Monday, 11 February 2013

snakes alive

The best way to see in the Chinese new year is with firecrackers and a lion dance, although I suspect that the firecrackers were slightly damp this year. They exploded with all their usual ferocity, but the heap of shattered cardboard smouldered for quite some time after the final explosion, which is not what is meant to happen.

Don’t ask me to explain the alleged personal characteristics of people born in the year of the snake, because I don’t believe any of it. For me, the more interesting question is why the Chinese, with thousands of animals to choose from, elected to include the snake in their twelve-animal zodiac. Very few people like snakes, which are listed as one of the ‘five noxious creatures’ of Chinese folklore (the others are centipedes, lizards, scorpions and toads).

One has to wonder at the composition of this list. The vast majority of lizards are completely harmless (a family of gheckos lives behind our fridge), and none of Hong Kong’s three toad species is toxic; ugly, yes, but not toxic. Spiders are notable absentees from the list. There are no venomous spiders in Hong Kong, but there are some large and scary ones, so their absence isn’t easy to explain.

We in the West are accustomed to thinking of the Chinese menagerie as occurring over a twelve-year cycle, but the actual cycle is 60 years, because each of the twelve animals is also associated with one of the five elements of Chinese cosmology: earth, fire, water, wood or metal. Three of these coincide with three of the four elements identified by the ancient Greeks. It is interesting to note the absence of air in the Chinese system; the reason for this omission can only be guessed at.

Meanwhile, welcome to the year of the water snake. Here are some photos from our own ceremony to usher in the new year: two photos of the firecrackers going off, and two photos of the ‘lion’ standing in the smouldering debris from the firecrackers.




10 comments:

  1. I must make an effort to go to chinatown in London to experience the Chinese New Year one day, as it's suppose to be spectacular, full of colour and animated dance.The first photo of the lion has a weird resemblance to something real, in a strange way.

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    1. If you think “the lion has a weird resemblance to something real” Rum, just wait until you see a good pair of lion dancers in action. I never went to Chinatown either when I lived in London.

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  2. That was an interesting account of the 'Year of the Snake'. The last two photographs are fascinating. Recently, I thought Sorghum was also one of the elements in Chinese culture while reading 'The Red Sorghum' by Mo Yan.

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    1. Sorghum is certainly an important crop in China, but not an element I’m afraid.

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  3. Great stuff Dennis.
    It interesting that little crossover between the Greeks & Chinese.
    Have admired the acrobatics of those lion dancers in the past too, after attending some festivals here in Aus.
    Cheers, ic

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    1. Thanks Ian. You’ve probably seen the professionals, but our local troupe do a pretty fine job.

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  4. Dennis, Chinese New Year was always a big event in NYC, and I attended quite a few. But somehow it all seems more authentic where you are.

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    1. Chinese New Year celebrations in Chinese communities in the West always have a melancholy air for me Marty. It’s part of what it means to be exiled from your homeland.

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  5. I love the rich, vibrant colors in the last two photos. I've never been to a Chinese New Year celebration, but always enjoy the sights, sounds, and smells of Chinatown, especially on the West Coast.

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    1. If you’re referring to the debris from firecrackers with your comment about “the rich, vibrant colors” Kris, then it probably wasn’t intentional, because firecrackers are usually a dull, washed-out red, but then they don’t usually smoulder afterwards either. Lion costumes are always garish.

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