– Gameness til the End
When looking at the map of China, its shape appears uncannily similar to that of a rooster. Its head is in the North-Eastern provinces, its magnificent tail includes Xinjiang and Tibet and its wings spread over the resource-rich basins of the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers. The belly of this cockerel is in the southeast, and Hainan and Taiwan islands are its feet. The tour guide on the Yangtze river cruise who pointed out this similarity to me explained: “This shows that Taiwan is definitely an inalienable part of China; a rooster doesn’t like to stand on one foot for too long.”
In 1949 Mao Zedong, poet and founder of New China, wrote a verse that included the stanza: “The rooster sings, the bright sky turns. ” The rooster is known to be a fierce fighter; this line celebrates its proclamation to the nation of victory over darkness at the start of each day.
In this sense the battling rooster is symbolic, but China also has a history of competitive cock fighting that dates back 4,000 years. It is, therefore, deeply rooted in its culture. Goading roosters into fighting is an easy matter, as it is their instinct to ward off any rivals for their hen harem.
There is archeological evidence that King Shaokang of the Xia Dynasty (2100-1600 BC) and his retinue often watched cockfights, and there is an interesting historical anecdote about the pastime concerning King Xuanwang of the Western Zhou Dynasty (11th century-256B.C.). The king ordered one of his officials to raise a ‘team’ of fighting roosters for him. Ten days later he asked if they were ready to fight. The official, an experienced breeder of fighting roosters, replied that they could not be because they still looked too proud. After ten more days the rooster-raiser was still less than certain that the birds were ready to rumble. It was not until the end of the month that he confidently informed the king that the roosters could now defeat any rival. When the King asked how he knew, he said that they resembled nothing more than dumb, wooden chickens. Through his eyes this sight translated into lean, mean fighting machines whose only purpose in life was to fight.
As so many of China’s past rulers were passionately keen on watching bloody rooster battles, it was a means by which sycophants could curry favor. During the reign of Tang emperor Xuanzong, several courtiers were awarded good official positions, simply as a reward for breeding and fostering appropriately fierce feathered fighters. Cock fighting could also be very lucrative to the owners of champions, however short-lived their supremacy, and large amounts were wagered on each bout. Historical records show that bets of money, houses and even arable land – the source of most people’s livelihood, were laid on cockfights. In view of the popularity of this form of gambling, it comes as no surprise that owners of roosters would frequently cheat their way to the winner’s purse. One method was to fit metal “claws” over the bird’s feet, enabling it to tear its adversary apart all the more quickly and efficiently.
In general, the fighting rooster was bigger and taller than the average farmyard cockerel, and also differed in having had its crest and wattle removed. It was fed on a high-protein diet of wheat, red and black rice, grapes and egg white, and its daily regimen of exercise kept it fighting fit. These battling birds were matched according to height and weight, in the same way as boxers and wrestlers. A fight could be over in minutes, or last hours, depending on how long it took for one rooster to either kill or severely injure its opponent. A cockfighting career – or life — seldom lasted longer than a few fights.
This sport has slipped in popularity over the centuries, but has been kept alive in remote areas of the country. For example, on the 22nd day of the first lunar month of each year, rooster fights are held in large, walled venues in Kaifeng, Henan Province. Cockfighting is not prohibited, but betting on it is.
The rooster is also part of the Chinese “zodiac.” It is widely believed that people born under this sign are conservative, warm-hearted, beautiful, honest and humorous, although sometimes arrogant and idolatrous. On the other hand, they are resourceful, capable of handling any accident or emergency that may occur, and also very friendly and sociable.
The rooster is a main aspect of many historic seasonal rituals. There is a custom in certain northwestern regions, and also in eastern Shandong Province, of wearing a “spring rooster” ornament on the first official day of spring. It is made from shreds of cloth stuffed into a small cotton “pocket” and pinned to the left sleeve of a child’s clothes to bring good fortune in the New Year. In some parts of southern Zhejiang Province there is a custom of wearing a “rooster heart packet” during the Dragon Boat Festival each June. The “heart” is made from a piece of red cloth filled with rice, tea leaves and realgar (natural mineral) powder, placed on a cord and hung around a child’s neck to ward off evil.
In areas of Henan Province there is a custom of killing a rooster on the first day of the tenth lunar month, in the belief that it will drive evil spirits away. The King of Hell releases ghosts on that day and they walk freely among humans until the Festival of Pure Brightness (around April 4), according to local legends. Within China’s folkways it is common knowledge that ghosts and spirits fear rooster blood, hence the tradition of spilling it at that time of year.
Evil spirits are banished with the help of roosters in other regions of China too, but without shedding a drop of its blood. Another pearl of Chinese folklore wisdom warns that devils and other miscreant spirits go about at night and disappear before daybreak because they fear the rooster’s morning crow. Children are consequently advised by their older family members to imitate the sound of a cock crowing if ever they should meet a stranger at night.
A rooster has long been considered auspicious for weddings. In Shandong Province, for example, a boy usually walks alongside the bridal sedan holding a hen in his arms. The Chinese word for chicken is ji, which sounds similar to that meaning auspicious. A fat hen, therefore, portends a bride who will bring luck to her new home.
From bloody fights to good luck to gong bao di jing (spicy diced chicken with peanuts)- roosters are a fixed aspect of the Chinese consciousness, as well as a main item on the menu.
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