China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2007/Feb

The Year of the Pig: Harmony or competition?

Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival (春節) as it is now called in the mainland China, begins unusually late this year, on February 18.

Back in the Stone Age, ancient people picked this season for their New Year. Why? For farmers on the North China Plain 5,000 years ago, spring planting and autumn harvesting meant backbreaking labour with tools of wood, bone, antler and stone. They were too busy to take time off and celebrate. The weather was warmer in the summer, but the fields needed some weeding. More importantly, people had to stretch the last year’s millet, supplemented with some early greens, until the current grain crop was ripe.

Readers who have lived only in Hong Kong, surrounded by millions of lights, may not realise how bright the full moon is, bright enough to allow people to do some chores outdoors. Thus the Harvest Moon provided extra time to reap, gather and bundle the crop. A month later, the Hunters’ Moon gave extra time to aim arrows at deer, bear, tiger, and even elephants. There was big game in northern China long ago.

Colder weather during Hunters’ Moon meant that meat would stay fresh long enough to be salted or smoked. Even with ample food in storage, people still were not in a mood to celebrate. The days kept getting shorter and shorter, how depressing!

It took some time after the winter solstice for the days to begin to lengthen noticeably. Then the northbound sun climbed high enough at noon to warm the front door on the south side of the thatched hut. Hopefully the worst snowfall of winter was over. Life was starting to look cheerful again. Was there a favorable sign in the glow of twilight? Look in the southwest! A tiny crescent moon, a moon whose waxing light was in synch with the returning sun, the second new moon of winter – this called for a feast with family and friends and some time off from work. Happy Lunar New Year!

Little work was done until after the Lantern Festival at the following full moon, but people had both leisure time and food to share. For most people, life was hard, but at least the pace of life was sane. They saw time as a natural cycle, a wheel that serenely and endlessly repeats, not as an arrow flying toward the future. Society was less competitive at the dawn of Chinese civilization.

The cycle of 12 animals

Thousands of years later, a story came from India about 12 animals which raced to visit the Buddha.

The lazy pig came in last, but it was too contented to lose any sleep over ranking as the last year in the 12-year cycle. Pigs are happy animals. They eat, they sleep, and they eat some more, without a care in the world. They also have big litters, so they symbolise fertility.

We are entering is not just any Year of the Pig, but a fire pig, also called a golden pig, the luckiest possible year to be born. There are 10 Celestial Stems, linked to the Five Elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water, plus 12 Terrestrial Branches matched to the animals. After 60 years, 10 and 12 overlap, so the fire pig comes only once every 60 years.

A baby boom is coming

The Year of the Dog, which just ended, was considered an auspicious year for marriage, and China recorded a surge in the number of newly-weds. What usually comes after marriage?

All parents want to have a baby born in a lucky year, not an unlucky one. In Japan, 1966 was the worst possible year to have a girl, so the birth rate plunged, only to bounce back in 1967.

With three zeroes, 2000 was considered lucky and more babies were born in China that year than in either 1999 or 2001. When the babies born in 2000 entered kindergarten, Mainland newspapers printed cartoons about overworked storks and articles about overcrowded classrooms. But all indications are that there will be a baby boom this year in South Korea, which wants a higher birthrate, as well as in China, which does not.

Future grandparents want their grandchild to be born the luckiest possible year. Twenty years ago, Chinese couples had to complete and sign several different documents to get permission to have a baby. Now the procedure has been simplified. Married couples may have their first child without getting any official papers stamped first, so there is nothing to stop a baby boom after this Spring Festival.

Less free time for Sunday and Lunar New Year

Holy days and holidays are vital. People everywhere need a break from their ordinary routine. Long ago, the Catholic Church took the ordinal numbers (first, second, third…) and applied them to the Sundays after Pentecost when nothing outstanding was being celebrated.

Vatican II changed the liturgical calendar. Now several of the 34 weeks of Ordinary Time precede Ash Wednesday, while most of them come after Pentecost. Some people dislike the word “ordinary,” but the grace of God, the grace of the present moment, is not restricted to special days. How we use or misuse the majority of our time, the ordinary days, determines how we use or misuse life.

Sunday is not what it used to be. While it remains the high point of the liturgical week, sad to say, is has lost its special position in the lives of believers. In North America, as life became busier and more secular generation after generation, the Holy Sabbath became the Sabbath, then Sunday and now, the weekend.

For many people, Saturday and Sunday are now two identical days to do chores at home and to shop in the mall, since there is not enough time from Monday through Friday. And “AD”, Anno Domini, the Year of the Lord, is being replaced by “CE”, the Common Era.

Lunar New Year is not what it used to be. After the fall of the Qing (清) Dynasty in 1911, the successor government changed the calendar and moved the official New Year to January 1. The current government completed the Westernisation of the calendar in 1949 CE (公元).

The lunar calendar remains, yet it is getting squeezed by the faster pace of life. In Hong Kong a generation ago, aside from restaurants, most businesses were closed for a few days. Now many stores reopen after a day or two, sad to say, since shopkeepers have to pay the rent.

Life is such a struggle. Where is society heading? Where is progress leading us?

What is the purpose of life?

Somebody once drew a cartoon in six frames about evolution. The first five frames showed an amoeba floating in the sea, a fish swimming, an amphibian crawling ashore, a dinosaur and a monkey. The bubble above each one said, “Eat, survive, reproduce.” In the sixth sketch, a man deep in thought asked himself, “What is the purpose of life?”

Regarding the purpose of life, an old Catholic catechism asks, “Why did God make you?” and answers, “God made me to know Him, love Him and serve Him in this life, so as to be happy forever with Him in the next.”

Loving God is strongly tied to loving our neighbors. In the Bible, the words “compete, contend, rival, vie” and their various forms occur a total of 28 times, and “struggle” 20 times. Philippians 2:3 says “Never act out of rivalry or conceit.” Yet the word “help” and variants such as “helps, helping, helped” and so on occur 275 times.

For a more harmonious society, there is much to be said for promoting a Christian view of the world and stressing cooperation rather than competition, mutual love rather than a struggle for existence.

Parents wish they did not have to push their child from an early age to come in first in every race. There is no joy in viewing life as one long competition, a Darwinian struggle for existence.

For many people, life is all about winning, making money quickly and becoming Number One. If a baby can get a head start in life by being born in a lucky year, then the Year of the Fire Pig is the year to be born.

Lucky or not, the babies who will be born in the coming 12 months will not have the luxury of growing up lazy.

A blessed and happy time for all of us

Christians do not see God giving a special blessing to people depending on their year of birth. Easter, like Chinese New Year, is linked to the moon.

At the start of the Easter Vigil, when the celebrant traces the four digits of the year on the Easter Candle, he says in reference to Christ, “all time belongs to him, and all the ages.”

We do not go through life calculating lucky and unlucky hours, days or years. “Now is the acceptable time, now is the day of salvation.” (2 Cor. 6:2)

By belonging to the church, parents bless each other with their friendship, give each other advice about raising children and support each other. It takes a village, or a cooperative parish, to raise a child.

Christians, Buddhists and atheists all need a change of pace, at least some time off from the daily routine.

China Bridge now wishes all our readers a safe, peaceful, and above all refreshing Lunar New Year, and a happy Year of the Pig.