The Year of the Ox in Korea

by, 18/01/2009

This Lunar New Year begins the second cyle in the 12-year Asian Animal Zodiac - the Year of the Ox (often called the Year of the Cow in Korea).

To mark the Year of the Ox/Cow, merchants are offering specials on beef, milk, etc. Following is information from on how the ox has been viewed in Korea history

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Oxen depicted in Korean history
Once upon a time in Korea, a young nobleman was traveling through the countryside. He saw an old man plowing the land with two oxen – one yellowish brown and the other black. After watching for some time, the noble finally asked, “Old man, which ox is a better worker, the brown one or the black one?”

The old man stopped his work. He walked right into the tree shade where the nobleman was resting and whispered into his ears. “The brown one is better.”

The noble was dumbfounded by this attitude. “You didn't need to come all the way here to tell me that. And why the whispering?” he asked.

The old man got upset. “Both my oxen are hard-working. If I reveal my favorite, it will hurt the feelings of the other one. You shouldn't say such a thing out loud, even to an animal.”

The young noble returned to the court and for the rest of his life, never spoke an ill word against others for the rest of his life. Such is an anecdote concerning Hwang Hui (1363 – 1452), prime minister during the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1910) and right-hand man of the scholar-king Sejong the Great (1397 – 1450).

Aside from the lesson that is obvious in this story, note how oxen were treated in old Korean society, whose economy depended heavily on agriculture. An ox was more than just livestock for a farmer.

It was a means of subsistence, a useful means of transportation, a big family asset when in need of quick cash and a source of food among other things. Having many oxen meant having wealth and power.

When the weather gets cold, a farmer would make a straw mat to cover the back of his ox. When spring came, he would clean the stable once every two weeks throughout the year until winter.

He would never feed his ox grass wet with dew and he would brush its body to help better activate its metabolism.

When traveling far with the ox, the owner would make additional straw shoes for the beast to prevent its hooves from wearing down.

The ox was the symbol of the three main virtues – honesty, sincerity and self-sacrifice. It works slowly but steadily, is always patient and never complains for the duration of its life. Even when its life comes to an end, it still leaves its master a sizable asset in terms of its meat, horns, oil and leather.

It is commonly perceived that those born in the year of the ox tend to be hard-working and loyal. They may be slow at times but they can be frighteningly determined once they put their mind to something. Such single-mindedness could sometimes lead to the expression “stubborn as an ox.” In that sense the Korean proverb “reading the scriptures to an ox” refers to the pointlessness of trying to persuade someone who will not listen.

Long ago, people used oxen for sacrificial rites and danced the ox-dance, hoping for a good harvest for the New Year. The ox appears as the god of agriculture in one of the myths of Jejudo (Jeju Island) and in the mural paintings of the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 B.C. – A.D. 668).

The image of an ox is also included in clay dolls found dating from the Silla Kingdom (57 B.C. – A.D. 935). If an ox appears in dreams it symbolized ancestors, tomb, offspring, wealth, collaboration and business. It is said that a dream of an ox entering one's house is an auspicious sign for wealth.

In Confucianism, an ox presents “righteousness.” In “Samgang haengsil-do” (Illustrated Conduct of the Three Bonds) that provides a code of behavior at the time, there is an episode regarding a loyal ox that died trying to save its master from a tiger. In Buddhism some of the terms such as “Shipwudo” (十牛圖) or “Simwudo” (尋牛圖) present the order of disciplining one's heart and mind. The middle character “wu” (牛) means cow or ox.

 Photo: Plowing the field with the ox from the National Folk Museum of Korea - from

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