Chinese New Year 2009: Year of the Ox

[published January 26, 2009]


Year of the Ox:

Ox: You are a born leader, and you inspire confidence in those around you. You speak little, but are quite eloquent.  You are steadfast, solid, hard-working, goal-oriented, mentally and physically alert and generally easy-going, but remarkably stubborn. Be careful about being too demanding. You are also methodical and good with your hands. You will make a good surgeon, general or hairdresser.

— ancient Chinese Fortune Cookie

Actually they don’t have Chinese fortune cookies in China. Fortune cookies are an American thing.  Although the Chinese did hide secret messages in Moon Cakes way back in the 14th century, the closest cookie you’ll find to the modern incarnation date from 1800’s Japan.

Makin' fortune cookies, Japan, 1878
Makin' fortune cookies, Japanese etching, 1878

The legend is that fortune cookies were brought to North America by Chinese laborers around the time of the 1849 Gold Rush, but there’s no evidence of this.

They were probably were introduced in the U.S. by a Japanese immigrant in San Francisco in the 1910’s. Another claim is that they were made by a Chinese restaurant owner in L.A. So the question isn’t are they Japanese or Chinese, but are they Northern Californian or Southern Californian?

Fortune cookies became a staple at Chinese restaurants in the U.S. after World War II.

Chinese Zodiac

The Chinese Lunar Calendar is one of the oldest calendars in the world, and probably the oldest known horoscope.

The Rat is the first year of the 12-year cycle. An ancient legend explains the order of the animals. The twelve animals of the zodiac quarreled with each over who would be first, and the gods were asked to decide. A race was held, in which the 12 animals of the zodiac had to cross a river.

Ox was the first across the river. Little did he know Rat had hitched a ride on his back, and Rat darted across the finish line when they reached the other side. For this reason Ox is second.

Perhaps because of Rat’s savvy, “Years of the Rat” always coincide with a U.S. Presidential election. Since 1900, “Year of the Rat” elections have re-elected the sitting President, with the exceptions of 1912 (Wilson), 1960 (Kennedy), and 2008 (Obama).

Today marks the beginning of the year of the Ox.

Barack Obama is one of two “Oxes” to be elected President. [Gerald Ford and Chester Arthur were also “Oxes” but took over for resigning and assassinated Presidents.] The other was Warren G. Harding, who died in office, and whom until recently, many historians considered to be the country’s worst President.

15 Presidents (5 each) have been Rats (including George Washington), Snakes (FDR & JFK),  and Pigs (Jefferson, Jackson, Reagan).

Rats, Snakes, Pigs & other Presidents by Chinese Zodiac

“The ancient Chinese attributed the origin of all life to the balance between heaven and Earth, and the yin and the yang.”

Shelly Wu, Chinese Astrology

Chinese New Year is one of the most widely celebrated holidays in the world.

Chongyang – China’s Double 9th

As the days grow shorter and colder, the Chinese celebrate Chongyang, an old festival honoring ancient people. Wait, no—an ancient festival honoring old people.

Chongyang is also known as Double Ninth. As the highest odd single number, 9 is considered especially lucky in Chinese culture. Chongyang falls on the 9th day of the 9th month of the Chinese calendar.

The tradition is so old that no one really knows how it began.

One story of the festival’s origin tells of a boy named Heng (or Huan) Jing who studied under a Taoist teacher. The old man warned Heng Jing how to avoid the plague that was killing the villagers of the Ruhe River region. He told the boy the devil would rise up from the water on the 9th day of the 9th month. He instructed Heng Jing to tell his townspeople to pin Cornus leaves (or tie Dogwood twigs) to their clothes, soak chrysanthemums in liquor, and climb up a nearby mountain.

Now, these days a student like Heng would do the socially responsible thing and commit his master to a hospital for the mentally unstable, but Heng Jing did as he was told. Sure enough, on the 9th day of the 9th month the devil rose from the waters. But as the devil pursued Heng Jing and his people up the mountain, the overpowering scent of the Cornus and chrysanthemum made the devil dizzy, and he fell back into the water.

Ever since, the Chinese have celebrated Double Ninth by drinking chrysanthemum wine and pinning Cornus leaves to their clothes.

One of the most popular activities of Chongyang is “Deng Gao”, which means going to a high place. Chinese families and groups trek up to the hills or mountains with dogwood twigs. Those who can’t make the trip, eat cake instead. (Gao is a homonym for both ‘high’ and ‘cake’.)

Culturally, Chongyang is enjoyed as the last time of year people can hike the mountains and enjoy the great outdoors before the onset of winter. Chongyang has a special place in Taoism. In the philosophy of yin and yang, even numbers are associated with yin while odd numbers are associated with yang. The double of the highest odd single digit represents a benevolent combo of yin and yang. – the Chongyang Festival – Double Ninth – Chongyang: The Double Ninth Festival

Hungry Ghost Festival

August 14, 2011
August 30, 2012
August 20, 2013

No, not those kind of ghosts.

The period of Ghost Month–the seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar–comes to a climax on Zhong Yuan, the Hungry Ghost Festival, on the eve of the fifteenth day. During Ghost Month the gates of the afterworld open to allow the dead to walk the earth and seek food.

Families prepare meals for the departed on Zhong Yuan. Many say prayers and burn special incense. Also, it is said these ghosts can enact revenge on those who wronged them in life.

There is a superstition against doing all sorts of activities during Ghost Month, including swimming–kind of unfortunately, as the Olympic swimming events occur smack in the middle this year.

In China the festival bears some similarity to Qingming–Tombsweeping Day–except the Ghost Festival focuses solely on the departed of previous generations.

Other traditions include the placement of a chair and alter outdoors in a prominent location for priests. Dishes of peaches and special flour-made rice are placed underneath the alter and spread by the priest to the souls of the dead. Atop the alter are symbolic sacrifices, including food and cakes, meant to invoke the gods for better weather and healthy crops. Families also make and burn fake paper money in tribute to the dead.

Zhongyuan Festival