Chinese New Year 2017

Author Gary Moreau

While Americans are consumed with the transition of power in Washington, the Chinese are consumed with getting home. The Chinese Spring Festival, or Chinese New Year, the catalyst for the largest human migration on earth, occurs this year on January 28, 2017. The official travel season, however, during which an estimated 2.5 billion trips will occur, began on Friday, January 13.

This is the ultimate family holiday and all Chinese people will seek out theirs. The government expects that 356 million people will travel by rail (China boasts the world’s most extensive high speed rail system.), 58 million people will travel by plane, and another 42 million will travel by ship. The rest will travel by car, an expected 75 million people per day!

If that sounds like total gridlock, it isn’t. I have traveled the world and never been in a place that can shrink a swollen line more quickly. The Chinese are masters of efficiency when it comes to processing a large number of people. They have to be. (According to government statistics, in the period leading up to Chunyun, as the travel period is called, train tickets were selling at a rate of 1,000 per second.)

The official calendar of virtually all Western countries is the Gregorian calendar created in 1582 by a slight modification to the Julian calendar in order to bring the date for the celebration of Christian Easter in line with the date chosen by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. The Gregorian calendar is a solar calendar, meaning it aligns with the Earth’s rotation around the sun and the seasonal solstices and equinoxes that are its byproduct.

The Gregorian calendar was brought immediately upon its adoption to China by Jesuit missionaries but was not adopted as the official calendar there until 1912. Until that time China used the Chinese calendar, which, more accurately, is the Han calendar, named after the ethnic group that makes up 92% of the Chinese population. (There are another 55 officially recognized minority ethnic groups in China today.)

The Chinese calendar is not a solar calendar. It is not, however, contrary to popular myth, a lunar calendar either. It is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons.

The reason the world turned to the Gregorian calendar, despite the fact that many cultures and religions put great stock in the phases of the moon, is that the lunar cycles (i.e. lunations) and the solar cycles (i.e. the seasons) are not consecutively aligned.

There are more than 12 lunar (i.e. synodic) months in a solar year. And to make matters even more complicated those lunar months vary in duration. The lunar year (354.37 days), as a result, is substantially out of cycle with the solar year (365.25 days), requiring the insertion of additional months, called intercalary months, into the lunar calendar to synchronize it with the natural seasons.

The Chinese New Year always begins on the second new moon (On rare occasions, the third.) following the winter solstice. This means that the first day of the new year falls somewhere between January 21 and February 19 each year. This year it falls on January 28, 2017.

As most Westerners know, each year of the Chinese calendar is associated with one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac – the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster, dog, and pig, in that order. We are currently in the Year of the Monkey and next year, beginning January 28, 2017, will be the Year of the Rooster.

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But it’s actually a little more complicated than that. The Chinese calendar, in fact, works on a 60-year sexagenary cycle. Each year is assigned two component designations. The first is the Celestial or Heavenly Stem, which are consecutive yin and yang versions of the 5 elements – wood, fire, earth, metal, water – and the second is the Terrestial or Earthly Branch corresponding to the 12 animals of the zodiac. Taken together these provide 10-year and 12-year cycles that run concurrently, resulting in a net 60-year cycle. (Sixty is the first number to be evenly divisible by both 10 and 12.)

Technically, therefore, the year we are currently in is the year of the Yang Fire Monkey. In 2017 we will enter the Yin Fire Rooster, which last occurred in 1957.

Not surprisingly, roosters are thought to be very punctual (Who rings in the day?) and confident (Who struts their stuff?). There is a yin and yang to everything, however, so roosters can also be impatient, frustrated when a task isn’t completed on time, and appear to be arrogant to others.

Interpreting the signs of your birth, however, is a tricky business. My Chinese wife is a Fire Rooster and displays none of these traits. She is punctual, but never displays frustration or arrogance.

As the Chinese would surely say, “such is life, move on.”

It’s an apt beginning to what is sure to be an interesting year. “May you live in interesting times” is an English proverb often attributed to an ancient Chinese curse. No definitive source has ever been discovered by linguists, however.

So the origins of this phrase remain a mystery. It does, however, provide an apt introduction to the Year of the Yin Fire Rooster.

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