Ep. 001: Gong Hei Fat Choy!

Happy Chinese New Year!

James Baquet

Gong Hei Fat Choy! Xin Nian Kuai Le! In other words, Happy Chinese New Year! Today, we'll talk about this ginormous festival, including when it happens, and for how long; what the <bleep> all this has to do with temples; how to greet people; and, especially, where the <BLEEP> is everyone going?


Chinese Years (Wikipedia)

You know, one of the many weird things I experienced when I was a "foreigner"--that is, a non-Chinese person living in China--was that the New Year's holiday seemed to last for weeks!

We started greeting each other with "Happy New Year!" a few days after Christmas, and went on doing so well into January. Then pretty soon, it was time to start greeting people for the next new year--the Chinese one--which could happen anywhere from mid-January to mid-February.

What's up with that?


THE LUNISOLAR CALENDAR

A "Lunisolar" Eclipse (Wikipedia)

First, let's deal with some calendrics.

You'll often hear the traditional Chinese calendar called a "lunar calendar." That ain't strictly true. In a true lunar calendar, the New Year's date drifts all over the place. For example, in the Sunni Islamic calendar, New Year's Day was September 1st last year; August 20 this year; and will probably be August 10 in 2021. That is, it's eleven or twelve days earlier every year. In 1960, it was in June, and in 1940, in February!

But the Chinese calendar (like the Hebrew calendar, some Indian calendars, and many others) is what we call a "lunisolar calendar." This ties an essentially lunar calendar to solar cycles (years).

Chinese New Year--or as the Chinese themselves call it, "Spring Festival"--always happens between about two weeks before and two weeks after the start of February--basically, Groundhog's Day. (And that date, by the way, is the start of Spring, as the first of November--Halloween--is the start of winter.)

I used to ask my Chinese students, "How is the date of Spring Festival determined?" and most said brightly, "Look at the calendar!" But when asked how the calendar maker knew the date, they were usually stumped. (Quick: How is the date of Easter determined? See?)

So here's the answer: The New Year begins on the second new moon after the winter solstice. So it could be just over a month, or nearly two full months, after approximately December 21.

Now, in China, this is by far the biggest holiday of the year, MUCH bigger than Christmas is in the West. In fact, so many people go home for the holiday that it has been called "the largest annual human migration in the world"--over the 40 days surrounding the actual New Year's date, almost THREE BILLION passenger journeys are made!


BUT WHAT ABOUT THE TEMPLES, MISTER "TEMPLE GUY"?

Lantern Festival, Shenzhen, China 2007

You might be thinking, "James, you're supposed to be the Temple Guy. What the <BLEEP> does this have to do with temples?" Well, aside from the New Year, a number of other, more temple-y, events are celebrated. (Special days tend to constellate around the start of the year, which is what scholar Mircea Eliade called an example of "the myth of the eternal return.") All of these dates fall in the first month of the lunar--oops, lunisolar--calendar:

New Year's Day also marks the birth of Maitreya Bodhisattva, the "Laughing Buddha"; the sixth day is the birth of Dipankara, the "Lamplighter Buddha," who preceded the historical Buddha by eons; the eighth is Yan Luo Wang or Yama, King of Hell; the ninth is both the Jade Emperor, folk and Daoist king of heaven, and Shakra Devaraja, the Buddhist form of the Indian god Indra.

The fifteenth is a very special day, because it's the full moon that marks the end of the two-week Spring Festival. It's also the birthday of Zhang Daoling, a celestial Daoist master; Lady Linsui, a goddess of midwifery; and Pangu, held in folk traditions to be the creator of the world (which is composed of his body). It's popularly celebrated as the Lantern Festival.

I'll tell you more about some of these as we go along.

By the way, Gong Hei Fat Choy is NOT "Happy New Year" in Chinese. It IS a New Year's greeting, though, something like wishing you happiness and prosperity. "Happy New Year" is Xin Nian Kuai Le! But both greetings are commonly used (the former pronounced in Mandarin gong xi fa cai, phonetically "gong shee fah tsai").


THE YEAR OF THE RAT (or mouse)

One more thing: the new year which started last Saturday (January 25, 2020) is the Year of the Rat (often translated "Mouse" in Japan, because Japanese stuff is, you know, cuter), one of the twelve symbols of the Chinese zodiac, which we'll also talk about another time.

Buzz and Shoozy

Twelve years ago, some friends and I got together to start a website about our city, called "Shenzhen Buzz." As 2008 was also the Year of the Rat (it's a twelve-year cycle, right?), one of our cleverer friends--Martin Juaristi--created a series of cartoons featuring "Shoozy" (from Mandarin shuzi, "rat boy"), the sidekick of our mascot, "Buzz." You can see more of Martin's work on his Instagram account.

Well, this one ran a little long, but there's SO MUCH MORE to say about New Year's traditions in China: the color red, firecrackers, lion dances, red banners and small orange trees by front doors, special foods--I guess it'll all have to wait for NEXT New Year's!

Here's wishing peace, prosperity, health, and happiness for you, your loved ones, and all sentient beings in this new year.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Take a brisk walk through a Chinese Buddhist temple!