Twelve Zodiac Animals: Ox

Accession Number

Twelve Zodiac Animals: Ox


Artist Nationality
Korean (culture or style)

Object Creation Date

Medium & Support
ink on paper

42 3/16 x 26 in. (107 x 66 cm)

Credit Line
Transfer from the Department of the History of Art, Slide and Photograph Collection, gift of Mrs. Pilsoon L. Chun

Label copy
Copies and Invention in East Asia (August 17, 2019 - January 5, 2020)
The practice of ink rubbing was probably introduced to Korea from China in the Goryeo period (918–1392). These rubbings are taken from the reliefs on the guardian rocks (hoseok) around the tumulus of General Kim Yu-sin (595–673), who helped to unify the Korean Peninsula under the Silla during the seventh century. The reliefs are decorated with the twelve signs of the zodiac, comprised of animal heads on human bodies; each one represents a time and direction. The signs of the zodiac were a common decoration for tombs throughout East Asia. In China and Japan objects with the signs of the zodiac were buried inside tombs, but the people of the Silla period in Korea covered the exteriors of their tombs with rocks depicting the zodiac figures, arranged as if they were guarding the deceased. The twelve guardians on this ink rubbing, clad in armor and holding similar weapons, look to their right, the coherence and repetition of their gestures creating a rhythmic balance. The ink rubbings offer a better sense of the vibrant details of the shallow, delicate carving than original reliefs.

These rubbings are taken from the twelve Chinese zodiac animals carved in relief on the surface of guardian rocks placed around the burial mound of General Kim Yusin (595–673) on Songhwasan Mountain in Gyeongju, the capital during the Unified Silla period. The zodiac animals are commonly associated with a cycle of twelve years, and each relates to both a cardinal direction and a time of day. The placement of the animals around the tomb corresponded to the position of the sun. For example, the rabbit, which represents the east, faced the sun when it rose between five and seven in the morning; the rooster (not on display) represents the west and sunset, which happened between five and seven in the evening. The twelve rocks also prevented erosion of the burial mound by wind and water coming from the animal’s direction. The practice of representing twelve zodiac animals in burial mounds originated in China and had spread to the Korean Peninsula and the Japanese archipelago by the seventh century. 
​To make these rubbings, paper was dampened and laid onto the stone surface. A small brush or cotton cloth was used to press the paper into the depressions in the stone. After ink was brushed or pounded onto the paper, the areas pressed into the stone would be left white, so that the original design stood out against a black background. The technique was commonly used by scholars in China to record historic images and calligraphy carved in stone. 

Subject matter
The ox is the second animal in the zodiac becauase, according to the story of the zodiac, it was the second to reach the large banquet that would determine the honored animals of the zodiac. Depicted in this stone rubbing, it is one of the guardians of the tomb of General Kim Yusin, either to protect the tomb from erosion, or to show a high level of honor as Kim Yusin was highly influential in the unification of Korea.

The symbol of the ox has many other associations, including being connected to the elemental power of earth and signifying the time between 01:00 and 02:59. People born in the year of the ox are said to be diligent and dependable, though often have poor communication skills and are stubborn.

Physical Description
This is a rubbing of a figure with the head of an ox dressed in robes. It appears to be holding a staff in its right hand.

These rubbings are taken from reliefs of the twelve Chinese zodiac animal deities on the surface of guardian rocks (護石, hoseok ) placed around the edge of the tumulus of General Kim Yusin (金庾信, 595–673) on Songhwasan Mountain (松花山) in Gyeongju, Gyeongsangbuk-do Province. The twelve animal deities guard the twelve Earthly Branches which can be interpreted as spatial directions. Each animal deity has the face of a certain animal and a body of human. The twelve animal deities occur in the following order according to the Chinese zodiac: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig. While the twelve deities on guardian stones placed around royal tumuli from the Unified Silla period are normally clad in armor, those carved on the guardian stones surrounding General Kim’s tomb appear in plain clothes and with weapons.

[Korean Collection, University of Michigan Museum of Art (2017), 221]

Primary Object Classification

Primary Object Type
zodiac figure

Collection Area

If you are interested in using an image for a publication, please visit for more information and to fill out the online Image Rights and Reproductions Request Form. Keywords
rubbings (visual works)
spears (weapons)
zodiac symbols

& Author Notes

All Rights Reserved