My wife is a pig and my daughter is a dog.
Furthermore, my sister is a dragon.
Now, I know what it looks like. This can only mean one of two things, right?
1. I am not happy with my current living circumstances and want to ensure rapid change.
2. I am perfectly happy with my current circumstances and have gone completely mad.
Perhaps something went radically wrong over the holidays? Perhaps I’m lashing out after another “dad-sized” mini-haul of Christmas presents last month? (I’m not … but seriously, what’s with that? Supply the sperm and lose the presents? When did that come in? Fathers of the world unite, I say. Fill your pockets with the one or two things you were rationed for Christmas and let’s all get together and … and … feebly resign ourselves to our lot).
In fact, there’s a third possibility. Sometimes living in China does have its upsides. For here, and especially now, I can talk like this and get away with it, because …
This comes around just after western new year. The Chinese go by the moon, or the lack of it. Legend has it that long ago, at the start of this particular moon cycle, the people were visited, and eaten by, a horrible monster. It’s name was Nian, which is now the Mandarin word for year. Back then, people presumably only knew it was a new year because of the appearance of this hauntingly punctual, famished monster. But now we have science, and the new year is calculated according to the moon. When all is dark, at the start of the second new moon cycle after the winter solstice, this is Chinese New Year.
It is only then that we can truly know one thing: We are allowed to start letting off fireworks – for the whole 15 days of the spring festival period, which ends when the moon is full.
The moon, going through its final warm-up
for Chinese New Year, yesterday.
Also, much like with western New Year and all those resolutions of self-improvement, we start examining what form of lower-level beast we are.
The Chinese rotate 12 animals through the years. Next Monday, New Year’s Day, the bunny will hand over to the dragon for its 12-month reign, much like in the Miss World pageant. What a transition – from what is surely the lamest of the dozen to the most mighty and auspicious. (Sorry, rabbits, but what images are evoked when you boast about your Chinese zodiac animal? I mean apart from the “has lots of sex” bit?)
Everyone born in a particular year is automatically designated as one of those animals. You don’t say “I was born in the year of …”. You say “I am a …” And this explains how I can happily, a bit too happily if you ask her, call my wife a pig, right in front of her and without then having to duck. A westerner of Chinese ethnicity, she likes to laud her people for inventing the “big four” – paper, gunpowder, the compass and the pop-up toaster. So she can’t just pick the good bits and complain that she’s a sow.
Trouble is, everyone born in this roughly 12-month period is said, under the Chinese system, to possess the same characteristics. It sounds ridiculous, since it is applied to such a broad sweep of people. But is it any more ridiculous, I ask you, than a western system which credits everyone born in a certain month-long period with similar personalities?
Well, yes it is actually. But only slightly.
Pigs - that is anyone born in 1971, 1983, 1995 et cetera – are said (by this website I’ve found) to be nice, good mannered, tasteful perfectionists. Of course if you look these things up, you’ll find the same broad array of standard traits that western horoscopes and TV clairvoyants dish out. Good/bad with money, outgoing/introverted, etc.
Pigs of this sort, the so-called "double-snouted pig", are
said to be extremely auspicious.
Sometimes the odd long bow is drawn. “The snake relies on its gut feelings”. At other times it seems more literal: “Rabbits are very sexual”. Well duh.
Then there’s the only animal that’s not really an animal – the dragon, which comes this year. This means my sister must be 48, because I don’t think she’s 60, and I’m damn sure she’s not 36. Dragons are said to be “energetic, warm-hearted, charismatic and lucky at love”. But I’ll bet my sister has met someone her age who’s lazy, cold, dull and keeps getting dumped.
If you want even more detail, each animal designation can be broken down further, as the five elements – metal, water, wood, fire and earth – are applied, also in rotation. If you were born in 1927 or 1987, for example, you’re not just a rabbit but a Fire Rabbit. Or if you came about in 1941 or 2001 then your designation is Metal Snake, which I’m sure was a band in the ‘80s.
Which reminds me, as with most things Chinese, there’s a bit of confusion here. In English, noone born in the year of woolly, cloven hoofed things seems sure if they’re a goat, sheep or ram. That’s because the Chinese use one word for all three, yang. So if you don’t like to call yourself a goat, you can swing a little.
Also, noone’s sure what Chinese year we’re up to. That oft-quoted “5000 years of civilisation”? It’s a rounded-up figure tracing back to the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, who in terms of starting time is the Chinese Jesus. But some scholars reckon this is the year 4710, some say 4709, and still others say 4649. Then if you go to Taiwan, officially it’s the year 101 (since republicanism replaced Chinese imperial rule in 1912). It’s also 101 in North Korea, but for a completely different reason – because Kim Il-sung was born in 1912.
Huang Di - the man who kicked it all off. Said to
have started Chinese civilisation and to have
invented music and the arts. Of course, like pictures
of his rival Jesus, this likeness is imagined. And just
to confuse the issue further, he may or may not
have existed. The jury's still out and won't be
I happen to be a horse, which I’m quite pleased with. It sounds more imposing than a rabbit, sharper than an ox and more popular than a rat. Plus I love horses, which is to say, betting on them.
And, to quote a great song from the ‘70s, my name means horse. My adopted Chinese surname, approximated from my real one of Marshallsea, is Ma, the word for horse.
“Hi, I’m Trevor Horse,” sounds a bit funny in English, as would David Wombat or Brian Giraffe. But “Mister Ma” in Chinese sounds OK.
The problem is that when this horse swept his pig off her feet, her mother started shrieking that I was “an iron war horse” and should be avoided at all costs. That was 16 years ago, and I’d say it’s created an impression in my mother-in-law’s eyes that’s been hard to overturn. After all, what’s 16 years compared to 4710, or 4649?
Today, in the course of my research, I have discovered I am not a metal horse at all (1930 and 1990). This isn’t quite akin to having just been told I was adopted, but it has come as something of an identity shock, just when I thought I knew me.
In fact, I’m a fire horse (1966). This doesn’t sound much better, no less confrontational. But in any case I’m going to call my mother-in-law, who, by the way, is a snake.
Slightly unrelated ... my daughter Evie, the dog,
handing me the world's smallest Christmas present.
It's a home-made paper star measuring 20 millimetres
across. I'm not bitter or anything.
This is it - that's all. After consulting the teachings of
Tiger Mother Amy Chua, I informed Evie that she had
"spoiled Christmas for everyone for ever more".