Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Drawer #1.4: Chinese Zodiac Animals

Even though Chinese New Year isn't until Feb 10th, the Year of the Black Snake begins today. It's a mystery how that works but that's par for the course.

We arrived in Shanghai in the year of the Monkey but the whole Chinese "zodiac" thing, the Shengxiao, (生肖)didn't really get on my radar until the following New Years's, when my Chinese teacher gave me  a set of postcards with papercuts for the Year of  the Rooster.

The next year was the year of my animal, the Dog. You might think, like I did, that the year your animal rules, you'd rule too. Not so. In fact, that's the year when things are most likely go askew for you & dangers lurk. I learned this the hard way: when the ladder to our top floor slipped out from under me, leaving me dazed for the next 4 months, everyone said knowingly, "oh, it's because you're a Dog." Only then did I learn that I should have been wearing protection. As in: red underwear.

I'm not making this up, people: by this time next week I'll now exactly which of my neighbors is a Snake by what's on their clothesline. No secrets here in the lane.

By the time the Year of the Pig rolled in, I was firmly sucked into the Chinese New Year kitsch market.

And when He-Whom-I'm Trailing's animal, the Rat took over the following year, we were fully armed & prepared: a drawer full of red underwear emblazoned with giant gold good fortune characters & a neck amulet bought in Hong Kong by the mother of a friend who knows about these things. A cow charm on a red string: all the decoy needed for spirits to go looking elsewhere to ruin a Rat's day. (Zig-zag bridges, foot high door jams, decoy charms... it's good to know that one's demons are so easily out smarted, says He-Whom-I'm-Trailing. One can imagine them all slamming themselves around like a bunch of Wile E. Coyotes.)

Next up was the Ox, carrying a sack of wealth, inscribed with the Fu of good fortune.

Fu is everywhere this time of year, often up-side down. That way, when you spot it  & say, in Chinese, "Fu is upside down" you are also saying "Good Fortune has arrived" as upside-down and arrived sound exactly alike in Mandarin. Which might also explain why I'm always a little turned around round here....

And so the twelve year cycle continues, each Animal ruling in the order in which it won the mythic Great Race: Rat, that cheater, conning the Cat out of participating & hitching a ride on the unsuspecting Ox, diving in to race to shore in the final stretch; Dog distracted, despite being a great swimmer, coming in almost dead last... (See The Rematch staged amuzingly last year in Zhujiajiao by American artist Duke Riley for SmART Power.) The years go by: Tiger, then Rabbit, then Dragon & now Snake.

We came to China thinking we'd be here two, maybe three years.... it's nine now. I'm saying that I'm not staying into the next cycle. I'm getting out before it's Monkey's turn again...but the Animals might have other plans...

Drawer 1.4 : Collection of  Chinese Zodiac Animals (Photo: Bruno David)

An update from writer & historian Lynn Pan, whose wonderful books about Shanghai (the especially popular Old Shanghai: Gangsters in Paradise) and the experiences of Overseas Chinese (Tracing it Home: Journeys Around a Chinese Family) can be bought here.

Writes Lynn in an email: If it's your benmingnian 本命年 take very good care. I'm not a believer in apotropaic magic but wearing red underwear isn't to take things too far!

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