Happy Niu Year!
No, it's not a typo. As a matter of fact, this has been the most popular text message zapping through the Chinese airspace this month. It is a pun playing on a pair of homonyms: Niu is the phonetic spelling for ox, and the year of the ox starts on Jan 26 on the lunar calendar.
This paper-cutting work by an unknown folk artist features a boy riding a water buffalo and playing a flute. [China Daily]
However, in Chinese, the ox has no connotation whatsoever with being new. The first attribute that comes to mind is hard-working and stubborn, qualities often associated with Chinese farmers. (See Zhang Yimou's The Story of Qiu Ju for illustration.)
If you look up a zodiac guide, you'll find all kinds of great things heaped on any given year. The Ox is supposed to be the sign of prosperity through fortitude and hard work. Honestly, it is ludicrous to believe everybody born under one sign will share the same attributes. But people all over the world play this game, just various versions of it. So, why not play along?
A boy picks out a toy ox at a Beijing market. [Chen Xiaogen]
Niu in Chinese is equivalent to not only the ox, but the bull, the cow, the buffalo and cattle in general. While America has its cowboys, who populate numerous Westerns, the quintessential image associated with niu in Chinese culture is a much younger boy, around 10 years old, riding a water buffalo and playing a flute. It is a leitmotif in many traditional watercolors and poems. Cowboys conquer, or at least manage, the cattle, while a Chinese cowboy harbors no such ambition. He just rides along, oblivious to the turbulences of the world. He inhabits a Taoist cosmos of inner peace.
The tranquility is conveyed not just by the tender age of the rider, but by the plodding of the animal. Niu is not a horse. It does not gallop. Both Ma (horse) and Niu are popular surnames in Chinese, but you don't see a lot of fast-moving heroes named Niu in Chinese movies.
When I first heard of Niu Gensheng, I thought it was a "stage name". The chairman of Mengniu, the dairy giant, happens to share his name with his source of wealth. What a coincidence! In the aftermath of the melamine scandal, Niu the person put up a letter of contrition and vowed to make amends. Some were moved by his sincerity, others deemed it an act of crisis management. He used to be praised for "being a cow but having the speed of a rocket"; now he was seen more or less as a crocodile. Thank God there's no crocodile in the Chinese zodiac and the scandal was not delayed to the year of the cow.
Niu as an adjective can be an exclamation of eulogy. When you are "niu!" you're not just great, you're freaking great. Unfortunately, this connotation is more often found in certain northern dialects and still carries a whiff of arrogance.
If someone was born in a year of the Ox and is surnamed Niu, he should probably not become a butcher. Instead, his status would automatically rise if he entered the financial world. Business owners would love to have a bull (niu) around as a blessing. Now, if only he could make the market go north again. That would be incredibly niu.
To all your stock market players, happy year of the bull!