University finds snake artefacts hard to catch

PUBLISHED : Friday, 08 February, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 2:38pm

As the Year of the Snake slithers in, a rare collection of snake antiques have been put on display at Chinese University's Art Museum.

It wasn't easy gathering the exhibition's 14 items, which include bronze seals, mirrors, ink rubbings, pottery and drawings from across many dynasties, said Peter Lam Yip-keung, the Art Museum's director. Finding suitable pieces was a challenge because after the Song dynasty (960-1279) snakes no longer had a positive connotation, he said.

"Snakes have a deity side and an evil side," said Lam. "In primeval times, people worshipped them as totems … [which] were the predecessors of dragon totems," he said.

But the cold-blooded reptiles became associated with evil spirits after the Song dynasty, and hence there were few antiques depicting snakes from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, he said.

In Chinese mythology, snakes were often shown as evil, or guardians of the underworld, said Siu King-wai, a lecturer from the University of Hong Kong's School of Chinese.

An example was the folk tale Legend of the White Snake, which told of a monk intent on saving a man's soul from an evil demon in the form of a white snake.

"But nowadays, casual greetings like 'Happy New Year of the Snake' or 'Good Fortune in the Year of Snake' are commonly accepted and few would mind it," Siu said.

The oldest item in Chinese University's exhibition is the Bronze Seal with Figure Holding Snake, which was created during the Warring States Period (403-221BC).

The seal depicts a man, believed to be a wizard, holding a snake and stepping on another.

"It is an auspicious seal," Lam said. "At that time, people wrote on wood blocks … and the seal was used as a chop on the sealing wax [as] an emblem of the documents."

The exhibition runs until March 17 and admission is free.