Celebrating Chinese New Year

It is the time for great story-telling

CHINESE New Year is a time for family and friends. The Astrologers say the Year of the Horse is supposed to be a sign of activity and surely there will be prosperity for many.

The Chinese zodiac consists of a 12-year cycle with one animal for each year: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The CLSA annual tongue-in-cheek Feng Shui Index forecasts that the coming Year of the Wood Horse will be “pure bull from teeth to tail”, with the Hong Kong Hang Seng Index hitting 28,105, compared with the current level of 21,800.

Chinese New Year is basically all about family time, with elders using the occasion to tell stories to the children, with the most popular being those from the Romance of the Three Kingdoms and the Journey to the West. Story telling today is a lost art because children are more entertained by cartoon and movie versions of these stories.

The Journey to the West is one of the most popular classics written in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) about the pilgrimage to India of a Chinese monk, Tang Xuanzang (602-664 AD), during the Tang Dynasty (608-907) to learn Buddhism, returning with Buddhist scripts and converting much of China to Buddhism. The novel comprises 100 chapters, which suggests that it is a compilation of episodes told by storytellers who would dramatise the stories with poetry, prose and historical allusions just to create greater appeal to their audience.

The whole journey is shrouded in myth and fantasies, because Xuanzang was accompanied by four disciples, assigned by the diety Guan Yin to protect him during the pilgrimage. The first is the monkey king, Sun Wukong, a clever rascal prone to excesses, against which Guan Yin had to put on him a golden headband, with which Tang could control the monkey if it gets out of hand.

The second disciple is an unfilial dragon transformed into a white horse to serve Tang to atone for the sins of its past life. The third disciple is the greedy pig Zhu Bajie, who is a good fighter, to protect the pilgrims, but spends a lot of time distracted by food and sex. Last is the stalwart Sha Wujing, a sand spirit who is the more serious defender of the monk when Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are fooling around elsewhere.

Journey to the West is highly comical, funny and fantastical, enjoyed by children and adults alike. It has been translated into many languages, the most popular in English being the translation by Arthur Waley called Monkey. In his foreword to that translation, the Chinese philosopher Hu Shih claimed it was a book of “profound nonsense”.

Is it such a simple fantasy tale?

I always thought that Journey to the West is a profound, deep allegorical text on the contradictions within the Chinese character, as it melds three key philosophies in China – Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism.

The appeal of the book lies in the contrast between the monk as a straight, gentle human being, whereas his fantastic and crooked disciples bring out the comic, tragic, sins, virtues, crimes and good deeds – all tests, trials and tribulations that a person seeking enlightenment has to go through.

Life is a journey, with a beginning, middle and an end. But Buddhism and Indian philosophy shares with Taoism and the Book of Change (the earliest Chinese philosophy) the idea of a karmic cycle, that we transcend from one life to another – in other words, an unending journey.

The book begins not with the monk’s journey, but the birth of the monkey, aptly named Wukong, meaning an awakening or enlightenment to the emptiness of mind, when one realises the meaning or meaninglessness of human desire.

At the beginning, the monkey is wild, combative and destructive, wreaking havoc in heaven, but in the end, he realises that he cannot escape Buddha’s hand – the all-reaching compassion of enlightenment and one’s fate.

Like all good stories with good endings, the book ends with Xuanzang and the monkey attaining Buddha status, as well as rewards and recognition for the other pilgrims.

Various experts have pointed out the deep meaning and numerology in various parts of the book. Xuanzang or sometimes called Sanzang (Tripitaka) means the three collections of Buddhist sacred texts that he brought back from India. Zhu Bajie means Eight Sins or forbidden things. Three and Eight are good numbers for Chinese.

In advance of the Third Plenum last October, the Development Research Centre of the Chinese State Council gave an introduction to the reform intentions through what is popularly known as the “383 plan”.

The plan is called 383, because it highlights the key relationships between the state, market and enterprises. There are eight key areas of reform: governance, competition policy, land, finance, public finance, state assets, innovation, and liberalisation of international trade and finance. Finally, there are three correlated goals: reducing external imbalances, building social inclusiveness, and improving governance through tackling inefficiency and corruption.

I wonder whether it is a coincidence that the 383 plan seems like China’s new Journey to the West. If it is anything like the classic, the new journey will be full of drama, twists and turns and never boring.

The Year of the Horse is half-way through the 12-year cycle, marking the beginning of the second half. The first half began with the Year of the Rat (2008), a year of crisis in the West, but one of the fastest growth period for China and indeed many emerging markets, partly the result of quantitative easing in the West.

Will the next six years involve a period of slower growth, less tumultuous and perhaps more stable?

Only time will tell.

The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Every day, every year begins anew with the first step. Gong Xi Fa Cai to all who celebrate Chinese New Year.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng is president of the Fung Global Institute.

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Business , Sheng , CNY , folklore


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