It’s becoming almost an annual ritual in this part of the world, the mass culling of chickens in the winter months. The many avatars of avian flu (the latest being H7N9) will probably afflict southern China for years to come due to a confluence of factors, some of which could be controlled but are not, largely because of insufficient official resolve.

For Chinese past and present, the chicken has always been an important animal. It enjoys pride of place on the altar during most religious observances, and it figures prominently in ceremonies and festivals such as weddings, birthdays and the Lunar New Year, when, traditionally, people would draw or stick pictures of chickens on their doors and windows.

Legend has it that, during the time of the mythical sage-king Yao, every spring a far-off nation would send China a magical bird whose powers could drive away demons and other evil influences. When the bird stopped coming, Yao’s subjects began to erect wooden effigies of it in front of their houses or drew its likeness on their doors. In time, this totemic bird evolved into a chicken, probably the first animal to be domesticated by the Chinese. The chicken continues to be economically and culturally important in China and, though it’s probably a coincidence, the outline of the map of the People’s Republic happens to resemble a chicken facing east.