The Ambitious, but Honest, Rat

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It is no coincidence that my arrival in and departure from China a year later are linked to the Lunar New Year. The festival is the most important in China, such that its vacillation with respect to the solar calendar — for all official purposes China uses the Gregorian calendar — is respected in setting the academic program. The break between Fall and Spring university semesters is centered on it.

“Spring Festival” is how it’s dubbed in China, though a quick look at the Chinese weather charts will convince you that that terminology is somewhat optimistic. China, southern and central China, are just now cleaning up after disastrous winter storms, which left some places without electricity and water for days, and generally bogged down the whole transportation system at this peak travel time. Sadly, it was the hundreds of thousands of migrant workers who were frustrated in their attempt to return to home villages from places of work — and of isolation from their families — in China’s booming cities. Heroically, it has been the focus of national pride and encouragement to those workers who have cleared the roads and railroad tracks and mended the snapped transmission lines. Just why the next new moon was not settled on as the herald of Spring is not clear to me. But then Pope Gregory’s reasoning behind declaring January as the first month, instead of March — as the Romans had it — isn’t clear to me either.

The Rat — characterized as ambitious, but humble — begins a twelve year cycle, each year associated with an animal in the Chinese “zodiac”, which, in turn, ratchets through five super-cycles, completing the whole in 60 years — a human life span, more-or-less. The start of the year, and the celebration of it, “commemorates” some ancient time when the terrible beast Nián would emerge from his den and scarf up a score or two of humans as breakfast after his winter’s slumber. The ultimate solution to this scourge was to make a horrific noise, by burning bamboo, which scared the hell out of Nián. Guò Nián — making it past Nián — in modern Chinese means “celebrate the New Year”.

Now I was brought up in a time and place where amateur use of firecrackers was considered imprudent, sophomoric behavior, worthy of the benighted Bubbas of Alabama and the like. Yet in China, whose 5000 year history includes the invention of “black powder”, it’s hard to imagine New Years without fireworks. They were impressive. Beginning already before dusk on New Year’s Eve, and culminating in the last minutes before midnight, the sky was alight continuously with the explosion of skyrockets. Not supervised my the local fire brigade, nor confined to a designated site, but from all quarters of Hangzhou, including the driveways in my apartment complex. It scared the hell out of me.

For the time being, though, I remain oblivious to the number of injuries stemming from the use of fireworks, and of the tons-of-TNT-equivalents ignited these past few days country-wide.

Allow me a Jungian speculation. I recollect the Teutonic version of Mardi Gras, Fasching, in which the object was to drive out the evil spirits of winter, thus to prepare the world for the coming of spring. The means: make a lot of noise by banging pot covers and thumping inflated pig bladders and generally acting raucously until the spirits retreat to the deep forest, not to venture out again for many moons. I see deep commonalities in the human soul.

Of course, there are family reunions and feasting. New Years wishes include a custom which anthropologists would likely classify as “sympathetic magic”. The Chinese word “abundance” is homonymous with the word for “fish” — yŭ­, though the characters are different. For the first time in my life, so far as I can remember, I presented my host with a desiccated carp. What more efficacious way of wishing one prosperity?

But ponder for a moment what it may mean to focus a national celebration on an “event” which nobody recalls or really believes in. In Christendom, Jesus’ birthday celebration is an overlay on the Roman Saturnalia, and its Yule components co-opted from Nordic solstice lore. Easter is not coincidentally related to Passover, but supplants its significance, while the eggs are extracted from pre-Christian, spring fertility rites. Secular holidays recall historic events, like the American 4th of July or Chinese National Day. Harvest festivals, in whatever coloration, mark not an event, but a recurring event, crucial to human survival and unique to humans’ relationship to nature. That solar New Years Eve party we don’t pretend to “rationalize” with anything more profound than scrapping last year’s calendar or starting new fiscal records. But imagine some mythical cataclysm, or the blessing of being released from it, that so grips a civilization’s imagination that it persists through millennia of chaos, prosperity, dynasties, revolutions and political ideologies, to remain the defining celebration of that society.

Have a nice fish.

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