How does one describe a country like China? Facts and figures do not adequately measure the immensity of the world’s most populous nation, its third largest by size, and one of its most ancient. Grandiose statistics do not do China justice. China is perhaps best described as “China.” The name itself conjures images of the Great Wall, megapolises, Zodiac calendars and complicated characters, sumptuous cuisine, exotic scenery, manufacturing might, exquisite artisanship, and many more. From the Middle Kingdom to a People’s Republic, China is a dragon both awe-inspiring and fire-breathing that has reawakened from its slumber and is now stretching its wings to reassert itself in the world. Like the 21,196-kilometer (13,171 mile) Great Wall stretching from the Yellow Sea in the east to the far western interior, the breadth of this land is difficult for anyone to fathom. An ever-growing number of foreign tourists flock to popular destinations like Shanghai, Beijing, Xi’an, or Guilin to immerse themselves in the Far East – or so they think – but they have only begun to discover what is truly China. Few ever will, for this dynamic land is always on the move, heading into the future and out of reach of full comprehension.

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Celebrating New Year of the Dragon in China!

My wife Jing, son, and I spent the 2012 Chinese New Year with Jing’s family in Shanghai, China. It was a special New Year’s for us, not only because it ushered in the auspicious Year of the Dragon but also because it marked a first for our family—the first time we had been together with Jing’s family in China for the holiday. My wife had not spent New Year’s with her family in almost two decades, and it would be the first time my son and I joined them. The happy hearts and big smiles of my in-laws when we arrived January 21 foretold a joyous reunion.

We arrived in Shanghai the day before New Year’s Eve. We spent some time January 22 getting ready for the evening’s festivities, which promised to be the grandest of a week’s worth of New Year’s celebrations. We went shopping and bought fireworks and red and gold holiday decorations, including the “Come Luck” (fu) symbol, to enhance the festive atmosphere. The weather hovered below freezing in the urban confines of Shanghai, where concrete buildings with ceramic tile façades sucked any vestiges of heat from the air, but the holiday buzz warmed our souls.

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We spent New Year Eve’s with family at my in-law’s home. Her father, mother, sister, brother-in-law, and nephew joined us. When we arrived, my brother-in-law, Song, took us outside to blow off a string of firecrackers and light up some sparklers. My son and his cousin had a blast.

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My mother-in-law, Ma, prepared a cacophony of Chinese dishes that ranged from fish in sauce for Song to soy sauce meatballs for my son. The meal was delicious. My father-in-law, Ba, Song, and I offered toasts with shots of Maotai baijiu, a 120-proof Chinese liquor, and wished each other and our families health, wealth, and love. The others sipped Changyu, a Chinese brand of red wine.

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After dinner, the family moved over to the couches to watch the annual New Year’s variety show broadcast by China Central Television (CCTV). The glitzy show beloved by many Chinese featured over five hours of skits, songs, and other entertainment, a tried-and-true formula used for years. The quality of the production had undoubtedly improved and become more “hip” than it had been when my wife was young.

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An hour before midnight the fireworks started in earnest. We took a break from the TV show to give gifts of hong bao (red envelopes with money) to the children. The adults took turns sitting in chairs as my son and his cousin each bowed to us and politely asked for envelopes. My nephew recited a common Chinese New Year phrase, “恭禧發財, 紅包拿來?” (in pinyin, “gongxi fai cai, hong bao na lai”) roughly translated as “Wishing you a prosperous New Year. May I have my red envelope?” I enjoyed the ritual of the hong bao and thought that it trumped Christmas gift giving because the kids had to pay homage to their elders before getting their gifts (not to mention that it’s easier to give cash in an envelope than buy and wrap a gift).

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Just before midnight, Ba and Song ignited a long string of firecrackers outside the apartment that exploded with deafening pops, adding to the sound of the fireworks booming around us. Thankfully, they did not blow off the remaining packages of firecrackers until the fifth day of the Chinese New Year.

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At midnight, we looked out the bay window of my in-laws’ home and watched the most amazing fireworks display I’ve ever seen. Fireworks were exploding everywhere—on rooftops, out the windows of high-rise buildings, and on the ground in the streets and alleys between buildings—everywhere. It was a beautiful 360-degree, three-dimensional light show unlike any I’d seen in the West. We heard the sounds of pop, pop, pop in all directions! Considering that the Chinese invented gunpowder and fireworks, it’s understandable why they went over the top using pyrotechnics to ring in the New Year. The din of the fireworks died down around 12:30 in the morning. We finally left the in-laws at 1 a.m. and headed back to where we were staying, picking our way carefully in the streets to avoid being hit by stray fireworks.

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On New Year’s Day, after we had recuperated from the previous night’s festivities, we visited the Temple of the Town God (Chunghuamiao) to see the lighting of the lanterns that adorned the decorated floats in a pond near the temple. Dedicated to the protector spirits that guard the city, the temple itself lay in the middle of one of Shanghai’s most popular commercial districts. Thousands of visitors, mostly Chinese, had the same idea as we and converged on this popular area to take in the holiday atmosphere. The strings of lights, red lanterns with gold tassels, and traditional Chinese architecture at Chunghuamiao were simply spectacular, but the place was numbingly overcrowded. I had never seen so many people packed into one place — even considering that China had more than 1.2 billion people! The crowds put a damper on my mood.

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On January 24, we visited my wife’s childhood home in northeast Shanghai. This fell in line with the Chinese tradition that a married daughter—my wife—spend time with her family on the second day of the New Year. We arrived at the low-rise apartment, which still looked much the same as it did when my wife grew up there, and walked around. Jing and her sister reminisced about growing up there, showing us where they used to play and some of the fun things they liked to do as children.

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My young nephew and son weren’t so interested in the family history but enjoyed Yangpu Park, one of Shanghai’s larger parks located across the street from my wife’s former home. The boys had fun doing on some amusement rides and kiddie activities. Jing and her sister revisited a Chinese pavilion near a pond, a picturesque stone bridge, and other places in the park etched in their memories. I enjoyed watching couples ballroom dancing in the frigid cold.

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Spending time with family and friends is an important aspect of Chinese New Year and a major reason why we visited Shanghai during winter. We spent the third day of the New Year, January 25, with my wife’s uncle, Xiao Shushu, his wife, and relatives Erhong Jiujiu and his wife. We gathered around the table at my in-laws’ home for another delicious Chinese spread prepared by Ma and listened to the relatives talk about the past. They told touching stories of how difficult it had been for them in the old days. Life was better now.

On the fourth day of the New Year, January 26, we went with family to the self-proclaimed “Venice of Shanghai,” Zhujiajiao, a beautiful village not far from the city. Founded over 1,700 years ago, the village was a smorgasbord of traditional Chinese architecture, including a Buddhist temple and a Temple of the Town God, canals and waterways, stone arch bridges, and wooden oar-powered tour boats. Dragon boats sailed in the canals and red lanterns festooned the streets. While we enjoyed the festive atmosphere, the crowds were horrific. We thought we were going to be crushed in an alleyway but eventually wiggled our way out of town.

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Following our tour of Zhujiajiao, we met some cousins for a meal at the Xibei Oat Noodle Restaurant in Shanghai. Influenced by flavors from the Middle East brought to China via the Silk Road, the northeastern Chinese cuisine served was simply delectable. My brother-in-law noted that I enjoyed the roasted lamb, green salad, and pita bread more than the sweeter and seafood-laden Chinese cuisine preferred by Shanghainese.

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After dinner, we went to the cousins’ home, where we joined them for a traditional Chinese tea ceremony. The oolong and barley teas were soothing to the tongue and light on the stomach.

On the evening of the fifth day of the Chinese New Year, January 27, the fireworks started again in earnest as the residents of Shanghai welcomed the arrival of the god of wealth and success, Guan Yu. Some believed that making noise would attract his attention and bring them prosperity, so the fireworks continued unabated for the next 24 hours. I did not sleep well that night, tossing and turning as the noise makers rattled outside our window all night long.

We concluded our seventh and final day of the Chinese New Year shopping and spending time with family. My wife bought some nice New Year’s decorations for our home. In the evening, my brother-in-law took us for a family meal at a Korean restaurant that he thought would satisfy my western tastes. The Korean bulgogi, kimchi, and other dishes from the Land of the Morning Calm hit the spot. Jing’s family joined us for one more meal before we headed home.

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We returned to Bangkok on January 28 exhausted from a week’s worth of celebrating the Year of the Dragon. The intensity and excitement of the occasion was unforgettable. Through the family gatherings, traditions, foods, fireworks, and trappings of the season, I glimpsed the heart and soul of the Chinese people. The experience was so profound that I spent the next couple of weeks at home in peace and quiet contemplating what it all meant. I will never fully understand this cultural event, but it is now a part of me.

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This is the full version of an earlier article.


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Xin Nian Kuai Le!

Happy Chinese New Year!  It’s also Seol-nal, or Korean New Year.  Both holidays are based on the lunar calendar.  This year is the Year of the Dog in the Chinese Zodiac, the 7th year in the current 60-year cycle.  As a Dog, I’m happy that my year has come once again.  However, I am also reminded that I’m getting older and heading rapidly towards the realm of Tol, or the age of wisdom, as the Koreans politely call one’s 60th birthday.  You know you are old…err, wise, after you complete five Zodiac cycles.  Celebrations across China today were very festive, with the Chinese incinerating over $124 million in fireworks across the country (talk about money going up in smoke!).  Sales of dogs as pets noticeably increased in China with the advent of the Year of the Dog, with many people giving them away as new year’s gifts to families and friends.  Here in Korea, the celebrations seem to be a bit more muted than in China.  While families in both countries gather from far and wide to celebrate the new year, Chinese are much more apt to celebrate the occasion with noise makers.


I wondered what year it is this year according to the Chinese calendar.  After all, the year itself (e.g. 2006), plays an integral part in the Western (solar) New Year.  Most Asians cannot tell you what year it is according to the lunar calendar, and if they can, their answer tends to vary.  A quick online search announced that this year is 4637, 4697, 4703, and 4704 according to the Chinese calendar  Here’s an interesting explanation from Helmer Aslaksen, a Norwegian scholar who teaches at the National University of Singapore, as to why it’s impossible to accurately determine the correct year according to the Chinese calendar.

I get a lot of e-mail about the Chinese calendar. I once got an e-mail from a greeting cards company who needed to know which year 2000 would be in the Chinese calendar. The answer is that the Chinese do not have a continuous year count. They started counting from one again with each new emperor. However, some scholars tried to reconstruct ancient Chinese chronology by adding up years of reigns, much the same way some westerners in the past tried to reconstruct Biblical chronology. Some claim that the calendar was invented by the Yellow Emperor,Huángdì (黄帝)), in 2637 BCE in the 61st year of his reign. However, others prefer to start the count with the first year of his reign in 2697 BCE. Since these years are 60 years apart, it follows that 1984 was the first year of either the 78th or 79th 60-year cycle. Using this as a starting point, Chinese New Year in 2000 marks the beginning of the Chinese year 4637 or 4697. To give you an example of the level of confusion on this point, in Chapter 3 of Volume III of the translation of the Shoo King (Shūjīng, 书经) by James Legge, he refers to the current year, 1863, as being in the 76th cycle, implying a starting point of 2697 BCE. However, the book has an appendix on Chinese astronomy, written by John Chalmers, where the starting point is taken to be 2637 BCE! Chalmers actually writes 2636 BCE, but that really mean -2636, using the astronomical year count, where 1 BCE is year 0, 2 BCE is -1, etc. This is fairly typical of the level of confusion about the continuous year count in the Chinese calendar, and simply illustrates the fact that the continuous year count is not an integral part of the Chinese calendar, but rather an afterthought. While there isolated incidents of Chinese scholars who have used it, it only gained popularity with the Jesuit missionaries. Most of the people who use it are Westerners who refuse to believe that it is possible to have a “civilized” society without a linear, continuous year count. That’s why I told the greeting cards company to stick with calling it the year of the Dragon!

To add to the confusion, some authors use an epoch of 2698 BCE. I believe this because they want to use a year 0 as the starting point, rather than counting 2697 BCE as year 1, or that they assume that the Yellow Emperor started his year with the Winter solstice of 2698 BCE. In particular, this system was used by Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙, Sūn Yìxiān or 孫中山, Sūn Zhōngshān, 1866–1925). He and other political activists wanted to use a republican and “modern” year numbering system. This system actually won some acceptance in the overseas Chinese community, and is for example used occasionally in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (At least around the time of Chinese New Year!)

However, let me stress again that using an epoch is not the traditional way of counting years in Chinese history. The traditional way was to use emperor’s era name (年号 [年號], nían hào) together with the 60-year cycle. In the past, the emperor would often change his era name during his reign, but by the time of the Míng and Qíng dynasties, the emperors would use the same era name for their whole reign. This system worked well most of the time, but the Kāngxī Emperor (康熙) ruled more than 60 years. He ruled from February 7, 1661 to December 20, 1722. Since Chinese New Year fell on January 30 in 1661, the first year of his reign started on February 18, 1662, and the last year of his reign ended on February 4, 1723. Since both 1662 and 1722 are rényín years, the term Kāngxī rényín (康熙壬寅) is ambiguous. However, this is the only such problem in Chinese history. His grandson, the Qiánlóng Emperor (乾隆) ruled from October 18, 1735, to February 8, 1796. The first year of his rule started on February 12, 1736, but he chose to retire on February 8, 1796, as a filial act in order not to reign longer than his grandfather, the illustrious Kāngxī Emperor. Despite his retirement, however, he retained ultimate power until his death in 1799.

It is well known that the 60-year cycle was introduced during the Hàn Dynasty, so it came as something of a surprise when scholars realized that the 60-day cycle had been in use in the Shāng Dynasty (商朝, 1600–1046 BCE). This shows that the two systems are independent, and there is no point looking for an ancient origin with a (,) day in a (,) month in a (,) year in either 2637 BCE or 2697 BCE. I should also point out, that while Chinese chronology is fairly reliable going back to 841 BCE, and oracle bones with date inscription go back to the 13th century BCE, modern scholars consider the Yellow Emperor to be a mythological figure. So this whole discussion of ancient dates is just a curiosity.

This concept sounds so foreign to a western thinker.  How can one call it a new year and not know what year it is?  This shows yet again how basic ideas can be challenged or seen in a very different light depending on one’s cultural orientation.  Asians might ask, Why is it important to know what year it is?  A Westerner might answer, Well, because it’s the way we do it.  There is a simple explanation as to why the year is not important in the Chinese (or Korean) calendar, when it’s central to the Western calendar.  The Chinese calendar is lunar, and the beginning and ending of lunar cycles are fixed.  The number of days in a Chinese year varies from year to year, but the number of full moons and lunar cycles per year is fixed.  The Western calendar is a solar calendar based on the number of days.  Hence, years are calculated by the number of days, and a fixed year can be determined.  Although the number of lunar cycles in the Chinese calendar is fixed, the number of days is variable, making it difficult to determine the correct number of days according to the lunar calendar.

Still, it should be possible for scholars to determine the number of lunar cycles in the Chinese calendar and determine which lunar cycle we are currently celebrating.  Are we celebrating the 78th or 79th lunar cycle?  We don’t really know.  It depends on when the first lunar cycle began.  It seems most logical to me that that would be at the start of the reign of the Yellow Emperor, China’s first emperor, in 2697 B.C.  That would indicate that we are in the midst of the 79th lunar cycle.  That would indicate that this year is year 4704 according to the solar calendar.  Because there are other variables involved, it’s an exercise in futility to precisely determine a date.  Nevertheless, as a westerner, it’s nice to know what year we’re celebrating!  An Asian would answer, It’s the Year of the Dog, of course!  Quit worrying about the date.


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