Saturday, 16 February 2008

xin nein kuai le!

The question everyone has been asked this week in China, will undoubtedly be – “Did you have a Good Chinese New Year?” I have to admit that I don’t subscribe to the Chinese tradition of celebrating the Lunar New Year – I guess in part because I simply don’t understand it! It’s an alien concept to a western educated fool; it seems archaic and strange that a nation should continue to measure time on a different scale to the rest of the modern world.

So my answer has always been fairly short and probably very disrespectful! You see CNY to a foreigner living in China is a mixture of confusion, noise, congestion and ill-timed extended holidays. Surely our tradition of celebrating the New Year in line with the Western Calendar is far more appropriate; the date is the same every year, our system of counting days, months and years has a long history and a lineage can be shown back to long before Christianity, and was created by some of the greatest minds in the worlds history – or was it?

Unhappy with my ignorance I felt that I should try and find out some more.

Firstly, I hadn’t realised that CNY pre-dates our Gregorian calendar, with Emperor Huang Ti introducing the first cycle of the zodiac in 2600 BC. As with the western calendar it’s based on the lunar cycle, with the major difference being the start date. Because of cyclical lunar dating, the first day of the year can fall anywhere between late January and the middle of February. A complete cycle takes 60 years and is made up of 12 cycles each of 5 years in duration. The 12 cycles are where the animal zodiac comes into play – depending on what year you’re born in depends on what animal zodiac you are born under.

Rat 1924 1936 1948 1960 1972 1984 1996
Ox 1925 1937 1949 1961 1973 1985 1997
Tiger 1926 1938 1950 1962 1974 1986 1998
Rabbit 1927 1939 1951 1963 1975 1987 1999
Dragon 1928 1940 1952 1964 1976 1988 2000
Snake 1929 1941 1953 1965 1977 1989 2001
Horse 1930 1942 1954 1966 1978 1990 2002
Sheep 1931 1943 1955 1967 1979 1991 2003
Monkey 1932 1944 1956 1968 1980 1992 2004
Rooster 1933 1945 1957 1969 1981 1993 2005
Dog 1934 1946 1958 1970 1982 1994 2006
Boar 1935 1947 1959 1971 1983 1995 2007

This year is the year of the Rat – not this nicest of creatures, and one that has been seen as the bringer of death, petulance and plague in the west – not something we would necessarily celebrate or worship! So why these 12 animals? Well legend says that before Lord Buddha departed the Earth he summonsed all the animals to come to him – only these 12 arrived, and as a reward he named each year after them.
CNY is celebrated over 15 days, with each day having special meaning and containing different activities that include abstaining from Meat on Day 1, being extra kind to dogs on day 2 (which I guess is similar to no.1 in Beijing), the 3rd and 4th days are reserved for son-in-laws to pay respect to their parents-in-law, whilst the 5th requires you to stay at home, lock all the doors and don’t accept visitors as this may bring bad luck. The following 7 days are set aside for visiting friends and relatives and for them to visit you, the 13th day you should cleanse the system by eating rice congee and mustard greens, and on the 14th make preparations for the following days Lantern Festival.

CNY includes the best of all old cultures with some strange and ‘bizarre’ customs and superstitions. Including not sweeping the house on New Years Day, and the following days dust and rubbish should only be swept into the middle of the room, before placing the piles into the corners – where they should not be stepped on or disturbed, only on the 5th day can the rubbish be removed from the house – by the back door!
The explosion of firecrackers is well known; this coincides with midnight on New Years Eve and is combined with the opening of all doors and windows in the house – to let the old year leave.
On CNY day nothing should be lent out, or debts made, everyone should refrain from using foul language and it is considered very bad luck to cry! You shouldn’t wash your hair and make sure you have your red underwear on, as this will set a happy and bright tone for the year ahead. Oh and its very bad luck to use knives or scissors on this day also. I have neglected to offer reason for all of these superstitions, but needless to say they are to prevent a year of misery, debt, tears and misfortune.

So after all of my reading and questioning of Chinese friends, do I understand more about CNY? well as with many investigations you normally find out more about your own traditions than you do someone else’s – When you consider that the western calendar has been generally influenced by dictatorship, religion, commerce and politics since Julius Caesar founded the modern day calendar, and that England only adopted January 1st as the start of the year in 1752 – let alone all of the crazy traditions and superstitions associated with New Year celebrations in the west – you figure that a calendar that has been around, and stayed the same for over 4500 years probably has more right to a 15 day celebration than the one in the West (Taking religion out of the equation of course!).

After all that I can see why most of us foreigners will never really understand CNY. However if you ignore all of the folk lore and superstitions, most Chinese spend the New Year, meeting with friends and family that they haven’t seen all year, enjoying food, drink and playing games, giving gifts, decorating there homes, exchanging presents and burning money in the form of fireworks – a bit like Christmas and Western New Year really! Oh I forgot by following both the western and Chinese calendars you get two birthdays, and for kids – two lots of presents (maybe there is sense in keeping some traditions alive!).

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