Tag Archives: Chinese zodiac

Beasts of the Chinese Zodiac, More New Year…

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.


Upcoming Year of the Sheep

Chinese New Year (Spring Festival)—Upcoming Year of the Sheep

—by Jinny Batterson

Later this month (this solar month, that is), the most important festival of the Chinese year will take place: Chinese New Year, as it is known in the West, or Spring Festival, as it called in China. On February 19, 2015, the world will celebrate a new Chinese year, the Year of the Sheep (Yang Nian), also translated as the Year of the Goat, or the Year of the Ram.  The timing of the holiday, along with the use of twelve yearly zodiac animals for fortune-telling, can seem variable and unpredictable to those of us accustomed to purely solar-based calendars.  The date for Spring Festival is based on a lunar calendar. It can occur over a range of “solar” calendar dates between January 21 and February 21.  (In Western Christianity, the date for Easter Sunday similarly can range between March 22 and April 25, based mainly on lunar cycles.) Spring Festival begins with the second new moon after the winter solstice according to Chinese reckoning. Because a lunar month, at roughly 29.5 days, is shorter than the average solar month, a typical lunar year lasts only 354 days, so Spring Festival becomes 10-11 days earlier each succeeding year.  To avoid having this important festival rotate through the entire solar year, however, the Chinese calendar periodically adds a “leap month.”  This year’s date for Spring Festival comes about as late as Spring Festival can get.

People born under different animal zodiac signs are purported to have different characters, somewhat like the zodiac months and their predictions often publicized in the West.  “Ram” babies are expected to grow up to be tender, polite, filial, clever and kind-hearted.  On the negative side of the ledger, they are reputed to be compulsive worriers, shy, pessimistic, weak-willed, and often confused about life. Famous people born in Ram years include 19th century American writer and humorist Mark Twain, born on November 30, 1835, and late Qing dynasty Manchu empress dowager Cixi, born in China a day earlier, on November 29, 1835. Inventor Thomas Alva Edison was a Ram, born on February 11, 1847. So was scientist and ecology pioneer Rachel Carson, born May 27, 1907. Modern celebrities such as rock star Mick Jagger (July 26, 1943), actors Chevy Chase (October 8, 1943) and Bruce Willis (March 19, 1955), along with actresses Nicole Kidman (June 20, 1967), Julia Roberts (October 28, 1967), and Kate Hudson ((April 19, 1979) were all born during “Ram” years.

The interval between Spring Festivals in 2014 and 2015 has been a bit longer than 12 solar months, running from January 31, 2014 through February 18, 2015.  There is some conflict among websites about whether the change in zodiac animal from the Year of the Horse (most of 2014) to the Year of the Sheep (most of 2015) should occur in conjunction with the start of Spring Festival, or rather at the “solar start of spring,” which occurs on February 3 or February 4 each year, six weeks before the spring equinox. Some Chinese parents believe that being born in the Year of the Horse is lucky, while being born in the Year of the Ram is unlucky. They’ve tried hard to conceive children who would be born before the start of February this year. It’s possible that the coming months will see a decline in births in China. It is also quite possible that Chinese babies born between February 3, 2015 and February 19, 2015 will have more than usual cause to be confused about life.

In many parts of China, Spring Festival celebrations run for up to sixteen days, from ‘New Year’s Eve,” often celebrated with an elaborate family meal, until “Lantern Festival” on the following full moon. Customs associated with Spring Festival vary somewhat in different parts of China, but usually involve special foods, extended time spent with families, visits with relatives and friends, and gifts for children and young people. In following weeks’ posts, I’ll elaborate on some of the customs we had a chance to observe during two Spring Festivals spent in parts of China.


Numbers–Lucky and Not So Much…

Numbers, Lucky and Not So Much…   —by Jinny Batterson

This blog post is being published on the 13th of the month, in many Western cultures considered an unlucky day.  Until I had a chance to travel in China, I’d never really thought much about which numbers we consider lucky and unlucky.  It turns out that the number considered most unlucky in Chinese culture is not 13, but 4. The Chinese language has lots more homonyms than most Western languages, and the sound for the numeral 4 in several major dialects is quite similar to the sound for the word “death.”   Just as many buildings in the U.S. have no 13th floor, lots of multi-story buildings in China go straight from the third to the fifth floor; some even skip 4-containing numbers—no 14, 24, 34, etc..  If you send a gift to a Chinese friend, try to avoid sending four of anything—go with three instead, since three is one of the numbers considered lucky.

As I mentioned in last month’s post about the “double 9’s” festival, different numbers are also purported to have either “yang” (outward/masculine/sun-related) or “yin” (inward/feminine/moon-related) energy—generally, odd numbers have a “yin” character, while even numbers are more “yang.” (Although, if I did my research correctly, “double 9” is considered decidedly yang.)

One of the luckiest numbers, according to Chinese lore, is the number eight. Partly this is because its pronunciation, in many Chinese dialects, is similar to words for “prosperity,” “wealth,” and “fortune.” When written side by side, the numerals “88” resemble a commonly used Chinese symbol for “double happiness.”

Perhaps the extreme example of honoring “lucky 8’s” was the timing of the opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympic games, which began on August 8 at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 p.m. local time.  People have been known to auction off auspicious 8-filled license plate numbers for extravagant sums; many airlines reserve flight numbers with 8’s in them for China-bound routes.

In China, numbers have extra relevance when combined with the calendar. Many of you have likely seen the “Chinese zodiac” animal symbols on menus at Chinese restaurants in America.  Alongside the solar calendar used for business transactions and official documents (twelve months, starting January 1 and ending December 31), Chinese tradition honors an older, lunar-based calendar.  Many Chinese festivals and dates are based on this lunar, agriculture-oriented calendar.  Thus, Chinese New Year (“Spring Festival”) can fall any time from late January to late February, depending on when the new moon signifying the start of Chinese “spring” occurs in the lunar calendar. The twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac—rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, pig—represent lunar years, rather than months as in the West. According to Chinese folk belief, you will all your life be characterized partly by which animal sign you were born under.  The Chinese year 2012, which in Western terms ran from January 23, 2012 through February 9, 2013, was considered an especially auspicious year in which to be born. Many Chinese couples, whether in the P.R.C., Hong Kong, or overseas, tried timing pregnancies so that they would bear a child during this very lucky “water dragon” year. The bureau of vital statistics in Beijing recorded the highest number of births since 2007; in Hong Kong, a 6.6% increase was predicted, to generate an all-time high in births in the former British colony; the Dragon Year birth rate hit a 10-year high in Taiwan.

Whatever your superstitions or purely rational ideas about numbers and their possible meanings, I wish you an auspicious life and hope that today will prove to be a lucky day for you.