It was a short Snake year, since the Asian Calendar is lunar-based. Last year it started on February 10; this year New Year’s began on January 31. The exception is Japan – they changed over to the Gregorian calendar in 1873, but they’re still celebrating the Year of the Horse starting on January 1st. Try explaining that to your kids!
The West has its own new years’ traditions and an astrological zodiac that also happens to be made up of 12 symbols. Here are some things about the Eastern tradition you may not know:
Legend says, long ago, there was a monster called Nian. It was thought to look like a mix between a dragon and a unicorn. On the first and the 15th of each lunar month, the monster would come down from the mountains to hunt people, especially children. People feared the monster and locked their doors early before sunset on the days of its coming.
There lived an old wise man in a village. He thought it was the panic in people that made the monster so bold and furious. Thus the old man asked people to organize together and to conquer the monster by means of beating drums and gongs, burning bamboo, and lighting fireworks for the purpose of making large noises to threaten the hateful monster. When he told people about the idea, everybody agreed on it.
On a moonless and freezing cold night, the monster, Nian, appeared again. But this time the people burst out a frightening attack of loud noises and flashing lights and chased the monster. They chased the monster until it fell down with exhaustion. Then the people jumped up and killed the evil monster. Savage as the monster was, he lost in the end under the efforts from the cooperation of people.
But what about the animals?
The tale usually begins with the Jade Emperor who summoned all the animals of the universe for a race, or a banquet, depending on the teller. The 12 animals of the zodiac all headed to the palace. The order that they came in determined the order of the zodiac. During the journey, however, the animals got involved in everything from high jinx to heroism. For example the rat, who won the race, only did so through guile and trickery: it jumped onto the back of the ox and won by a nose. The snake, apparently also a little sneaky, hid on the hoof of a horse in order to cross a river. When they got to the other side, it scared the horse and beat it in the contest. The dragon however, proved to be honorable and altruistic. By all accounts the dragon would have won the race as it could fly, but it had stopped to help villagers caught in a flooding river cross safely, or it stopped to assist the rabbit in crossing the river, or it stopped to help create rain for a drought-ridden farmland, depending on the teller.
So what does all this have to do with Caring For China and our work with teachers, children and healthcare?
Not a lot, except that in order to be effective at what we do, we need to understand the culture we’re dealing with. There is as much, or more, symbolism and tradition surrounding Chinese culture as there is in the West – and it’s totally different, and completely original. Vast distances once separated East and West; today, distance is no longer a problem, but there is still a huge chasm in understanding and the appreciation of each other’s’ cultures.
As a Christian organization, we must be very careful to convey the love of Christ and the message of Christ in ways that do not impose western culture on China in place of – or at the expense of – the gospel Jesus brought. After all, Jesus was born in the Middle East, and the Jewish culture he grew up in was quite different from West or East, yet Jesus himself – and his message – is still relevant to all cultures everywhere. We can appreciate both eastern and western traditions and still remain loyal citizens of the Kingdom of God, which has its own culture and values that separate it from all others.
So Happy New Year, may you be blessed by the God who will one day bring people from all tribes and nations, east and west, to a great banquet in His honor – and maybe we will even see some animals there!