Snakes and horses
Even if I’m Chinese-Filipino, I’ve always felt uncomfortable about having “Chinese” new year declared a holiday. The ethnic Chinese are a tiny minority in the Philippines—about 2 percent of the total population—and so this holiday suggests an unfair privileging.
I wouldn’t mind so much if the holiday contributed to a better understanding of Chinese culture, but the reality is it’s similar to the Muslim Eid al Fitr and Eid al Adha which, although also national holidays, have done little to promote more Muslim-Christian dialogue in the Philippines.
In the past I’ve tried to use this “Chinese” new year holiday for a bit of cultural education, explaining, for example, that what is being celebrated is actually a lunar new year observed not just in China but also in Japan, Korea and Vietnam. There was one year where I wrote about the many types of new years across the world, simply to show cultural diversity.
What does dismay me is that the lunar new year holiday has become just an opportunity for commercialism. If there’s anyone who gains from this holiday besides children who get extra ang pao (red envelopes with money), it’s the owners of the large malls (mainly Chinese-Filipinos) who use the holiday to urge Filipinos to go on another shopping storm surge.
I also worry that this lunar new year becomes another occasion to reinforce beliefs in feng shui (geomancy) and all kinds of magical charms associated with the Chinese: pakua mirrors, charms and trinkets, and replicas of the year’s astrological animal. All that on top of the already staggering number of cultural practices associated with folk Catholicism to bring good luck and ward off evil. In Quiapo you can buy good charms with Chinese words for good luck combined with images of the Virgin Mary or the Santo Niño.
Let’s face it: The attraction to all these Chinese good luck charms comes from the stereotyping of the Chinese as being successful business people. The thinking goes this way: They must be doing something right, and the Chinese new year celebrations, with the mass media featuring astrological predictions as well as feng shui suggestions for interior décor, convince people that the success comes from observing the bewildering array of magical practices.
As an anthropologist, I find all this fascinating, an example of how cultural borrowing can be so rapid…and commercially induced. Feng shui, for example, has already mutated into the Filipino “punsoy,” offered by Quiapo’s folk psychiatrists in front of the church, together with tarot and palm readings.
But anthropologists are scientists, too, and I just don’t like seeing people fooled or deceived by all this nonsense. Let me ride then with you into this year of the horse, which starts today, by explaining that there’s more to the Chinese concept of success than good luck symbols. I should mention that even the Chinese may be unaware of the broader framework of luck and fate, simply because it’s more convenient, maybe even more fun, to just think of the astrological animals and feng shui.
The Chinese talk of five factors that shape our lives: fate (ming), luck (yun), environment (feng shui), virtue (dao de) and education (du shu).
Fate is said to be difficult to modify, but rather than becoming totally fatalistic, the Chinese say there’s hope in the remaining four variables. Luck moves and changes from year to year depending on your astrological animal, and how it harmonizes or clashes with the current year (for example, this year of the horse might be difficult for those born in the year of the rat). Luck can be modified, by going to the temple to pray…and to pay monks for more “luck-correcting” rituals.
Much has been said, too, about Chinese feng shui, and how one can change “bad” feng shui by rearranging furniture or the strategic positioning of mirrors to deflect bad qi (energy).
All the talk about these first three influences paints a picture of a rather superstitious Chinese. But this shouldn’t be surprising. Life in China can be quite Hobbesian: short, nasty and brutish. We see photographs of skyscrapers in Shanghai and bustling malls, forgetting that the Chinese also have to deal with the threats of natural disasters (typhoons, for example, that first hit us, then go on to southern China) and all kinds of natural disasters, severe winters, and still widespread poverty.
And yes, many Chinese are engaged in business, a rather unpredictable field of endeavor. It shouldn’t be surprising then that the Chinese try to bring in some certainty into their lives through astrology and feng shui. By labeling the year by some astrological animal, people can imagine some sense of control, and have ways to explain misfortune.
For example, people can now sigh with relief that the year of the snake is over, thinking of all the treacherous snakes in our lives, from scheming office colleagues to unfaithful spouses. Local radio stations are buzzing with predictions for a good year for businesses, invoking images of equine speed and grace. And if businesses do falter during the year, the astrologers/vendors will tell you: “Oh, but we warned you and you forgot to buy some lucky charms to slow down the galloping horses.”
Feng shui is another matter, the term itself reflecting how the Chinese dreaded disasters brought by wind and water. Many of the feng shui observances come out of China’s long history of warlords and feuding. Doors just had to open outward, rather than inward, because when your village is attacked, you don’t want to make life easier for the invaders who can just ram their way through all the gates and doors.
I have no problem recycling and reinterpreting many of these old practices for the present. There is logic, for example, in having doors that open outward, this time in the context of emergencies at home and in commercial establishments. We know of the horrors of people trapped inside discos during a fire, unable to get out because the doors open inward and the panic has led to people jamming the exits, making it impossible to pull the doors open.
Let’s not forget the remaining two shapers of our lives as expressed by the Chinese. There’s dao de or virtue, of doing good. How I wish more business people can recognize that being good, being ethical, can mean doing good in business.
Finally, our lives are influenced by du shu, which literally translates as reading books. That doesn’t mean being bookish; far from it, the successful Chinese business person is practical, able to pick up lessons from classroom learning as well as from life’s many experiences. Even more importantly, when the Chinese talk about education, the emphasis is on studying hard, on diligence, and in the language of 21st century management, on due diligence.
If we must emulate the Chinese, let it be for virtue, diligence and hard work, not more dragon dances and good luck symbols…and holidays.
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