Tag Archives: Chinese New Year

Year of the Dog

illustration credit: iStock.com/difinbeker

The Chinese New Year, often called the Lunar New Year, begins on Friday, February 16, 2018. Last year it began on Saturday, January 28, 2017.

The Chinese refer to it as the Spring Festival and it is, above all else, a time for celebrating the family. That, in turn, leads to the biggest human migration on the planet. Over the official 40-day travel period, according to the National Development and Reform Commission, the Chinese will take 3 billion distinct trips utilizing every form of transportation known to humanity. More than 390 million Chinese will travel by train alone, the equivalent of putting every man, woman, and child in America—and then some—on a train in a period of six weeks.

The US and most countries in the West follow the Gregorian calendar, created in 1582 by a slight modification to the Julian calendar in order to bring the date of Christian Easter in line with the date chosen by the First Council of Nicaea in 325. China adopted the Gregorian calendar as its official calendar in 1912, but Chinese culture and its holidays continue to be based on the Chinese calendar, sometimes called the Han calendar.

The Chinese calendar is neither a lunar calendar nor a solar calendar. It is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons. The Chinese New Year falls on the second new moon following the winter solstice. Which means, if you do the math, the New Year can fall no later than February 19 and no sooner than January 21.

Most Westerners recognize that the Chinese years are each associated with one of the twelve animals of the zodiac. We’re leaving the Year of the Rooster and entering the Year of the Dog.

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, this will be the Year of the Yang Earth Dog, which last occurred in 1958. Anyone born in that year will celebrate living for one life cycle, making the 60th birthday one of the most important in Chinese culture.

So, what can we expect in the year of the dog? Due to its yang component, the dog will have masculine energy this year, but feminine and masculine, as they relate to yin and yang, are not sexual. Masculine energy is more like what you’d expect from your typical house dog—barking at the window one second and sound asleep on the couch the next.
Given the inherent erraticism of the dog, it’s best not to chase the extremes but to connect to the center by studying hard, spending time with family, taking care on the job, and connecting to your inner self.

Good advice, but not likely to be followed by our friends in Washington. We can probably expect them to bounce from one crisis to the next for most of the year. The only saving grace is that the dog is not known for emotional stamina. Emotions will flare, die quickly away, and flare again. It may seem like a siege in the end, but rest assured that better days are coming.

This year, in fact, is really a setup for next year, the Year of the Yin Earth Pig. If we steady ourselves this year, it should be a year of light festivity and relaxation. While pigs are not considered intelligent by the Chinese, they are considered lucky. And it will all begin on February 5, 2019.

And what about all the red? Well, the legend has it that the Nian, the mythical monster that lived in the mountains, would come down into the village every New Year’s Eve to feast on the children. One year, however, one little boy was wearing red and the Nian left him alone. Voila, red it is!

Enjoy.

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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.

Understanding China is available at Amazon in paper and electronic formats.

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.

Contact: You may reach the author at understandingchina@yahoo.com. Mr. Moreau is also available for public speaking and the provision of third-party written content on a wide variety of topics for your website or other communications material.

The Proof is in the Pudding

I have often said that if a picture is worth a thousand words, an action is worth 10,000 pictures. Actions are beliefs in motion. And since motion is not the natural state for most of us, it pulls back the curtain on true conviction. It must be conscious.

One of the questions swirling around the capital of questions that is Beijing is the government’s commitment to cleaning up the environment. In recent days I have witnessed three rather telling developments.

February 8, as you surely know, was New Year’s Day in China. It marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year holiday, or Spring Festival, as the Chinese refer to it. (It does not, however, mark the first day of spring on the Chinese calendar. That fell on February 4 in 2016.) This is by far the most important holiday of the Chinese year and leads to the biggest human migration on earth as people return to their hometown to celebrate with their extended families.

The holiday lasts 15 days and is filled with tradition, mostly having to do with promoting good luck and good health in the coming year. (If you’re interested, read some of my prior posts at this time of year about the details.) One of the most important rituals of the holiday, however, is setting off fireworks.

The eve of the New Year’s Day is one of the most important parts of the holiday, as I wrote in my last post. It is the time of the Nian Ye Fan, or reunion dinner. A sumptuous dinner is generally followed by the CCTV national gala, a variety show of dancers, singers, acrobats, and comedy teams. (I have yet to see a single standup comic here. All comedy is performed in pairs, or small groups of three or four.)

And there are fireworks. Not the public display variety as found in the U.S. on the 4th of July, but the individual variety since good luck and bad luck are individualistic, not collective. They start early in the evening and culminate at the stroke of midnight, when the New Year officially begins. And they go on all night, often well into the morning.

It’s hard to do the noise justice. It is deafening. And one of the reasons foreigners often leave for the holiday. If you are even a remotely light sleeper you can count on little rest on this night.

For the Chinese government to announce a prohibition of fireworks during Chinese New Year is akin to the U.S. government banning Christmas trees.
For the Chinese government to announce a prohibition of fireworks during Chinese New Year is akin to the U.S. government banning Christmas trees.

This year, however, both Beijing and Shanghai issued regulations, in the interest of air quality, that prohibited the use of fireworks during Spring Festival. To put that in perspective, that is the equivalent of the U.S. government prohibiting Christmas trees.

When I first heard of this restriction (workers went house to house to inform people of the change) I quietly chuckled to myself in the sure knowledge that the ban would be ignored to the same extent that all traffic regulations are.

And there was some initial fuss on social media, although it was not overwhelming and was offset by an equal amount of praise for the government’s efforts to clean the air we breathe.

But I was stunned when midnight arrived (I watched the gala with my wife, along with 450 million other households.) and all was quiet. There was a smattering of firecrackers but all went silent after just a few minutes. And it stayed that way all night and ever since.

And I have yet to hear any real grumbling about the change. While Chinese culture is steeped in tradition they are amazingly adaptive and, despite the government’s many foreign critics, incredibly supportive of a strong government that acts in their interests, no matter what the personal sacrifice.

On a related note, the government announced last week that it will begin construction of 16 new subway lines in Beijing with a total length of 300 km (186 miles) in 2016. This is on top, mind you, of the 554 km (344 miles) that already exists, bringing the Beijing subway system to nearly 1,000 km (621 miles) by the year 2020. (That means, of course, building 300 km of new subway and untold stations in less than four years. What other city in the world could match that? How long did the Boston Tunnel take?)

The Beijing government recently announced the construction of 16 new subway lines beginning in 2016. Beijing, already the busiest subway system in the world and the second longest (Shanghai is first) will boast nearly 1,000 km of subway by 2020.
photo credit:  testing/Shutterstock.com  The Beijing government recently announced the construction of 16 new subway lines beginning in 2016. Beijing, already the busiest subway system in the world and the second longest (Shanghai is first) will boast nearly 1,000 km (621 miles) of subway by 2020 – roughly the distance between New York and Charlotte NC.

They will also add special bus and bicycle lanes to incentivize commuters to use public transportation. And they will put another 10,000 public bicycles at subway and bus stations on top of the 50,000 bicycles that are already in use.

The Beijing government will add another 10,000 bicycles, in addition to the 50,000 already in use, at subway and bus stations for the convenience of commuters.
The Beijing government will add another 10,000 public bicycles, in addition to the 50,000 already in use, at subway and bus stations for the convenience of commuters.

Lastly, while taking my daily walk recently, I couldn’t help but notice that a coal-fired power station less than 1 km from my home, it’s plume of smoke like a lighthouse beacon during the winter months in the past, has been completely shuttered. The stack stands idle with no signs of life in its bowels.

And what about the 10,000 pictures? For the past two weeks the skies over Beijing have shone a deep blue. Even the mountains around Beijing are clearly visible on the distant horizon.

Coincidence? Perhaps. Although it has been cold enough to put pressure on the natural gas supply in Beijing.

I prefer to think of it as conviction and sincerity. If the government will ban fireworks for Spring Festival, I don’t believe there is anything it won’t do to clean the air, including cracking down on corrupt officials who look the other way on generous violators.

This is good news for China, for sure. I think, however, it is good news for the world at large. It proves that the once-perceived opaque and pragmatic government is truly and sincerely earnest about change.

And the Chinese people are more than ready to embrace it.

A very positive note, indeed, on which to start the Year of the Fire Monkey.

Slide1

 

Some early praise for the author’s latest book, “Understanding China – There is reason for the difference”

“An insightful, compelling introduction to the intricacies of Chinese business and life.” – Kirkus Review

To see the full review from this prestigious literary company, please click on this direct link:

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/gary-moreau/understanding-china-fYhXZndj/

“Understanding China is a “must-read” for anyone interested in culture, working with Asian businesses, visiting China or simply if you enjoy a well-written book! I worked in China in the 90’s and while I eventually understood the differences, I never understood “why” until now. Moreau does a great job explaining the “why”. Well done!!”

(Not a relative!)

“Having done business and gone on personal journeys through the Asia Pacific region, I wish I’d read a book like this first. The premise is that being happy and effective in China requires more than just learning how things operate and working within the established system. This will bring frustration and leave you ineffective because you, the Westerner, will still be looking at these cultural differences as irrational. Mr. Moreau contends that only by understanding why things are the way they are in China and in the West can a Westerner actually influence outcome in China.

The author proceeds to explain the differences with very engaging writing that made me say, “Of, of course! It all makes sense now.”

(Also not a relative!)

Enjoy.

Copyright © 2016 Gary Moreau

Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.

You may contact the author at glassmakerinchina@gmail.com

Nian Ye Fan Revisited

Today is the eve of the Chinese New Year; time for the Nian Ye Fan.  While Americans are getting ready for the Super Bowl, the Chinese will be celebrating the most important meal of the year.

The post below was originally posted two years ago but as I have many new subscribers I thought it would still be of interest.

New Year’s Day, by coincidence, again falls on February 8 in 2016.  This will be the Year of the Monkey.  To be precise, it will be the Year of the Yang Fire Monkey, which last occurred in 1956.  As noted previously, the actual Chinese calendar involves two cycles, one of the twelve animals of the zodiac, the other yin and yang versions of each of the five earthly elements.  They turn concurrently, meaning that they line up only every 60 years, considered one life cycle by the Chinese.

Monkeys are considered playful and clever so this should be a good year for child births.  Last year was the Year of the Sheep or Goat – the Chinese character is the same – which are considered followers rather than leaders, so the birth rate actually declined.  (To be clear, the vast majority of Chinese pay no heed to these traditions, although birth rates did fall by a statistically significant amount last year.)

Yang Fire, however, holds more ominous implications.  It suggests that this may be a year of unexpected conflict.

Who knows?  What I like best about Spring Festival is that it really is a time for new beginnings.  The old year is behind us and the Chinese are always genuinely optimistic that the new year will be better.  I like that optimism.  Many of my longtime friends have noted that I am very good at reinventing myself when bad luck strikes.  I don’t know about that but I do know that I am an eternal optimist.  I have never once started a day believing that it would be worse than the prior.  No matter how dark my life at the time, I was always full of hope.  And that attitude has always served me well.

Enjoy the holiday – or the Super Bowl – but know that the future always holds promise.

Gary Moreau

_________________________________________________________________________

For most Chinese families, Spring Festival begins with the reunion dinner held on New Year’s Eve. Traditionally, however, the celebration of the new lunar year begins on the 8th day of the last lunar month, known as the Laba Festival. This year, by lunisolar coincidence, that was January 8, 2014.

Like everything associated with Spring Festival the purpose of the Laba Festival is to bring prosperity in the coming year. And it’s modern day custodians, oddly enough, are the Buddhist monks who serve warm Laba porridge made with rice, beans, nuts, and fruits, on that day. In Beijing, which is inevitably cold this time of year, you can see a long queue of office workers on their way to work waiting at the many Buddhist temples in the area for some of the sweet and warm soup to start the day.

I find the idea of Buddhist monks serving Laba Porridge in the heart of Beijing to be both interesting and informative. Interesting for obvious reasons. China officially governs by the tenets of socialism with Chinese characteristics and embracing and celebrating its spiritual and religious tradition is clearly one of those characteristics.

Legend holds that the Nian monster came into the village of the first day of every year to feed on the village's crops and livestock.
Legend holds that the Nian monster came into the village on the first day of every year to feed on the village’s crops and livestock.

Informative because it highlights a recurring theme throughout Chinese culture that is critical to understanding the true nature and meaning of Spring Festival. At its core, Spring Festival is not so much about celebrating the old or new year as it is about maximizing the chances that the coming year is a good year – which is to say, a prosperous year. And following classic yin-yang philosophy that means keeping bad luck at bay as much as it means promoting good luck. Both efforts, while diametrically opposed, are necessary to achieve the desired result.

It’s all a bit fatalistic, of course, but I’ve come to accept that there is something to the perspective. Let’s face it; a lot of what happens to us in life is beyond our control. Why pretend that it isn’t? Most success stories could have easily been a tale of woe and many who struggle in life were only a hair away from the lucky break that would have made things very different indeed.

That’s not to say, in the least, that successful people don’t earn their success. I think they do. But it’s not guaranteed. I think successful people, as much as anything else, have learned how to maximize the odds that a lucky break will find them. And one of the most effective ways to maximize those odds, of course, is to maximize the sheer number of opportunities for good luck to come your way – i.e. hard work. Isn’t hard work, after all, a core quality on which almost all success is built and doesn’t it, by definition, simply increase the number of hands you are dealt in life? (An old colleague used to say that in baseball, as in life, it only takes one hit in ten to get into the Hall of Fame.)

Is it really such a leap of faith, therefore, to think that drinking a bit of tasty porridge served by a friendly Buddhist monk on a cold January morning might actually lead to good things in the coming year? I can’t quite get there, admittedly. I’m a foreigner. But I do have some sense as to why and how people who do buy into such beliefs do. (In the West we call them superstitions, but that’s such a pejorative term that I’ve stopped using it.)

The color red is ubiquitous at Spring Festival. Legend holds that in addition to eating the livestock, the Nian was fond of devouring children but avoided those wearing red.
The color red is ubiquitous at Spring Festival. Legend holds that in addition to eating the livestock, the Nian was fond of devouring children but avoided those wearing red.

Which is the perfect segue into the reunion dinner, called Nian Ye Fan, that officially kicks off the Spring Festival holiday for most Chinese families. It’s the most important dinner of the year, by a wide margin, in a culture that attaches great importance to food and the dining experience. (Hasn’t history taught us that the ultimate prosperity is having enough to eat?)

Nian is the name given to the mythical beast that according to legend arrived on the first day of the New Year and ate all of the crops and livestock, as well as some of the villagers, especially children. Food, of course, was set out to appease the beast, and once the villagers noticed that the beast passed over a child wearing red, the color red became ubiquitous during the holiday – and during all times of celebration in China, for that matter.

Nian Ye Fan is, as noted, perhaps the most important family event of the year. And because no one wants to be blamed for any potential family misfortunes in the coming year I suspect there are few excuses short of making money and contributing to the family’s prosperity that will get you out of it.

It is strictly a family affair; not a time for building relationships. Foreigners, therefore, are almost never included. That said, however, the woman who works in our home, known here as an ayi, invited my wife and daughters to her family home in a nearby village one New Year’s Eve while I was in Germany on business over Spring Festival. It was a sign of genuine affection for my wife and daughters, for sure, but also indicative of the importance placed on the event. In this very kind woman’s value system no one should be left alone for Nian Ye Fan.

Some families choose to dine out. Very seldom do the Chinese entertain in their home, and virtually never for business or outside of the family. On most occasions they meet their guests at a restaurant, although private rooms are almost always available for such occasions. Needless to say, getting a reservation is extremely difficult on New Year’s Eve unless your family has been patronizing the restaurant for a couple of decades, and the meal itself – like virtually every product and service in China – is priced to market supply and demand. A New Year’s Eve meal at a decent restaurant will set you back.

Most families, however, prefer to dine at home. And as for a U.S. Thanksgiving dinner, preparations are made days in advance and the food is bountiful. And there are some protocols to follow.

Fish, the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity in China is a must-have for Nian Ye Fan. Here fishermen use a self-propelled device that moves along the underside of the ice to string nets, the bounty of which is eagerly purchased by passing motorists.
Fish, the ultimate symbol of wealth and prosperity in China is a must-have for Nian Ye Fan. Here fishermen use a self-propelled device that moves along the underside of the ice to string nets, the bounty of which is eagerly purchased by passing motorists.

One of the great symbols of wealth and prosperity in Chinese culture is the fish, which is why it adorns a good majority of the souvenirs sold here. And, as a result, fish is a must-have for any reunion dinner. Traditionally, the fish was left uneaten, in tribute to Nian, I suspect, but I am told that many families today do actually consume the fish.

Beyond the serving of fish, the Nian Ye Fan menu generally follows regional preferences and specialties. In the north, that means dumplings, or jiaozi, often served later in the evening. In the south, a glutinous cake, called niangao, is prepared and shared with friends and relatives over the coming days.

And there is, of course, drinking involved. And here, as in many Asian countries, drinking is a group activity. If you want to take a drink you should make a toast. It doesn’t have to be long or eloquent, but it’s impolite to just sit there and suck down your alcohol in isolation. You can toast a specific person or persons or you can toast the table as a whole. And to avoid the time and effort required to clink everyone’s glass you can simply tap the glass a couple of times on the lazy susan in front of you that is common to every Chinese restaurant.

The drink of choice on such festive occasions, of course, is baijou, often referred to as Chinese wine. Believe me, however, that is a mischaracterization if ever there was one. Many Westerners liken the taste to rocket fuel and it has the same impact on the senses but it is, after all, the number one spirit in the world in liters consumed each year. (I predict that once some enterprising bartender finds something you can mix it with that won’t catch on fire baijou will become an international phenomenon.)

In the north of China, jiaozi is often served after the reunion dinner as midnight nears.
In the north of China, jiaozi is often served after the reunion dinner as midnight nears.

And rockets it is, of course, once the New Year’s Eve celebration gets fully underway and the fireworks come out. In a country in which citizens are not allowed to own guns or weapons of any kind, fireworks are commonplace and readily available. Some of the bigger cities, however, have put restrictions in place. Beijing, for example, no longer allows fireworks in the central part of the city since construction workers accidentally set the nearly finished luxury hotel next to the new and already iconic CCTV building known as The Big Pants ablaze on New Year’s Eve in 2009.

I simply can’t do the fireworks scene justice with my simple vocabulary. It is, quite literally, unbelievable. They are everywhere. They are loud. And they go on all night – yes, until the sun rises!

A Spring Festival tree? As long as it's red.
A Spring Festival tree? As long as it’s red.

It can get a little dicey. In addition to the risk of fire, there is always the risk of injury. And you don’t even have to be involved. Our ayi was riding her bicycle home one afternoon when she passed a field in which some men were setting off some kind of rockets. They were sticking them in an empty beer bottle but, of course, the bottle fell over once the rocket was lit and proceeded to scream right into her passing thigh, knocking her off her bicycle. She wasn’t seriously hurt but it was a nasty burn that kept her hobbling for several days.

A bit of bad luck, for sure.

And to avoid that kind of thing from happening in the new year it is tradition to clean your home thoroughly in the days leading up to the new year to make room for the good luck that is sure to arrive on New Year’s Eve. (It’s also a good idea to get a hair cut, in part because the yin-yang extension of that is that it is bad luck to cut your hair during the first 30 days of the new year.)

Once New Year’s Eve arrives, however, it is customary to lock the broom and dust pan away just in case an obsessive family member decides to do some final cleaning and accidentally cleans out the good luck that has just arrived.

Slide1

Some early praise for the author’s latest book, “Understanding China – There is reason for the difference”

“An insightful, compelling introduction to the intricacies of Chinese business and life.” – Kirkus Review

To see the full review from this prestigious literary company, please click on this direct link:

https://www.kirkusreviews.com/book-reviews/gary-moreau/understanding-china-fYhXZndj/

“Understanding China is a “must-read” for anyone interested in culture, working with Asian businesses, visiting China or simply if you enjoy a well-written book! I worked in China in the 90’s and while I eventually understood the differences, I never understood “why” until now. Moreau does a great job explaining the “why”. Well done!!”

(Not a relative!)

“Having done business and gone on personal journeys through the Asia Pacific region, I wish I’d read a book like this first. The premise is that being happy and effective in China requires more than just learning how things operate and working within the established system. This will bring frustration and leave you ineffective because you, the Westerner, will still be looking at these cultural differences as irrational. Mr. Moreau contends that only by understanding why things are the way they are in China and in the West can a Westerner actually influence outcome in China.

The author proceeds to explain the differences with very engaging writing that made me say, “Of, of course! It all makes sense now.”

(Also not a relative!)

Enjoy.

Copyright © 2016 Gary Moreau

Note: The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.

You may contact the author at glassmakerinchina@gmail.com

Beginning of a New Year

Today is the beginning of the Spring Festival holiday in China, which many refer to as the Chinese New Year. Everyone is tired. Virtually everyone in China stays up to bring in the new year, usually watching the national gala broadcast on CCTV that is the dream of every artist in China to perform in.

And then there are the fireworks. It would be difficult to overstate the level and duration of noise created. They go on, quite literally, all night. I’ve tried desperately to understand the justification and have come up with many theories including dispelling demons, opening a gateway for the good luck of the new year to enter by, and just plain celebration and fun.

In the end I’ve decided I’m approaching the issue too much like a Westerner, consumed as I am with cause and effect. They just do it. “Why do you need to understand everything?” they ask.

For me, Spring Festival is a delightful time. Warm weather is just around the corner. Families are together. And I don’t have to wake up to an alarm clock.

I read an interesting article recently, by the way, concerning a survey of Americans on which is their favorite day of the week. Saturday, not surprisingly, came in first. Friday, however, not Sunday, was the runner up. Even the thought of not having to work the next day, it appears, is more appealing to us than a day of actually not having to work. Says a lot, I think, about how much real fulfillment most people get from their work.

But there is something even more relaxing about Spring Festival than not having to go to work. And I think I’ve figured out what.

Nobody is working. Your boss isn’t working. Your colleagues aren’t working. The tele-marketers aren’t working. The government isn’t working. There is no bad news to report. There is nobody on the television posturing for some cause, or re-election, or in favor of some new legislation. The world, within China anyway, is thinking of nothing else other than family, and, of course, fireworks and good luck.

It’s probably not a sustainable model. In additional to the incredible strain it puts on the transportation infrastructure it’s probably not a viable economic model in the inter-connected world of modern commerce. Buyers were willing to wait for your sneakers when you made them at a price no one else could touch, but that probably won’t be the case when you’re making super-computers or exporting advanced machine tools.

I used to think that eliminating the national Golden Week holidays, as they are called, and giving everyone more vacation time that they can use when they want would be a good thing. The Chinese could visit their favorite vacation spots without the overbearing crowds at a time of year that fit their personal schedule. You wouldn’t need to do so much planning about when you’re going to go to the bank or renew your driver’s license. Life would be simpler.

Still, I think something would be lost. In my 35+ years in the corporate world I’ve never been able to decompress on a vacation, no matter how exotic, as I do during Spring Festival. All of life is personal, as Freud said, and the reality is that the other people who touch our lives will not support our decompression unless they, too, are attempting to decompress from the everyday rigors of life.

If you’re on vacation and your boss is not it may not be quite the same as a vacation. Or if you’ve got accounting deadlines to meet you might not get dispensation if you’re the only one on vacation that week.

But the relaxation Spring Festival brings goes beyond the ability to truly unplug from the commercial world. There is a connection to everyone around you that flows from the fact that you’re all sharing the identical holiday in the identical way.

The Americans have Christmas, of course, but it’s not quite the same. There are sizeable populations of Jews, Muslims, atheists and others who don’t celebrate the holiday – or at least don’t celebrate it for the same reasons. And even within the Christian community the holiday means different things to different people. About the only real common denominator is that it is generally a day off from work.

Spring Festival, by contrast, is a true celebration of what it means to be Chinese. It holds the same level of importance and meaning to each and every Chinese person. That might be a slight exaggeration since the commitment to honor the traditional rituals differs between generations, but it is true overall.

I find that oddly comforting. Perhaps it’s simply the validation that there’s still something that we can all rally behind; that we haven’t all become so self-absorbed in our individual identity that we can let down our guard and just be one of the pack for a few days.

What I find particularly interesting is that very few Chinese people can tell you how they determine which day will be the first day of Spring Festival in any given year. It’s very hard to imagine the deductive West accepting the date of the most important holiday of the year having no idea how it was determined.

Thanksgiving in the US, after all, is always the third Thursday of November. Christmas Day is always December 25. Hanukkah is always held on the 25th day of Kislev according to the Hebrew calendar. Ramadan begins at the time of the new moon in the ninth lunar month.

And what about Spring Festival? Well it doesn’t fall on the first day of spring. That was February 4, 2015 by the Chinese calendar, which is a lunisolar calendar, defined by both the lunar phases and the solar seasons. Each month is determined by the moon’s alignment with the sun and the sun’s longitude measured in 30-degree increments. It runs in sixty-year cycles, or, more precisely, a ten-year cycle (yin and yang versions of the five elements, e.g fire, earth, etc.) and the twelve-year cycle of the zodiac, which run concurrently, creating a sixty-year life cycle since sixty is the first number divisible by both ten and twelve.

The Chinese New Year starts during the beginning of the first new moon and ends the night of the next full moon of each of those years – a period of approximately fifteen days. (They call it Spring Festival only because that is the literal translation of the holiday’s current Chinese name.) Got it?

Whatever. The inductive-inclined Chinese don’t seem to care how it’s determined. I’ve yet to hear a Chinese person inquire as to how it’s determined or venture an opinion. It just is what it is. (If you ask for an explanation you will get a wide variety of answers and the certainty of a quizzical look.)

And there is something relaxing and decompressing in that by itself. Why do we in the West believe we need to understand every damn cause and effect? What if we just accepted some things as they are and didn’t worry about it?

Perhaps that, after all, is the key to the Chinese miracle. Perhaps it’s got little to do with the political or economic systems they employ, or their work ethic, or the years of suffering and sacrifice. Perhaps it all comes down to the ability and willingness to think inductively, to simply accept some things as they are and believe, beyond any rational explanation, that this year will be a lucky year.

Isn’t that the basis of hope? And wouldn’t deductive thinkers agree that hope is the essence of both social development and the good life?

We have now entered the Year of the Sheep, which some refer to as the Year of the Goat.  That's because both have the same name in Chinese.
We have now entered the Year of the Sheep, which some refer to as the Year of the Goat. That’s because both have the same name in Chinese.

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systems.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

The Great Migration

Take all of the holidays celebrated in your country and by your culture, roll them all into one, and multiply by a multiple of whatever, and you will begin to have just some appreciation of the significance of Spring Festival, otherwise known as Chinese New Year, or the Lunar New Year, to China.

It is, of course, a secular holiday, although there are behavioral customs still practiced by many that undoubtedly have their roots in Chinese folk religion and the yin-yang foundation of Taoism. All of these, however, have little to do with worship and everything to do with insuring good luck in the coming year.

Luck is another facet of superstition and the Chinese, as inductive-thinkers, look at it much differently than Westerners. Luck is luck but the Chinese believe you can greatly influence the chances that good or bad luck will come your way. Feng shui is a methodology, for example, for maximizing the potential for good luck and minimizing the potential for misfortune through the harmonious management of your physical surroundings.

As inductive thinkers the Chinese put great stock in luck - good and bad - and their ability to influence it in their lives.
As inductive thinkers the Chinese put great stock in luck – good and bad – and their ability to influence it in their lives.

There are many rituals, therefore, from when and how to sweep out your home, to not having your hair cut for the first thirty days of the new year that exist for this purpose. Interestingly, I find that fewer and fewer Chinese actually follow all of these rituals, but I have yet to meet the Chinese who wasn’t aware of them.

The rituals, however, are only a small part of the Spring Festival tradition. By far the most important aspect of the holiday, and the one I find so endearing, is the complete and total emphasis on family.   Families are together, no excuses, no matter what the distance that needs to be traveled.

When Mao Zedong defeated the Nationalists to form the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the population of China was only 542 million people, about 1/3 of what it is today. Mao appreciated, however, that the biggest challenge facing his poor country was feeding itself and agriculture in China then, as it still is, was a labor-intensive, albeit glorious, occupation.

Mao, therefore, conducted an active political campaign to convince women to both join their husbands in the fields of China and to have as many children as possible. Within a decade, as a result, the Chinese population swelled by an additional 100 million people. Ultimately, the population grew so rapidly that in 1979 China introduced the family planning policy, informally known as the one child policy, to slow the rapid population growth that was threatening to overcome the country’s social infrastructure.

Formal family registries (huji) were first introduced in China during the Xia Dynasty (c. 2100 BCE – 1600 BCE) as a basis for taxation and social control and are still in use in other parts of Southeast Asia today, including Japan, although they are used for very different reasons.

In China, the current system of registry, known as hukou, was first introduced in 1958 when it was redefined to be a residency registration system as much as a system for family registration.   Your access to social benefits such as schooling for your children, government-provided housing, and medical care was greatly limited outside of the area of your hukuo, or place of registration – normally your place of birth.

As Deng Xiaoping would state some three decades later, “Some shall get rich first,” and the government knew that as the country developed the urban areas would be the first to realize an enhanced standard of living. The hukuo system was therefore introduced to limit the flow of rural workers into the urban areas so as not to overwhelm the country’s urban modernization.

It still exists today, but in modified form. And while the rights of migrant workers, whose numbers are still measured in the hundreds of millions, are getting much more attention by the government and society at large, your hukuo still determines a lot when it comes to the residential opportunities available to you and your family.

Like everything in China the hukao system must be understood in context.  It is not meant to eliminate migration.  If it did, industries like the construction trades would cease to exist.
Like everything in China the hukou system must be understood in context. It is not meant to eliminate migration. If it did, industries like the construction trades would cease to exist.

Like everything else in China, of course, you have to understand the hukou system in context. When the system was first set up all workers were divided into urban workers and rural workers – the latter of which are still sometimes referred to as peasants. It’s not a nice word, for sure, but not meant in the context most Westerners take it. Many English-speaking Chinese say sh*t, as well, when referring to human excrement, because that’s simply the word they know for it. It has no bearing on their education or sense of civility.

While the hukou system sounds downright oppressive to most Westerners, you have to remember that as inductive-thinkers everything is relative to the Chinese. They don’t think in terms of absolutes.

When it introduced the hukou system, the government had no intention of eliminating urban migration in the sense that residency is strictly controlled in the sci-fi world of The Hunger Games or by the Berlin Wall in former real life. It merely wanted to slow it down. (The same is true of the Great Chinese Firewall on the Internet. The government doesn’t want to stop English-speaking Chinese from accessing foreign websites. They simply want to slow the process down, which is precisely why they don’t just take China off-line.)

Today, the hukou system is at the core of the Spring Festival holiday. Many rural husbands and wives typically leave their village to find work in the cities, often living thousands of miles from their families and each other. The children stay with their grandparents so they can go to school and get the medical care that they are entitled to within the jurisdiction of their hukuo.

During Spring Festival, however, mommy and daddy return home, creating what is believed to be the largest human migration on the face of the planet. The statistics are mind numbing. According to government statistics reported in China Daily, during the official forty-day Spring Festival travel period that began February 4, 2015, the Chinese will collectively take 2.8 BILLION trips. At any given time, a population larger that the entire United States will be on the move.

During one ten day period, some 250 million Chinese will travel by train alone, many without the benefit of a seat as the trains are packed to spacial capacity by the necessity of demand. I have personally met people who stood for as long as 16 hours on a train to return to their hometown for the annual festival.

As a result, the country literally shuts down for up to a month. Not quite literally, of course, but pretty close. Officially, it is a three-day national holiday that the government turns into a seven-day holiday by converting weekend days into normal workdays. This year, for example, Sunday, February 15 and Saturday, February 28 became ‘normal’ workdays to allow seven days of uninterrupted time off during the heart of the festival. (New Year’s Day is February 19 but it could be argued that February 18, when families gather over the New Year’s dinner and to watch the national gala on television – and light fireworks, of course – is really the most important day of the festival.)

Not every company shuts down, of course. Retailers and service providers are all open throughout the holiday. And companies like my own (glass furnaces can literally not be shut down) continue to produce during the holiday although we do not ship as the trucking companies, most of which rely on migrant workers, do shut down; as does China Customs and all of the banks, making it virtually impossible to export anything.

When I first arrived in China I considered shuttering production for the festival so that our operators could spend the time with their families until a Chinese colleague set me straight. They would be heart-broken, I was told, as we pay them, according to government regulation, three times their normal pay to work over the holiday. They line up to volunteer.

Again, while a deductive-thinker might find it distasteful to violate an absolute holiday tradition, an inductive thinker will always consider the results to be paramount. When else can you get nine days of pay for three days of work?

More to come.

During the 40-day official travel period surrounding Chinese New Year the Chinese will take an estimated 2.8 BILLION trips.
During the 40-day official travel period surrounding Chinese New Year the Chinese will take an estimated 2.8 BILLION trips.

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systems.

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.

The Year of the Sheep

On February 19, 2015 the Year of the Horse will give way to the Year of the Sheep.

And, as a result, Chinese hospitals are overwhelmed with women wishing to give birth before the Year of the Sheep begins.

Why? Because of an ancient Chinese saying, “Shi yang jiu bu quan,” which, literally translated, means 9 out of 10 people born in the Year of the Sheep will suffer great misfortune. (Or something like that.) Who wants that for their child?

While sheep have also enjoyed positive associations throughout Chinese history it is strongly associated with weakness and obedience, greatly reducing the chance that people born in those years will be the strong leader type. They are more likely to be meek followers.

No one seems to know for sure where the superstition began but China Daily quotes the Guangzhou Daily as reporting that it might have been a rumor started to overthrow the Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908) of the corrupt and disdained Qing Dynasty who was born in the Year of the Sheep.

The Year of the Horse, an auspicious year in which to be born (Ahem!) has already seen a 30% increase in the birth rate compared to the same period last year. And that number could rise as mothers choose cesarean section to beat the February 19 deadline.

So, are people born in the Year of the Sheep doomed to misery? I certainly hope not. My youngest daughter was born in the last Year of the Sheep and she is certainly one of the kindest and most adorable people I know.

Emperor Taizong, born in 559 during the Tang Dynasty, was also a Sheep and is commonly considered one of the greatest emperors in Chinese history. And Mo Yan, China’s first Nobel laureate in literature was also born in the Year of the Sheep.

Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Yo-Yo Ma were all born in the Year of the Sheep. As were Mick Jagger, Robert De Niro, and Christopher Walken.

But, sadly, so were Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, and John Denver, all great artists who suffered tragic fates.

A recent article in China Daily further noted several world leaders who were born in the Year of the Sheep and face a difficult coming year.

Former Thailand Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra faces an impeachment trial later this month.

Former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev is gravely ill and fighting for his life.

Spain’s Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, as a result of Spain’s severe economic crisis, now governs the country with the largest income gap in the developed world.

Former Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf is barred from leaving the country while he awaits trial for high treason.

To the deductively minded Westerner such superstitions often seem to be all a bit silly and certainly not scientific. You’ll have to decide for yourself what you believe.

There is virtual consensus across China, however, that the birth rate will drop in China in this Year of the Sheep. According to an article in China Daily a May survey by people.com.cn found that 52% of the 2,000 people surveyed knew couples who would avoid having a child in the Year of the Sheep. And a random sampling of expectant mothers in East China’s Shangdong province found that 18 out of 25 will choose cesarean section if their children don’t arrive naturally before the new year begins.

Actually, it might be smart to take a tip from my older daughter, a clever and equally adorable young lady who chose to learn the oboe because she reasoned that there would be less competition to get into the school orchestra.  In China everyone wants to play the violin.

Fewer births will mean less crowding at the hospital, less competition to get into the best schools, and fewer applicants competing for the best jobs.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, the Year of the Monkey begins February 8, 2016. (To be precise, it will be the Year of the Fire Monkey. (See my post http://www.glassmakerinchina.com/englasia-a-k-a-hong-kong/ for further explanation.) Monkeys are considered smart, quick-witted, optimistic, and ambitious, best suited for careers in accounting, banking, science, and film-directing.

Sir Isaac Newton was born in the Year of the Monkey.

As was Ian Fleming.

Go figure.

It will be with some sadness that I leave the Year of the Horse behind.  It was this year that I completed one complete life cycle by the Chinese calendar.  Overall, it was a pretty good year.
It will be with some sadness that I leave the Year of the Horse behind. It was this year that I completed one complete life cycle by the Chinese calendar. Overall, it was a pretty good year.

Note: The author also writes novels under the pen name of Avam Hale. You can find them in the Amazon Kindle store and they can be read on any mobile device loaded with the free Kindle App, available for all operating systems

Copyright © 2015 Glassmaker in China

Notice:  The views expressed in this post are strictly those of the writer acting in a personal capacity.  They are not in any way endorsed or sanctioned by his employer or any other individual with which he may be personally or professionally affiliated.