I am a pig. In the colloquial sense but also according to the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese assign a different animal to each year in a cycle that runs for 12 years. Starting 5 February 2019, it’ll be the Year of the Pig. That sounds like a long way off but in China, new year’s preparations are already in full throttle.
First, there’s the business of travel. For decades, young Chinese have been leaving their villages in search of work in the cities. The World Bank estimates that, from 1960 to 2017, the Chinese rural population dropped from 84% to 42%. So for many Chinese, the New Year means boarding a train, plane or boat or getting into a car or motor scooter for the long trek home. In fact, this year is forecast to be the largest human migration ever.
And who are all these Chinese going to visit? That would be the roughly 50 million senior citizens and 100 million children under the age of 14 living in the countryside. They are the parents and children of all those urban Chinese who, in turn, will come bearing gifts. Every year, around this time, there’s a wave of movies, videos, and advertisements aimed at plucking the heartstrings and loosening the pocketbooks of Chinese on their way home for the holidays.
The trailer for Peppa Pig is one such work. It was intended by its makers to be a heartwarming tale of a grandfather who wants to give his grandson a gift. The kid asks for Peppa Pig but Grandpa, out in the sticks, has no idea what he means. The trailer has gone viral, not as an instance of warm and fuzzy feelings, but as a flashpoint for social injustice in China. The divide between rural and urban, the one-child policy, and an erosion of China’s famed family values.
While the younger generation is on the road, the older generation is hard at work. There’s a week long period of preparation that starts on the Little Year (小年 xiǎo nián). 28 January is when you clean the house and pray to the Kitchen God.
Every Chinese family has their own Kitchen God. On Little Year, the Kitchen God reports to the Jade Emperor on whether you’ve been naughty or nice and will punish you accordingly. That prayer often includes a jar of malt candy to sweeten the Kitchen God’s mouth or maybe stick his teeth together so he can’t say anything bad.
Finally, there are the preparations for the celebrations themselves. Food and drink, firecrackers galore and, of course, the lion dance. Here’s a video of some lion dancers without their lion.
On New Year’s Eve, the family assembles for dinner and children receive their little red envelopes. At midnight, the firecrackers go off to scare away the demons for another year.
On New Year’s Day, you can’t sweep, use knives or scissors or take a shower lest you dispel your good luck. Don’t curse or use words like death or illness. It’s bad luck to take medicine on the new year or to offer new year’s wishes to someone who’s ill in bed.
Some will say that the ban on knives is intended to give women a well-earned day off. Hence, the tradition of eating jiaozi on New Year’s Day. In my house, however, that Northern custom never caught on. Instead, we would eat hot pot, a sort of Chinese fondue where you cook your meat, vegetables and seafood in a communal pot of simmering broth.
Both my grandmothers used to hang the character fú (福) upside down on their front door. Fú means happiness or fortune, while the Chinese character for upside down also sounds like the word for here. By hanging your fú upside down, you’re saying that happiness resides here.
Of all the superstitions and taboos around New Year’s Day, my favorite is: don’t visit the wife’s family. In China, a bride relinquishes her own family in order to become a member of her husband’s. Her mother becomes wàipó (外婆), the outside grandmother. So a husband who visits his mother-in-law on New Year’s Day is just asking for trouble. This tells you all you need to know about Chinese attitudes toward marriage.
Each new year is associated with a different animal in the Chinese zodiac. According to legend, the Jade Emperor organized a race for all the animals. The first 12 to cross the finish line would win a spot in the zodiac. The rat won, of course, through a combination of speed and guile. The pig came in last.
Some say that the pig was too lazy to run any faster. Others contend that the pig was delayed because a wolf had destroyed his house and the pig decided to rebuild it before participating in the race. Both traits sound familiar to me. You see, being born in the year of the pig means that I have certain porcine qualities.
Pigs are diligent, compassionate, and generous. They have great concentration: once they set a goal, they will devote all their energy to achieving it. Though Pigs rarely seek help from others, they will not refuse to give others a hand. Pigs never suspect trickery, so they are easily fooled.Year of the Pig 2019, Pig Personality and Fortune, China Highlights, accessed 27 Jan 2019
My father is a pig and so is my BFF. You can recognize us by our chubby faces and big ears. You would think that, in a Year of the Pig, we pigs would have it good. But the Chinese believe that a birth sign year (běnmìngnián 本命年) is a particularly unlucky one as it stirs the jealousy of the God of Age, Tai Sui. He’s the one who snatches babies during their most vulnerable period, the first 100 days after birth. And he’ll send demons to plague you during your year of rebirth. What’s a pig to do?
Apparently, red underwear is the trick. But only if my family, friend or significant other buys it for me and I wear it every day. I can also keep a piece of jade on my body: a pendant, bangle or ring. And I should try to keep my back to the God of Age. In my case, as an earth pig, that means facing southeast.
September 12 through December 2 will be the most dangerous time of the year for me. I shouldn’t get married (ok by me) or change jobs (also no sweat). In fact, I shouldn’t change anything about my life. Just stay at home and keep my head down.
Unfortunately, this is the period when we’ll be on our round-the-world trip. It’s a good thing we’re heading southeast! But am I otherwise tempting the gods? Maybe not. 2019 is supposed to be a good year for me to familiarize myself with my own oversights and improve on them. I should visit temples to pray for my own safety and invest in my education.
Perfect. Happy New Year of the Pig!