Beasts of the Chinese Zodiac, More New Year Celebrations
—by Jinny Batterson
Anyone who’s ever been given a place mat at a Chinese-American restaurant likely has seen pictures of the animals of the Chinese zodiac: mouse/rat, ox/bull/buffalo, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep/goat/ram, monkey, rooster, dog, pig. Unlike the roughly monthly zodiac familiar to readers of American newspapers, the Chinese zodiac works in lunar year increments, generally running from mid-January-to-mid-February of one year to mid-January-to-mid-February of the next. To further complicate matters, the Chinese zodiac also cycles through five “elements” (some claim it’s really the “ten heavenly stems”) of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water, so a complete cycle takes 60 years.
The first time we spent Chinese New Year in China, we ushered in the “Year of the (Metal) Golden Pig,” an especially auspicious year, according to China fortune tellers. When we returned two years later, we experienced the transition to the “Year of the Earth Ox,” a more middling kind of year. Fortunes have been made and lost over the interpretation of the various Chinese zodiac signs. Some years are reputed to be luckier than others, and slight ripples in the overall birth rate can be attributed to parents working toward having a child born in a “good” year. A chart of a 20th century cycle of years, with their attributes, is part of the China travel website http://www.travelchinaguide.com/intro/astrology/60year-cycle.htm.
Most of the animals of the Chinese zodiac are familiar to anyone who’s ever spent time on a farm or lived in the countryside. One exception stands out—the dragon. For Chinese, dragons are good, rather than the evil creatures portrayed in much of Western mythology. Chinese mythology credits dragons with inhabiting and taming major rivers in China, the northernmost being “Heilongjiang,” or “Black Dragon River.” Being born in a dragon year (which most recently occurred in 2007) is considered lucky. Emperors of China’s dynasties often had dragons embroidered on their clothing. Only the emperor’s residence was allowed to have dragon symbols on its rooftops. As a guide explained to me on an early tour in Beijing, a dragon is considered to have the attributes of nine different animals: the head of an ox, the horns of a deer, the eye of a tiger, the teeth of a leopard, the antenna of a shrimp, the mane of a horse, the scales of a fish, the body of a snake, and the claws of an eagle. A royal beast, indeed.
Our New Year celebrations in 2009 were spent in various parts of Sichuan. Our friend Jean Wang and her husband were able to meet us in Ya’an a few days before the year’s new year celebration, which would occur on Monday, January 29. Jean was just getting over a bad cold, and I seemed to be coming down with a similar infection. Despite health and weather concerns, we all went to see the pandas at nearby Bifengxia, then spent the night in our Foreign Teachers’ Guest House, where there was a spare apartment for Jean and her husband due to the holidays.
At New Year, we spent a couple of days visiting lots of Jean’s in-laws, necessitating most of a day’s journey by bus and then taxi. One contingent of relatives lived in a compound high enough in the hills to be off a car-friendly road. We carpooled in an uncle’s van as far as we could go. Afterwards, several of the younger cousins roared the remaining half mile on the motorcycle one of them had parked at the foot of the last hill. The rest of us walked. The noise level and the smoke density from firecrackers were less intense than what we’d experienced two years before, but we got to see more of the traditions of a Sichuan countryside Spring Festival—curing and cooking sausages, sweeping out the house and family compound, burning paper money to bring good fortune, visiting first the male relatives, then the female side of the family. What did not change from our previous experience was the quantity and variety of food. A Thanksgiving feast may be the closest American equivalent. Any notion of vigorous physical activity during the day or two after Spring Festival is pretty much a lost cause. Sadly, we did not get a chance to meet Jean’s family at the holiday. One of the casualties of the increasing mobility of younger generations of Chinese may be the chance to see everyone’s relatives each year.
We made up for the fact that we could not visit Jean’s family by visiting one of Sichuan’s best tourist sites, not far from where her in-laws lived. We spent a day in Leshan, Sichuan, home of the world’s largest pre-modern statue, a seated Buddha. Even in midwinter, the “Big Buddha” of Leshan is impressive. It is over 230 feet tall, overlooking the confluence of several rivers of southern Sichuan. It was built more than a thousand years ago at the insistence of a Buddhist monk who had seen a vision of a Buddha to protect sailors, many of whom were drowning in the treacherous currents where the rivers joined. So much stone was moved and thrown into the river during the lengthy process of excavating the site and carving the statue that the river currents were changed, so the area did in fact become safer for boats. On the blustery day when we visited, few other tourists were in sight. We took pictures of the four of us at the fence overlooking the Buddha’s massive head, then threaded our way carefully down the cliffside stairs to the Buddha’s base. There we took another picture—Jean beside the Buddha’s big toe, which was taller than she was.