Li Huayi (b. 1948), The Rabbit. Ink and colours on silk. Height: 24.5 cm. Signed and with seal of the artist ©Eskenazi Ltd

The twelve animals of the zodiac, an exhibition of new works by Li Huayi, the highly-acclaimed Chinese-born painter, will be presented by Eskenazi, one of the world’s leading dealers in Chinese works of art, at 10 Clifford Street, London W1, from Thursday 3 to Friday 25 November 2011. These exquisite paintings will complement Eskenazi’s exhibition Chinese huanghuali furniture from a private collection being held at the same time and coinciding with Asian Art in London, 3 to 12 November 2011.

2011 is the Year of the Rabbit, sometimes identified as a hare, the fourth animal of the Chinese zodiac. Those born in this year are said to be serene, sensitive, sophisticated, cultured, home-loving and totally lacking in aggression, although they can be easy to fool and over-conservative. Rabbits are most compatible with Pigs and Goats and least with Roosters, Rats and Horses. The other eleven animals that form the Chinese zodiac are the rat (or mouse), ox (sometimes incorrectly water-buffalo), tiger, dragon, snake, horse, goat (or sheep), monkey, rooster, dog and pig (or boar).

Li Huayi is one of the greatest living painters working in the traditional Chinese style. Born in Shanghai in 1948, he was only six when he became attracted to calligraphy and painting. At sixteen Li studied Western painting and drawing with Zhang Chongren. Through his talent he survived the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 by becoming a ‘worker artist’, producing large propaganda paintings and designing posters in the approved socialist realist style. Li left China in 1982 to live in San Francisco, receiving his master of fine art degree at the Academy of Art College two years later. He was fascinated by the work of his compatriot Zhang Daqian with its mix of Chinese heritage and Western influences, and he was inspired by the powerful Northern Californian landscape to return to landscape painting.

Li’s work not only bridges the arts of China and those of the West but also shows how the relationship between the past and present is profound and complex. While an admirer of Western art, Li sees himself as a contemporary Chinese painter who lives and works in San Francisco and Shanghai. He has created a body of work that, while indebted to some of the greatest classical masters, is entirely individual to him. His paintings have been acquired by some of the world’s leading museums including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Museum of Tokyo as well as important private collectors.

The twelve animals of the zodiac will be the third exhibition Eskenazi has devoted to the work of Li Huayi. The first, in 2007, was his European debut and completely sold out.

Notes: The twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac may have been identified as early as the Warring States period (c. 5th century BC). They are known collectively as the twelve ‘Earthly Branches’, 地支 dizhi. They already formed a cohesive group by the 1st century BC as shown by bronze mirrors from the period cast with the twelve named characters. They may be presumed to have entered into the mainstream of Chinese cultural/spiritual/religious experience by the Tang period (618-907 AD) when representations of the animals as zodiac sets may be found both on bronze mirrors and as earthenware figures.

As in the Western system, the Chinese zodiac animals are astrological symbols related to an aspect of the time of a person’s birth that may determine certain characteristics and behavioural traits, both in the present and the future. Unlike in the West, however, the Chinese system is based on the lunar calendar, not the solar year (the first sign of the Western horoscope is Aries, starting on 20 March, around the vernal equinox). The Chinese New Year starts either in January or February of the Western Gregorian calendar and the whole of the year is governed by one of the zodiac animals. The year of the Rabbit will come to an end on 22 January 2012, to be succeeded by the year of the Dragon that will end on 9 February 2013. The cycle continues for twelve years and then repeats, a cycle is said to have arisen from observation of the orbit of the planet Jupiter (in Western terms) around the sun.

Chinese astrology is complicated: the Four Pillars that define a person and indicate his or her direction in the future are made up of the hour, day and month of birth as well as the year. The Five Elements, Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water, repeating in the same orderly productive cycle – Wood producing Fire, Fire producing Earth, Earth producing Metal and so on – are also part of the mix. Invariably, a year is not just described by its animal but by its element as well. For example, the present year, 3 February 2011 to 22 January 2012 is the ‘Xinmao’ 辛卯 ‘metal rabbit’ year.

There is yet a further complication involving ‘Yin’ and ‘Yang’. Six of the zodiac animals are always Yang – Rat, Tiger, Dragon, Horse, Monkey and Dog – and the other six are always Yin. Each of the Five Elements occupies a two-year cycle, the first year of the cycle always being Yang and the second Yin. So the present Xinmao year is the year of the Yin Metal Rabbit. The Five Elements in their Yin and Yang forms are collectively described as the ten ‘Heavenly Stems’, 天干 tiangan.

The combination of twelve Earthly Branches and ten Heavenly Stems brings about a repeating cycle of sixty years, each with its own individual name. Cyclical dates, as opposed to the regnal marks frequently found on porcelain that usually identify the item, if genuine, as being made in the reign of a particular emperor, may be found on paintings, sculptures and other works of art. Cyclical dates inscribed on such items can nowadays be helpful in dating them, especially if other information is also included.