Looking Back

Kung hei fat choy!

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Our list of nonworking holidays has been enriched by the inclusion of the celebration of Eid’l Fitr when Muslims end their fasting period or Ramadan. This would have been unthinkable in the Spanish period when church and state were fused, but the Philippines in the 21st century is changing fast.

For example, it may not be a declared holiday but more and more Filipinos are celebrating Chinese New Year, which falls next weekend (New Year’s Eve on Feb. 9 and New Year’s Day on Feb. 10). As we end the Year of the Dragon (2012) and enter the Year of the Snake (2013), we should open our eyes to the different ways that time is reckoned. The Gregorian calendar that we follow in the Philippines is just one way of looking at time.

When I arrived in Japan last year and undertook basic things like opening a bank account, getting an alien registration card, etc., I had to learn: how to write my name in Katakana, how to have a seal or “hanko” made for times when an imprint rather than my signature is required, and how to get to know my birth year using the traditional Japanese calendar that is based on the reigning period of Japan’s emperors. The year 2013 in the Gregorian calendar is Heisei 25 in the Japanese calendar; Heisei 25 is reckoned from 1989 when the death of Emperor Hirohito closed the Showa era and ushered in the Heisei era under the present Emperor Akihito. Since I was born in 1961 under the Gregorian calendar, my birth year in the Japanese calendar is Showa 36 because it begins from 1926 in the Gregorian calendar and ends in 1989.

For many non-Chinese, the Snake is but one of the 12 symbols in the Chinese zodiac (Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Sheep/Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, Pig), which is different from the Western zodiac (Aries, Taurus, Gemini, Cancer, Leo, Virgo, Libra, Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces). The ancient Chinese, like other peoples, noticed that time could be divided into days and nights following a continuous cycle of light and darkness, ebb and flow. They also noticed that while daytime looked the same, the sun rose and set at different times in the year, and the moon had a more dramatic cycle of waxing and waning, so they pegged their calendar on the moon.

As a child, I was told that the 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac were immortalized over the others in the animal kingdom because these 12 heeded the call of the dying Buddha. They did not all get there at the same time; some reached Buddha’s deathbed earlier than the others, hence the order of their arrival is in the sequence I supplied above. It is an interesting tale, and from the little I remember of it, the Ox, though slow, was ahead of the pack but the smart and agile Rat hitched a ride on the Ox’s back, and when they reached Buddha’s deathbed it jumped off and thus arrived first. Compassionate and dying, Buddha did not scold the Rat for jumping the line. And this probably inspires people today, be they impatient drivers changing lanes or customers who don’t want to wait in line.

The Pig arrived last and, according to the story, was not moved by interest or emotion toward Buddha. It joined the other animals thinking they were all going to a party. It was faster and could have arrived ahead of the others but it stopped along the way to eat. Thus, it arrived last. In Philippine culture, the Pig represents greed or bad manners. Remember the joke:  Bakit  nakayuko  ang  mga  biik  kapag  naglalakad?  Kasi  baboy  ang  nanay  nila.” It doesn’t sound half as funny in translation, so we leave it as is. But in Chinese symbolism, the Pig represents virility, and the term “eating roast pork” is sometimes taken as a metaphor or euphemism for sexual intercourse. This may have been a childhood story for me, but it opened a door that perhaps enriched the way in which I see and understand history.

Dragons are villains in many Western fairy tales because they usually represent the devil, or evil. Dragons in Western art are often depicted being killed by St. George or Michael the Archangel. In legends, good knights in shining armor often rescue a princess or a virgin from a raging, fire-breathing dragon. In Chinese culture, on the other hand, dragons are good creatures that come in various sizes: They can be as small as a silkworm or big enough to fill the void between earth and sky. A Dragon is not just the fifth animal in the Chinese zodiac—it happens to be the first in the list of 360 scaly creatures. There are four kinds: heaven dragon, spirit dragon, earth dragon, and dragons that guard treasure. To complicate matters further, there are even dragon kings that rule the four seas of the earth! Take a closer look at Chinese dragons and count their claws; the lesser the claws, the lower the rank. Five claws mean imperial dragons reserved for emperors, four for princes, etc.

Next week I will go out to buy round fruits for the New Year table, ingredients for a hot pot to be shared and bring family members together, red envelopes or  angpao  to give away. For me, Chinese New Year is much more fun than Jan. 1 in the Gregorian calendar because it provides an excuse to party and greet a new year not once but twice.

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