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Birds of a feather

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily USA | Updated: 2017-01-31 11:19

2017's zodiac animal is a fowl that we consume without giving it much thought, but it can be a minefield for cultural misunderstandings once you go beyond nibbling chicken feet, writes Raymond Zhou

Of all 12 zodiac animals, the rooster may have a cleaner image than the pig, but it does not even rank as high as the pig on the list of foods' prestige. In the food chain of exclusiveness, chicken has gone downhill in China over the past three or more decades. When I was a kid, chicken was a luxury item, affordable to most families only for special occasions like New Year's Eve.

Imagine my shock when I first arrived in the US and saw the most economically deprived gorging themselves on fried chicken. Back in China, the ubiquity of KFC and local fast-food outlets has not pushed it down to the bottom of the ladder, at least not yet. It is still very much a middle-class entree.

Before the arrival of industrialized chicken farms, chickens were raised by rural households who used leftover food as the main source of fodder. Hens were for laying eggs, which could be sold for pocket change or consumed. Roosters were to be food, with their feathers made into fans or dusters. Chicks could be pets, but they quickly outgrew that phase. Kids or adults rarely developed the kind of attachment to a chick they would to a cat or dog.

Chicken feathers are also used for shuttlecocks in a game known to the Tujia ethnic minority as "kicking a chicken". Players kick the shuttlecock high, as if serving a volleyball, and whoever it lands near has the right to strike at anyone - with straws, not the shuttlecock. Mind you, they do not hit someone they hate, but rather someone who is a secret object of amorous feelings. Hence, it is a dating game.

Backyard chicken coops still exist, though maybe not as extensively due to the rate of urbanization. But the old economics of raising chicken no longer apply as it often makes more sense to buy processed chicken from the supermarket. This has spawned the rise of organic, free-range chicken, called tuji in Chinese. They are able to roam free and scout for their own food, rather than be fed processed feed. They are supposed to be more tasty.

Tuji are like the rural leftover children who are not submitted to the rigorous regimen of parental monitoring or heavy curriculum. Their guardians tend to be more laissez faire, too busy struggling to make ends meet to mollycoddle them as pets. As chickens, they are more valuable than their factory-farmed counterparts, but the "free-range" human beings of the countryside are not valued for their wild lifestyles, bruised skin, tattered clothing and all. It is a paradox that inspired me to write a short allegorical story years ago: What if humans become food for some kind of giant monster? Will they prefer the rural kids among us over our polished urban brethren?

Eat it or revile it?

Whenever I look at an artist's rendition of roosters on the Lunar New Year poster, with its comb in full bloom like a blossoming chrysanthemum, I am drawn to the paradox of the symbol. It's supposed to bring us good fortune, yet we do not squirm when serving it as food. Many catchphrases from bygone eras portray the fowl as a target for killing, usually for food. "To kill a chicken to scare a monkey" is a warning; "to kill a chicken with a knife meant for cattle" is overkill; "a hand unable to bind a chicken" is weakness; "to kill the hen for the eggs" is, well, the exact meaning of the Aesop fable, except that another fowl, the goose, has taken its place.

Though much larger in physique than the cricket, the chicken is often used in Chinese colloquialisms as things small or small-minded. "A crane standing in a group of chickens" is naturally tall and conspicuous by comparison; "feathers of a chicken and peels of garlic" denote insubstantial stuff; "a small abdomen with chicken intestines" suggests a person who is narrow-minded.

The domesticated bird is also featured prominently in descriptions of chaos. Phrases like "chickens and dogs not being peaceful", or "chickens fly and eggs crash", or "chickens fly and dogs jump" illustrate a commotion. On the contrary, chickens and dogs can also create an idyllic picture of harmony, depicted by Laozi, China's ancient philosopher, as "chickens' crows and dogs' barks being heard among neighbors".

Make them fight or make us fight?

Cocks not only utter the shrill squawking sound that may punctuate or accentuate a scene of rustic tranquillity, they also engage in melees for various reasons.

Cockfighting was never as popular in China (with the exception of some ethnic minorities) as, say, cricket fighting, which was an aristocratic pastime that permeated the country during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). However, the blood sport can be traced back to the pre-Qin era (c.21st century-221 BC) in China. It prevailed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), especially among the ruling class, and was later promoted in the military to boost morale, spreading to neighboring countries like Japan.

Roosters carry a reputation for having a short fuse and being hot-tempered. Whenever they duke it out, they create quite a spectacle, albeit a bit on the quick side. When I was young, adults would break up such scuffles lest a rooster die before the year-end feast. Never in my memory did anyone point to me and say: "Hey kid, do you want to observe how animals establish dominance and win over the fair sex?"

Chinese people think the rooster's fighting spirit is in its blood. In ancient times, people used the liquid for swearing ceremonies, such as the forming of a brotherhood. I surmise they were supposed to use their own blood, but chickened out. (Pun intended.) Today, drinking chicken blood is believed to enhance bravado. Most would boil it first, so it's served like a brownish bean curd. But some prefer it uncooked, supposedly to preserve its essence. In the late days of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), a pseudoscientific trend swept the nation, making many believe that injecting chicken blood into a human body would increase vitality. Though the practice is now gone, the term has stayed with us, meaning hyperkinetic: If an industry grows in double digits, Chinese could describe it as "injected with chicken blood".

Food or charm?

Of course, chicken has connotations beyond the gastronomical or bravery. Chicken Run, dubbed by Mel Gibson, epitomizes humans' pursuit of freedom. After it came to China, Chinese animators invented Kung Fu Chicken, but the series never really took off. The image of an enlarged, crimson comb is quite reminiscent of a colorful bonnet that belongs to a histrionic lady of aristocratic descent, but to compete with all the strutting animals on the Chinese screen, one needs more than an appealing head gear.

Even though the fowl is taken for granted, it gains its auspicious implications by sounding like good luck and inspiring the image of the mythological phoenix.

The crowing of the rooster heralds the break of dawn, thus driving away the evil spirits of darkness. Before the widespread use of alarm clocks, the rooster was a symbol of punctuality, giving rise to the quality of assiduity in the fable of an early riser who practices his sword dance whenever the cock crows.

The same application also engendered a story, later proven to be fictitious, of a cruel land owner who wakes his rooster at midnight so his employees must also rise and trudge to the muddy fields to start work. This tale, an analogy of class struggle, was drilled into every Chinese youngster in the 1970s to incite hatred for the wealthy.

Although it has not attained the status of the sun god, the fowl is associated with the source of light and is thus given many human virtues. The term "golden chicken" is so popular it has turned into a cliche. The rooster's comb and wattles may have bright colors, but they are never really golden. But never mind, we're allowed latitude in literary expressions.

As in the case of the sheep, another zodiac animal whose attribute as a source of food spawned the Chinese word for beauty (mei), the chicken has several conflicting qualities. It could be a good-luck charm or an inspiration for belligerence; it could be a symbol of insignificance (never one of cowardice, as implied in English) or a gastronomical staple. Like a jigsaw puzzle, these widely varying interpretations and uses are all reconciled in China's cultural context, as we never blink at their innate contradictions.

Such is the spirit of the Chinese New Year.

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Birds of a feather 

A man holds up his grandson to get a closer look at colorful lanterns at a park in Haikou, capital of Hainan province, on Wednesday. The show is part of the park's Spring Festival celebrations.Zhang Mao/china Daily

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