Chinese Character Niu - Ox, Cow, Buffalo

Meaning: Ox
Sound: [niú]  

The Chinese refer to oxen and cows and buffalos as 牛 (niú). This word started as a pictograph that depicts the frontal view of an ox head. The character appeared on some of the oracle bones that date back over three thousand years.  It looks like the one shown below:

Unlike we see in English, the Chinese language does not a specific word for ox or cow to indicate the difference in sex. Instead, the Chinese would just add "male" or "female" to the character 牛. Thus, an ox is 公牛 (gōngniú) and a cow is 母牛 (mǔ niú). 

Similarly, the Chinese do not have different names for cattle and buffalo. Instead, they say 黄牛([huáng niú, "brown ox") and 水牛 (shuǐniú, "water buffalo"). 

Cattle are respected for the hard work they do. When a Chinese describes someone who works tirelessly without complaints, he sometimes use the term 老黄牛, "an old brown ox." Some imperial dynasties in Chinese history had laws that forbade the killing of cattle. During the Tang period (618-907), for instance, if someone killed an ox, even if it was his own, he would get one-year imprisonment and/or hard labor. This does not mean that the Chinese did not eat beef at all. The laws were largely meant to protect the oxen used to till the land. 

Legend has it that one ancient Chinese musician once played his seven-stringed zither in front of an ox. He tried all of the finest melodies he knew, but the ox showed no interest. Finally, the man mimicked buzzing noises made by mosquitoes and thus drew a hint of interest from the ox, but just for a fleeting moment. Out of this story there came the set phrase 对牛弹琴 (duì niú tán qín) , "playing zither to an ox," meaning that someone is speaking to a wrong audience.

Dairy farming was not as important in ancient China as it was in Europe and some other parts of the world. Due to population density, land was mostly used fields to cultivate crops instead pastures. This had two consequences - many Chinese are lactose intolerant and there aren't a whole lot cow-related jokes in China.

The best known love boy in China is 牛郎 (Niúláng, "Cowherd"). Niulang lives on one side of the Milky Way and his significant other, 织女 (Zhīnǚ, "Weaving Girl"), resides on the other bank of the star river. The two fall in love with each other and they meet often. The Heavenly God becomes concerned, thinking that the two are neglecting their work, so he tells them that they can meet only once a year, on the seventh day of the seventh month in the lunar year. On that day every year, moved by the tragic love between the Cowherd and the Weaving Girl, large numbers of magpies will gather over the heavenly river and line up to make a bridge for the two lovers to meet. Love is important, so is work. Regardless, today the seventh day in the seventh month in the lunar year is a kind of lovers' day for the romantically minded young Chinese.

The residences of the famous Cowherd and the Weaving Girl are respectively "Star of the Cowherd" and "Star of the Weaving Girl" (牛郎星, Niúláng Xīng, and 织女星, Zhīnǚ Xīng), which the Europeans mistakenly call Altair and Vega.

Five Oxen - traditional Chinese painting
Oxen, painted by Han Huang (723-787), the Tang Dynasty