Sunday, January 20, 2008

Chinese New Year

If you were to take Christmas (gift exchanges), Easter (new life and spring), July 4th (parades and fireworks), the tradition of Spring Cleaning (throw out the old, clean up and get ready for the new) and Memorial Day (remembrance of those that have gone before) and were to wrap it all into a single package, you begin to get an idea of the importance of a traditional Chinese New Year celebration.

It is in the language, the traditions, and the folktales of other countries that we discover a window into other views of the world. And the pathway into understanding these things is through the paving stones of questions. The most basic questions open up all sorts of unexpected doors. When is the Chinese New Year? Well it isn't a fixed date. Instead of using a solar calendar, the Chinese New Year is calculated based on the lunar calendar and therefore can occur anywhere between January 20th and February 19th. The new year begins on the first night of the new moon after the sun enters Aquarius.

What on earth is a lunar calendar? Well there are two calendar traditions. Solar calendars were usually used by agricultural societies because the central activity of their lives, growing food, was completely tied to the sun and the seasons. Maritime peoples, however, primarily those whose livelihoods depended on farming the sea, tended to develop calendars based on the moon because the moon drives the tides which govern all the considerations related to fishing. The problem with the lunar calendar is that there are thirteen months of 28 days in the year and therefore it is a day (and a quarter) short of a solar year. This shortfall is what causes the lunar calendar to drift out of alignment with the solar calendar and the seasons.

Who on earth would use a lunar calendar? Well most everyone else outside the West. The lunar calendar is the basis for the Chinese, Hebrew, Hindu and Islamic calendars among others. Even in the West there is a heritage of lunar calendars which shows up in unexpected places. Britain remained on a lunar calendar until the 1500s or so. The Christian calendar is a mish-mash of the solar year and the lunar year. Christmas is a fixed date in a fixed season. Easter Sunday is like the Chinese New Year in that is a lunar calculation and varies between March 22 and April 25th. The technical calculation is that the date for Easter Sunday is the Sunday after the first full moon on or after the day of the vernal equinox. It is actually even a little bit more complicated than that but let's let it be. Suffice to say that something as apparently straightforward as measuring the year is done radically differently among different people.

What about this business of marching around in parades? In January? Well, the bulk of China is located much closer to the equator than is Europe and, therefore, the climate is much more temperate, the seasons less sharply contrasted with one another, and the weather consistently warmer than almost anywhere in Europe or North America. The rains vary much more significantly across the year than do the temperatures.

Calendars and holidays are just one window into the fascinating history of this amazing culture. China, so long isolated and hidden behind the iron curtain, has begun to engage with the world in the past thirty years. If this engagement is sustained into the next thirty years, our children will want, and possibly need, to be much more informed about her traditions, culture and stories.

The West's engagement with China is in a transitional phase similar to the situation of Japan in the early 1980's. There is much angst and consternation concerning the apparent inexorable rise of a foreign nation, China in particular. As is always our tendency (use of natural resources, weather trends, population trends) we tend to ignore all the history that tells us that no trends continue unchanged for long and we project existing trends far into the future and work ourselves into a frenzy of concern and fear about perceived future threats.

After Japan's enormous rebuilding and creation of a powerful new economy (second only to the US) after WWII, we became enormously concerned for a half a decade or so about what it all meant when the Japanese appeared to be in the US buying up all our cultural icons such as Rockefeller Center, various movie studios, etc. and when a square foot of space in downtown Tokyo was worth more than an entire upscale house in the US. And then the bubble burst, the Japanese economy went on to life support for a long time, and our frantic concerns about Japan evaporated without comment.

And so it is now with China. People are fairly concerned about what the increasing involvement of China will mean for their jobs, for their children's future etc. We shouldn't lose sight of the fact that, from a humanitarian perspective, the development and engagement of China with the world economy, as disruptive as it might be to individuals and to particular industries, is a blessing. With the sustained development and increasing engagement of China (and India) with the rest of the world over the past quarter century we have seen the single largest global economic transformation ever with a huge drop in global poverty from close to 50% of the world population to around 18% based on the most recent numbers I have seen. We would, in other circumstances regard any governmental project that achieved so much in such comparatively little time as an enormous success.

But we have been here before. You read accounts of world travelers from the 1910's and the 1920's and you get a strong sense of déjà vu. China, its merchants, industrialists and economy, its artists and intellectuals were very much part of the global economy back then. The fledgling American multinational, Coca-Cola opened its first bottling plant in China in the 1920's. But then civil war followed by invasion by Japan, then communist rule slammed the door closed on China for the better part of the century. The future is not a straight line projection from the present. Let us hope that we achieve a better outcome this time around than last, but we can only dimly discern that rosier future.

As an aside, it is fascinating what happens when a country or society becomes closed off to everyone else, what material and sociological artifacts you come across. If you want to see 1950's American cars still on the road, you go to Cuba because that was what was there before their Revolution in 1959. In the 1980's, as China began to open up, I read an article with a surprising fact. They indicated that China had the largest population of Esperanto speakers in the world. Supposedly the enthusiasm and support for Esperanto as a universal language was at its highest among universities just before the doors began to shut in China in the 1920's and 1930's. Consequently there was a large population of intellectuals that carried the faith of Esperanto through the years of isolation. When finally China began to open up again, imagine everyone's surprise. The Chinese Esperanto speakers discovered that instead of becoming a universal language, Esperanto was an obscure linguistic specialty. For the Esperanto faithful in the global community, there was the surprise discovery of a reservoir of Esperanto speakers in China. By the way, as yet a further digression, did you know that the international financier, George Soros, is one of the few native speakers of Esperanto, his father having been an Esperanto speaker and enthusiast and having raised his sons speaking Esperanto?

In 2008, Chinese New Year launches on February 7th. It might serve as a good opportunity to introduce your children to China, Chinese traditions, history, etc. If we are lucky, China will continue a peaceful path towards further development and prosperity and will be a significant part of their future rather than some walled off or isolated country and the more they know about China's history and traditions, the better.

Below are some books that cover Chinese New Year as a particular event.

Let us know in the comments section whether there are additional books that you think do a good job of introducing children to China.

Picture Books

The Dragon New Year by David Bouchard and illustrated by Zhong-Yang Huang Suggested

Sam and the Lucky Money by Karen Chinn and illustrated by Cornelius Van Wright and Ying-Hwa Hu Suggested

The Runaway Rice Cake by Ying Chang Compestine and illustrated by Tungwai Chau Suggested

Happy, Happy Chinese New Year! by Demi Suggested

Chinese New Year by Alice K. Flanagan and illustrated by Svetlana Zhurkina and Linda D. Labbo Recommended

D Is For Dragon Dance by Ying Chang Compestine and illustrated by Yongsheng Xuan Suggested

Celebrating Chinese New Year by Diane Hoyt-Goldsmith and illustrated by Lawrence Migdale Recommended

Chinatown by William Low Suggested

Chinese New Year's Dragon by Rachel Sing and illustrated by Chao Wei Liu Suggested

Moonbeams, Dumplings & Dragon Boats by Nina Simonds and Leslie Swartz and illustrated by Meilo So Suggested

Lion Dancer by Kate Waters and Madeline Slovenz-Low and illustrated by Martha Cooper Recommended

This Next New Year by Janet S. Wong and illustrated by Yangsook Choi Suggested

Independent Readers

The Chinese New Year Mystery by Carolyn Keene and illustrated by Jan Naimo Jones Suggested

When the Circus Came to Town by Laurence Yep and illustrated by Suling Wang Recommended

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