The most beautiful snake in your photos, I think, is the bamboo carving of a snake curling through the bamboo stump. It is rich in colour and texture, and not scary.

    1. Hello Hels, For people who relish items like these, that is a big part of the ironic appeal--things that we don't want to encounter in real life are elevated and displayed. Also, by removing the danger from these objects, we free ourselves to admire their form and aesthetic qualities.

      The bamboo snake is very elegantly carved, and also for once the camera captured the richness of the wood instead of creating a harsh glare.

  7. Hello, Jim,

    You have quite a collection! By far, my favorite of your collection is the snake emerging from the bamboo. It looks like an older piece. I like its gracefulness and that it seems authentically "snakish."

    The ball of snakes is also handsome; it reminds me of a graphic M. C. Escher drew.

    I wish you happiness, good health, and prosperity throughout the year!

    1. Hello Mark, Thank you for your kind wishes, which of course are returned. The bamboo snake seems to be the favorite from this post, which is interesting because sometimes there is a wide divergence of opinion. Looking at it, I see a Japanese influence (perhaps the piece is Japanese) in the accurate observation and playful depiction of the snake's motion. It reminds me of the way vermin-type animals are depicted in many netsukes.

      Your remark about Escher is perfect. His work often highlights both connections and motion, both of which are present in abundance in a ball of snakes.

  8. Snakes normally scare me but I know that in CHinese tradition it is meant to be a easy year where we all slither about - so i am looking forward to it.

    you do have quite the collection of snakes - i must admit those bright ones are eye catching

    Happy Snake year in any case!

    1. Hello Coulda shoulda, THank you, I too hope that this will be an easy year when problems will slide past us (or us past them).

      There are really two collections represented in this post. The ones at the top were borrowed from my Halloween decorations, while the ones lower down are more traditional.

  9. Hi Jim,

    I've always wondered what frightens people most about snakes--its venom, its unpredictable movements, its scaly texture or its vivid colors. Most likely a combination of all these.

    1. Hi Anon, I agree that all these must be factors. In addition, perhaps there is the factor that we are taught from an early age to fear and avoid snakes and similar creatures, and this is passed on until it becomes almost instinctive.

  10. Dear Jim,
    Happy Chinese New Year! So sorry to be late to the party...! I think your collection of snake pieces is so interesting, and if I had to choose a favorite, it would have to be that votive block--what a story! It reminds me of a book of Japanese children's folk tales that I recently purchased: some of the characters and elements in the stories are absolutely bizarre and wonderful, much like the snake wearing the god's shoe in your piece... I think I'll be on the lookout for a similar book of Chinese tales. Perhaps these would be good to have on hand to unravel otherwise undecipherable iconography in the objects that find their way into our welcoming homes...what fun!
    Warm regards,

    1. Hello Erika, I have seen a number of those votive blocks, but not another with the snake like that, often they just have the god standing. I did ask one local friend here, but he didn't know what story was being depicted.

      Your Japanese book sounds both charming and useful; I do have a few books that explain some Chinese stories, for example one that gives the plots of the most popular Chinese operas, but nothing really comprehensive. I guess the field is too big--after all, the iconography derives from several religions, history, literature, Confucius, etc.

  11. Dear Jim,
    Happy belated Chinese New Year to you!
    Funny as on February 6, our felines did bring a small (friendly) snake into the house... That was their birthday gift for me I guess?
    My bet is that the last photo still depicts Hanoman from the Ramayana story. We do have a statue of him at our home and that's also the only snake we got. You show us here quite a collection!
    Best regards,

  12. Hello Mariette, Happy Chinese New Year to you, too. It is now about the middle of the New Year season.

    I hope you enjoyed your "gift"--most of the common snakes in the Eastern U.S. are harmless, but if one is not an expert, it pays to err on the side of caution!

    I just looked up Hanoman, but I could not find any reference to a snake in his story. Perhaps you could show a photo of your statue. It sounds very interesting. Many Chinese legends did originally come from India, and reading about Hanoman, there are so many variable aspects to his story.

  13. oh dear... that first photo (even if all fake) caused me a bit of anxiety!! I do like your snake platters though. Happy Chinese New Year Jim!

    1. Hello Joan, I am surprised to see you daunted by a few wooden snakes, after you described your love of wasps' nests as indoor decorations, and even brought a live one into the house.

      By the way, let me state again how much I enjoyed your last post on the Chinese green-glazed balusters.


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