New Year’s Day

In the midst of firecrackers goes the old year,

and the spring wind has wafted warm breath to the Tusu wine.

While the rising sun shines over each and every household,

People would put up new peachwood charm for the old.

Wang Anshi

 

A Spring Day

I seek for spring by riverside on a fine day,

O what refreshing sight does the boundless view bring?

I find the face of vernal wind in easy way:

Myriads of reds and violets reveal only spring.

Zhu Xi

 

 

Green in the spring winds

the south bank of the Yangtse

When will the bright moon

light my journey home

Wang Anshi

 

 

A small square pond an uncovered mirror

Where sunlight and clouds linger and leave

I asked how it stays so clear

It said spring water keeps flowing in

Zhu Xi

 

 

Tomorrow is New Year’s Day in China and it is widely celebrated everywhere there is a Chinese population in countries around the world. Today is the last day in the Year of the Goat (or Sheep).

al creightonChinese New Year is the greatest festival, public holiday and national celebration in China where it is, in its grandeur and cultural relevance, the equivalent of Christmas as a grand festive season. It is also known as the spring festival and is commemorated each year according to the traditional Chinese system, which means it does not fall on the same date every year according to the western (internationally applied) calendar. In 2016 it falls on February 8, and is the Year of the Monkey which will run until January 27, 2017.

Hanging paper lanterns are among the many decorations used in celebrating Chinese New Year
Hanging paper lanterns are among the many decorations used in celebrating Chinese New Year

In Chinese tradition, each year is named for one of a series of 12 animals – each one attached to a year in a recurring 12-year cycle. When one hears the announcement of a year – “the year of the dragon” – one goes away with an idea that the chosen animals would always represent or symbolise strength or power, or some positive, celebratory quality, like the tiger or the horse. But it is not like that. The cycle includes a range of different types – such as the year of the goat (2015) (2014 was the year of the horse) – with a range and diversity of different qualities. A horoscope is associated with this where persons born in a particular year might have some of the qualities of the animal for that year.

This belief is attributed to Chinese astrology and the qualities of the animal are drawn from the traditional Chinese beliefs. According to the Chinese horoscope, “The monkey is worshipped to some extent by Buddhists” who may draw on some of the complimentary qualities. For example, the monkey symbolises one who is intelligent, witty, creative, and a problem solver. But he is also regarded as “the emblem of trickery” and is strong-minded and will not hesitate to “experiment with the unthinkable” and do “the impossible.”

The personality of the monkey is captured in a poem whose origin the Chinese horoscope did not source.

 

I am the seasoned traveller

Of the Labyrinth

The genius of alacrity

Wizard of the impossible.

My brilliance is yet unmatched

In its originality.

My heart’s filled with potent magic

That could cast a hundred spells.

I am put together

For mine own pleasure

I AM THE MONKEY

 

Just as in the case of the personality of the animals, Chinese New Year with its customs, symbols and celebrations has its origins in folk traditions and mythology. The same goes for its association with the spring festival. Some of these are referred to in the poems by Wang Anshi and Zhu Xi reproduced above. Some of these references are not very obvious but they are related to both the New Year and spring, while keeping faithful to the thinking and orientations of the two poets.

Both Wang Anshi and Zhu Xi are prominent poets in the ancient Chinese tradition, both belonging to the Song Dynasty and both involved in the politics and government of their times. Wang (1021 – 1086) was among the 8 great men of letters in the Tang – Song period whose poetry may be allied to his politics since he felt that poetry should have a social purpose. He was recently featured on the BBC Magazine because of the way he influenced change in the Chinese Civil Service during his time in the government. He was a great reformer and from descriptions of his efforts in favour of unprivileged people and poor farmers, he was a socialist by nature. He opposed the tax evasions, corruption and decadence of the rich and powerful and sought to remove the tax burdens from the poorer classes. For his pains he became the enemy of the conservatives.

His poem “New Year’s Day” refers to some of the traditions and customs, including the lighting and sounding off of firecrackers. This tradition comes from the myth of origin of the New Year’s spring festival. In this myth there was a beast known as the Nian who would habitually eat villagers, especially children. Each year when the beast was about to visit the people would put food out at their doors so that if Nian ate it he wouldn’t then eat anyone. They staved off the attacks in this way, but one man wanted to be rid of the Nian altogether and set out to seek vengeance. A god told him in a dream that Nian was afraid of the colour red and of loud noises. People would then wear red clothing every new year, place red paper decorations outside their doors and light noisy firecrackers to frighten away Nian. The beast never returned to the village.

Since then, the colour red has become a New Year symbol. Red lanterns are lit, there are many decorations in red. Firecrackers abound, and new clothes are worn by children. Houses are cleaned on New Year’s Eve. All of these drive away any bad luck from the previous year so that only good fortune will come in the new. It is a time of spring, of new beginnings, gifts and good fortune.

The poem “A Spring Day” is similarly significant, as is the other untitled one about the square pond and the mirror. Zhu (October 18, 1130 – April 23, 1200) was the founder of Neo-Confucianism and the second greatest Chinese philosopher after Confucius. The great Confucius (551 – 479 BC) lived an exemplary life and career in thought, politics and teachings as seemed to have been followed by both poets Wang and Zhu. Zhu sought to reform the education system and formed his own academy. He delved in metaphysics and thought man was inherently good although often he fell away. He also thought the mind was a mirror that reflected mankind’s environment and referred to the mind as a square inch, kept clear by what flowed into it like flowing water.

The mind is what he refers to in the second poem, while the first is about the spring festival. The “myriads of red” are the symbolic red decorations that are widely seen at New Year while both poems allude to the clearing and renewing of the mind. This clearing away of old encumbrances – as in the cleaning of the house, the wearing of new clothes – are important to both poems, just as they are to the way the poet-philosopher views the mind of man.

Chinese New Year is thus symbolically and traditionally linked to the spring festival. None of this is surprising, and all is reflected in the poems by Wang and Zhu celebrating renewal, rebirth and refreshing change.

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