words by Sandra Tonkinson
Growing up multicultural in Canada means we are exposed, even if superficially but respectfully, to traditions and celebrations from around the world. With Chinese New Year fast approaching, I took pause to dig deeper into this time, still observed for 15 days by Chinese and the Chinese diaspora. It is one of the longest Chinese holidays, culminating in the meaningful Lantern Festival.
From the name, I have always taken it to be the start of a new lunar year, which is what I believed the Chinese calendar to be. It is in fact lunisolar, meaning that it reflects both the moon phases and the time within a solar year. The Gregorian calendar has been used in China since 1949 but this older version – and I say version very loosely as there are many – is still used to determine when holidays fall and to calculate the auspicious dates for events from moving house to starting a new business to weddings.
Reading further, it seems that the Chinese New Year does not always coincide with the start of the astrological year which is Spring. The date for Chinese New Year differs each year and falls somewhere between January 21 and February 20 in the Gregorian calendar and on the second new moon after the Winter Solstice. Spring, on the other hand, is taken to be the first day of the Tiger Month, which usually occurs around February 4. This year, it was February 4. I think this point is rather subtle but reflects the two lunar systems within the traditional Chinese calendar, as well as the differing uses of the many different calendars.
In the lunar system, a new moon signifies the first day of the lunar month, which is therefore the time between two new moons. The Chinese solar moon system also does not follow what we in the West are more familiar with but, with 24 solar segments, it reflects the position of the sun relative to the tropical zodiac. The names of these segments which reflect their use in farming are functional and poetic – Start of Summer, Excited Insects, Still Hot, and White Dew.
The start of Spring is calculated within the solar system. It is a solar term. As the sun enters into the 315th degree on the tropical zodiac, during Aquarius for those familiar with Western Astrology, the Tiger Month begins. This solar term, “lichuan” refers to the end of winter and the start of Spring.
The name Spring Festival itself is a relatively new one. The Chinese New Year was once called Yuandan which translates to “the first sunrise”, now meaning the New Year in the Gregorian calendar as in January 1.
It is also interesting that Chinese fortune-telling (Bazi) is solar-based, rather than lunar-based, a common misconception. And while the first Chinese Zodiac in a new year is the Tiger, the Rat is traditionally the first in the 12-year cycle. It is similar in the Western calendar and Astrology – the Gregorian new year is in Aquarius but the first Zodiac of the astrological year is Aries. Alongside this 12-year cycle in the traditional Chinese calendar for the astrological year also contains a 10-year cycle of “heavenly stems” which is a combination of Yin or Yang and one of the five elements, giving a cycle of 60 years. Yin and Yang alternates each year while the elements, every two years. This year, the 4712th Chinese year, is the Yin Wood Goat/Sheep/Ram. 4713th or 4652nd year, depending on when you believe was the first day of the reign of the Yellow Emperor.
It is said that some 10,000 calendars are published worldwide! I have always appreciated, even if somewhat mystified by, the complexity and seemingly contradictory nature of it all. And the capacity for such depth and breadth. Depending on the source, the number of Chinese characters is anywhere from 7,000 (Modern Chinese) to almost 55,000 (106,230 if you count the variants).
It is all deliciously confusing. I feel it is a good place when we can sit in this uncomfortable space and be okay with it. Often it takes being confused to ask the questions. To allow the threads of misconception to disintegrate. Often it takes living it for the meaning to sink in, to flower, to be revealed. What I am appreciating about this particular Spring Festival is the flow, the cycle within the cycle. It was simply time to open up to to it. Life is all about flow, after all.
This is the Year of the Goat/Sheep/Ram. The last of the Fire Cycle which includes the years of the Snake and Horse. Many people and the world witnessed and experienced tremendous change this past year, the Horse. Did this year seem to have run away from you? Galloped at quantum speed?
The Goat/Sheep/Ram is also associated with 1PM – 3PM, when the ground has been heated by the powerful midday sun, and July, a hot summer month. The heat of the Goat/Sheep/Ram is one that nourishes and maintains the ground that is needed for fruition. It is believed that the efforts of the past years will bear fruit this year. Others also believe 2015 is truly the year of manifestation. Everything since 2012 just led up to this point.
And what is Fire? Fire is action, passion, movement, and energy. It is also the heart so as we move out of the contemplative nature of winter, it is time to take action – heart-based and love-based action. Taking this pause helps to detach from the frenzy and really sit in stillness and at the still-point to allow visions to surface so that we can align with them. Sometimes that feels like being in the eye of the storm. Everything around us can shift – and does – in a quick New York minute. Even strange and mind-altering incidents can pop up, like seeing the equivalent of a flying cow within a vortex. Being masters does not mean challenges no longer appear in our lives, because they do. It is knowing we have tools and that “we’ve got this” that helps propel us through these times.
The other day, I went to a wonderful meditation led by my friend Anne Hockett who is based in Bali. It was a mantra and mudra meditation. “I am here now in this.” Here now, being in the heart. In this moment. Feet on the ground. And no matter what “this” is, we are in it. We learn to give and receive with ease and gentleness. On those days that are just a bit much, we learn to receive. From a hot cup of tea. From a catnap. From the cool breeze that we are blessed with in Singapore right now. From all the unexpected blessings. And on other days, we can connect and flow out our energy. I remember Anne saying this in the meditation – breathe in like your life depends on it, because it does. Breathe out like your life would be better for it, because it will. This is the essence of a cycle. Learning to let go. Learning to receive. Learning to just be. Rather, it is remembering.
As we move into the Age of Aquarius, with the rising of the feminine energy, it is interesting to look at China. While Chinese society is patriarchal, the famed tiger moms notwithstanding, the culture is deeply feminine. It is very right-brained – fluid, poetic, intuitive, flowing. Yin-Yang. I-Ching. The literature, from what has been “translated” for me. It is also logical and inclusive, like the Five Element Theory – fire melts metal, water subdues fire, wood breaks the earth. Observing closer, it is a very nature-based way of seeing the world. The nature of nature.
Some say it is the age of China. The Chinese hegemony. What it feels like, as the feminine energy is rising to balance the masculine energy that has so long ruled our reality, is that for China to truly be a symbol and a leader in the new world, embracing the feminine aspects of her long history and culture in its most positive light would be such a powerful way to be. To meld and balance the yin and the yang, the masculine and the feminine, the sun and the moon. The philosophy and the traditions are already there. Just look at the wonderful lunisolar calendar telling us another celebration is at hand and the Year of the Goat/Sheep/Ram is upon us.