Tonight marks the beginning of Chinese New Year, a fifteen-day celebration that starts with the first new moon of the calendar month. Over the next two weeks people all over the world will be celebrating with dances, fireworks, meals, and gifts of money in red envelopes, culminating with the Lantern Festival on the final day. As we leave behind the year of the snake and welcome in the horse, I will try and give a brief breakdown for those who aren’t feeling too confident with their Chinese New Year knowledge (I am by no means a Chinese New Year expert – my own knowledge comes from a combination of my Japanese grandparents, growing up in Hong Kong, and Wikipedia).
The Chinese zodiac – or Shēngxiào, literally translating to “birth likeness” – is a calendar system that relates each year to an animal and its supposed characteristics. Created during the Chinese Han dynasty (206-220BC), the zodiac system is based on a twelve-year cycle and consists of twelve animals. The belief extends further than China itself and is extremely popular throughout other parts of East Asia, such as Japan, Vietnam, and Korea.
According to this zodiac system, the universe is additionally composed of five elements – earth, water, fire, wood, and metal – and it is this interaction between these elements and the zodiac animals, that results in the specific character of the year. So here are the Chinese zodiac animals in chronological order: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. An old Chinese fable explains this sequence, it was told to us with such performance every year at school in Hong Kong, and so has been forever impressed into my mind. It’s called The Great Race…
Long ago the Chinese Jade Emperor decided to organise a swimming race for animals on his birthday in order to determine the measurement of time. The first twelve animals to swim across the river would be the winners and would have a lunar year named after them as reward. The animals all lined up along the riverbank, and, to cut a long story short, each took part in a way typical of their character and personality. For example, the rat came first because he tricked the cat (whom he pushed into the water while riding on top of the ox, consequently causing the cat to loose as it was a poor swimmer – apparently this also explains why cats and rats have never been friends since). The ox, who kindly agreed to give the rat and cat a lift, came second as the rat then jumped off him and onto the riverbank before he could even reach it. I’d hate to be a rat. Luckily I am a snake, and he snuck into sixth place by spooking the horse and wriggling around his hooves…so me.
If, like Genghis Khan, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Neil Armstrong, and Cindy Crawford, you were born in the year of the horse, you ideally need to find a tiger, goat, or dog partner. Stay away from rats, oxes, rabbits, and other fellow horses though – you will not get on. People born in this year also tend to be very active and energetic, like their horse counterpart, and are also independent, positive, straightforward, and very witty. If you are a horse by year yet feel completely detached from all its qualities, don’t despair! As well as your year animal, each person also has a month (‘inner’ animal), day (‘true’ animal), and hour (‘secret’ animal – this one sounds fun) zodiac symbol. So while you appear to be a horse, you may be a pig internally, a rat truly, and a dragon secretly…
Happy Chinese New Year and Kung Hei Fat Choi!
If you need some inspiration on what to do tonight check out these BBC photos of people celebrating around the world (I personally will be doing the second photo later…and if I’m feeling a little more adventurous, the fifth one as well)