Musing on the new lunar year

The Year of the Horse, according to the Chinese lunar calendar, galloped out less than two weeks ago, and our newborn “Year of the Sheep” (also Ram or Goat) is still mewling in its receiving blanket. While I have received nice surprises in the way of friends’ wishes for the Chinese New Year, I am dubious about what this year may bring for our Kauai community.

Last year I wrote how, with so many cultural celebrations, ceremonies and rituals that deserve to mark our rich cultural heritage, our citizens — and visitors — are enriched. With the positive attributes of 2014 horse energy trotted in, with confidence I penned, “You can be proud if Kauai can continue setting examples of good stewardship for the land, the aina, in the same way that the first people of the land here, the Hawaiians, respected their resources, shared channeled water, prevented over-fishing and other greedy ways through their wise environmental rules and practices, and ensured a quality of life for the generations yet unborn. Together, with grace, harmony, tolerance — and good sense — we may continue this.”

Now, in this lunar year 4713, with increased population and tourism on our jammed roads, unaffordable housing, and 2,000 cows (not sheep or goats) on the horizon, I am not so confident about our setting good examples of stewardship for the land.

This remains to be seen. A great amount has been written about the proposed Mahaulepu dairy plan, pro and con, and our citizens now wait to see if the plan was already a “done deal” or if their input on the Environmental Impact Statement has any bearing on state health department decisions. With public input officially finalized on this matter, we wait to see.

But let’s get back to Gong Hee Fat Choy, and the good wishes this greeting brings.

Chinese New Year, reckoned by the lunar calendar, is the longest and most important celebration in the Chinese calendar. Starting on the darkest day, festivities traditionally continue until the moon is brightest. In China, people may take weeks of holiday from work to prepare for and to celebrate the New Year.

When I first arrived on Kauai, The Garden Island featured an article on the coming of the Year of the Rat (following the Boar year).

I was interested in the Asian cultural practices still observed here in honor of the first Chinese immigrants, touching on casting fortunes, fireworks at New Year’s, dragon dances, lantern festivals and feasts. I realized this was part of the cultural diversity I loved about this place that I soon made my home.

As a girl, I had enjoyed a fortune-telling game called “Gong Hee Fat Choy,” received as a gift. Playing strictly as fun with my mother and sister quite often, I learned a good deal about the Chinese zodiac. In high school, researching a report on religions of the world, I read a legend about how, on Chinese New Year, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him.

A dozen showed, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal’s year would carry traits of that animal’s personality.

As a result, people born in sheep years of the 12-year cycle — thought to be the most creative sign in the Chinese zodiac — are often said to be sensitive and sweet, charming and artistic. They include those such as Michelangelo, Jane Austen, Mark Twain and Orville Wright. (Not Rudolph Valentino, Mel Gibson and a host of others.)

Why, then, did the LA Times article in January of this year headline, “Chinese couples in rush to avoid sheep-year babies” with the lead, “Those born under the zodiac sign are said to be meek and unsuccessful in life”? The idea was set forth that negative chatter about people born in the Year of the Sheep date to the early 1900s, when adversaries aiming to overthrow the Chinese Empress Dowager Cixi — a sheep baby — launched a smear campaign. A reverse guess is that Cixi herself cooked up the notion to encourage fear of her dark and fiery side, thus discouraging potential rivals.

You might say that this last fits with how, in ancient China, people lit bamboo stalks, believing that the crackling flames would frighten evil spirits. The color red symbolizes fire (and blood energy), which can drive away bad luck. Fireworks that shower the festivities are rooted in a similar ancient custom.

One nice thing about customs playing out in modern times is that you can pick and choose what you want to follow and believe.

All of us may consider these positive elements coming from New Year celebrations throughout the sheep year:

– tackle timidity, develop surety, follow (or become) the trusted guide

– court happiness, particularly in mid-life

– wear red clothes whenever energy peaks/the notion strikes

– decorate with poems (or prayers for our aina, our land and people)*

– give children (or people-in-need/non-profit organizations) “lucky money”*

– share feasts with family members and consider a family reunion

– dance and exercise with the passion of a dragon (sheep/ram/goat?)

– volunteer talents and time within our community; forge connections

– continue to think and live positively, with aloha … and pray!

*not necessarily on/in red paper/envelopes; your choice


Dawn Fraser Kawahara, author, poet and publisher, is a longtime supporter of the arts, a past president of the Garden Island Arts Council, board member of the YWCA, and current vice-president of Ka Imi Naauao o Hawaii Nei Institute. She is completing her second memoir, based on the Burma of pre- and post-World War II times. She continues as principal/owner of TropicBird Press and TropicBird Weddings & Celebrations-Kauai under DAWN Enterprises.


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