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2023-01-21 05:21:53 Voices

In the latest iteration of a tradition that dates back more than 40 years, China Post this month issued a set of two stamps in honor of the upcoming Lunar New Year. In theory, this year’s set commemorates the “Gui-Mao” year in China’s traditional 60-year calendrical cycle; in practice, it is devoted to the year’s zodiac animal, the humble rabbit.

The first stamp in the set, “Gui-Mao Blessings,” features a bright blue bunny with a pen in his right hand, a letter in his left, and a slightly crazed look in its eyes. “It’s as if it’s conveying the good wishes of the Lunar New Year,” explained Kang Ning, deputy general manager of China Post. The second, more traditional stamp, is of three rabbits running together in a circle. It’s meant to show “the dynamism, vitality and warmth of life,” Kang explained.

The Chinese zodiac stamps are a reliable source of headlines each year, but this year’s set — or more specifically, the blue rabbit featured on the “Gui-Mao Blessings” stamp — has been unusually controversial. Designed by the famous artist Huang Yongyu, who also contributed a design to the first Lunar New Year stamp set in 1980, its red eyes, blue body, strange smile, spiked feet, and oddly humanoid hands have sparked a fierce backlash. Online, social media users complained the blue rabbit was “too ugly” or “pure evil.” More levelheaded critics acknowledged the stamp’s artistic value but said it “wasn’t festive enough.”

The response was such that the 99-year-old Huang felt it necessary to respond, which he did via a video released Jan. 5. “It’s a happy thing to draw a rabbit stamp,” Huang said, brushing aside the criticisms. “Everyone can draw a rabbit, and I'm not the only one who can draw one. I drew this one to make everyone happy and congratulate them on the New Year, thank you!”

If all this seems like a tempest in a teapot, that’s because it is. But the criticisms of “Gui-Mao Blessings” aren’t wholly unfounded. Huang’s blue rabbit, while certainly in keeping with his playful, occasionally subversive personal style, is jarringly different from the more comforting artistic representations of rabbits found in traditional Chinese artwork.

An alert, agile, and friendly animal, rabbits have long been a favorite subject of Chinese painters. The Song dynasty (960-1279) masterpiece “Magpies and Hare” by Cui Bai features two magpies, one fluttering its wings and the other chirping from atop a tree. In the lower left sits a rabbit. Seemingly startled by the magpie’s call, it looks back, the two creatures’ eyes forming an invisible diagonal across the painting. Cui’s brush strokes vary in sparseness and thickness, and the rabbit’s eyes radiate personality. It’s a near perfect example of naturalism in Chinese art.

“Magpies and Hare” and its details. From The National Palace Museum Open Data

“Magpies and Hare” and its details. From The National Palace Museum Open Data

“Begonia, Bird, and Rabbit” and its details. From The Palace Museum

“Begonia, Bird, and Rabbit” and its details. From The Palace Museum

Artists returned to the link between birds and rabbits repeatedly over the centuries. In “Begonia, Bird, and Rabbit,” by Qing dynasty (1644-1912) painter Hua Yan, a bird startles a black rabbit, sending it scurrying out of the begonia bushes and toward the painting’s edge.

Another Qing dynasty painter, Leng Mei, offered a different artistic take on the rabbit. In his “Twin Rabbits Under a Parasol Tree,” he depicts a pair of white bunnies lying quietly in a courtyard. Laurel blossoms and chrysanthemums bloom around them, punctuating the mid-autumn setting, and the rabbits’ fur is delicately outlined with fine brushwork. The sense of motion found in Cui and Hua’s paintings is gone, replaced by a sense of royal solemnity, atmosphere, and grace.

“Twin Rabbits Under a Parasol Tree” and its details. From @天津博物馆 on Weibo

“Twin Rabbits Under a Parasol Tree” and its details. From @天津博物馆 on Weibo

Arguably the famous depiction of rabbits in Chinese history, however, comes not from any well-known artist, but from an anonymous hand. Known as “Three Hares Sharing Ears,” the earliest instance of the design dates to the Sui dynasty (581-618) and was used frequently in decorations in the Mogao Caves, at the eastern edge of the Silk Road.

The three hares, with a total of three ears between them, are shown running in the same direction, following each other in a circular fashion. They touch, but they can never quite catch up with each other.

The “Three Hares” motif spread across the Silk Road, showing up on coins, in metalwork, and even in English churches. The second half of this year’s zodiac stamp set, “Together with the Circle,” is a clear reference to the 1,500-year-old design — and a nod to traditional Chinese art and religion.

Left: An example of the “Three Hares” motif dating to the Sui Dynasty. From the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum; Right: A stamp lover shows off his “Gui-Mao Blessings” stamp set in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Jan. 5, 2023. Yang Bo/CNS/VCG

Left: An example of the “Three Hares” motif dating to the Sui Dynasty. From the Beijing Minsheng Art Museum; Right: A stamp lover shows off his “Gui-Mao Blessings” stamp set in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, Jan. 5, 2023. Yang Bo/CNS/VCG

But “Together with the Circle” has gone basically unnoticed amid the controversy surrounding “Gui-Mao Blessings.” Perhaps if Huang had adopted a more conservative approach, his work would likewise have garnered the usual complimentary headlines and little else. But why settle for patronizing praise? If the power of art lies not in how good it looks or how aesthetically pleasing it may be, but in its ability to evoke emotion, then Huang’s work counts as an unqualified success.

Indeed, Huang’s rabbit seems designed to arouse controversy. In the Chinese tradition, red and white rabbits are seen as auspicious, but he opted instead to paint the rabbit a bright shade of blue. And contrary to the stereotype of rabbits as cute, docile creatures, his rabbit appears wild and uncontrollable, with a hint of mischief in its eyes.

This winter has been a harsh one for China’s art greats. Given all we’ve lost, the fact that Huang, nearing his one-hundredth birthday, is not only still working, but still capable of getting a rise out of millions is something worth celebrating. At a time of uncertainty, he seems to be telling us: never stop creating — and never stop provoking.

Editor: Kilian O’Donnell.

(Header image: The “Gui-Mao Blessings” stamp set on display in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Jan. 5, 2023. IC)