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Print Edition> Nation
UPDATED: February 17, 2013 NO. 8 FEBRUARY 21, 2013
Chinese Hiss-tory Lesson
As Lunar New Year commences, local legends come to life
By Bai Shi

SNAKE MAIL: A post office worker in Handan City, Hebei Province, shows off the newly printed Year-of-the-Snake stamp on January 4 (XINHUA)

On January 5, Chinese stamp collectors flocked to post offices across the country to scoop up the new Year-of-the-Snake issue, in anticipation of the forthcoming Lunar New Year celebrations. According to the 12-animal-cycle, which includes the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog and pig, the Year of the Snake commenced on February 10 this year as part of the lunar calendar Spring Festival.

A red cartoon animal, surrounded by traditional symbols of luck and fortune, features on the Year-of-the-Snake stamp, priced at 1.2 yuan ($0.19). Due to popular demand, however, value has steadily increased. For instance, a 20-in-one stamp sold at 24 yuan ($3.86) now carries an online tag of 480 yuan ($76.19), 20 times higher than its issuance price.

Wu Guanying, 58, a professor and doctoral tutor of art at Tsinghua University, designed the stamp, alongside a number of well-known icons such as the 2008 Beijing Paralympics mascot Funiu Lele and the Rabbit Year stamp of 2011.

Started in April 2012, Wu and his team chose the final pattern from among 30 alternatives. "It is difficult to draw a snake on a stamp, compared to other animals from the Chinese zodiac such as the tiger or the dragon," he explained. "It's mainly due to its shape, which is hard to fit into a rectangular frame. Thus, I tried my best to make the image look vigorous and well-rounded."

As early as 130 million years ago, snakes have covered the Earth. There are a total of 2,500 species in the world, with 209 in China.

Though snakes have no feet, they can move rapidly, with little to obstruct their path and have long been portrayed as mysterious creatures in Chinese culture.

Snake in Chinese culture

Unlike implications of evil in Western culture, snakes were important totems for ancient Chinese 5,000 years ago. In primitive religions, the animal was worshiped as a symbol of strong fertility. Accordingly, the early ancestral father and mother of China, Fu Xi and Nu Wa, were both described as combining snake bodies and human heads. Even today, the tradition of snake worship remains common in some rural areas where snakes are seen as incarnations of deceased relatives.

The animal played an additional part in the birth of another mythical beast, the dragon, which shares some of its features, such as neck and body. However, snakes remain inferior. For instance, the Year of the Snake follows that of the dragon in the Chinese zodiac. Symbolizing supreme power, both creatures were often embroidered onto clothes of imperial emperors and ministers. The difference was that emperors wore dragon robes while ministers wore snake robes.

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