Monday, February 1, 2016

Chinese New Year 2016

February 8 starts the Chinese New Year which corresponds to the lunisolar calendar. The holiday is also called the Spring Festival and is celebrated by Chinese communities around the world. Festivities around this time are driven by a desire for prosperity and good will. For instance, houses are cleaned in hopes of expelling bad luck and making way for good luck. Debts are paid. Grudges are forgotten. Encouraging messages (such as which means good fortune) are hung up everywhere. Gifts are given. On New Year's Eve, it is customary for families to reunite and enjoy dinner together.

As the new year begins, firecrackers and fireworks are set off in multitude to cast out evil spirits and celebrate a fresh start. On this day (the first of fifteen) dragon and lion dances are performed. Elders are visited by their descendants. Gifts of money are given to younger family members. People try to get as much good luck as possible.

Further festivities can be enjoyed for the next two weeks, including several birthdays. A couple examples are the God of Wealth's birthday on the second day (Feb. 9) and the “common man's birthday” on the seventh day (Feb. 14). On the fifteenth day (Feb. 22) the new year's celebration is concluded with the Lantern Festival. For this last day of the Spring Festival, candles are lit and lanterns are paraded through the streets.

2016 is the year of the monkey. More specifically it is the yang fire monkey. In Chinese astrological beliefs, birth years follow cycles. The twelve-year zodiac cycle goes like this: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog, and then pig. The ten-year elemental cycle is as follows: wood, wood, fire, fire, earth, earth, metal, metal, water, water. The two-year yin-yang cycle is, obviously, yin then yang. These patterns combine to form one overall sixty-year cycle. Astrologers use these cycles to determine the character traits and fortunes of a person based on birth year. According to the sixty-year cycle, 2015 was the year of the yin wood goat, and 2017 will be of the yin fire rooster. The astrological beliefs are so widespread that Chinese communities experience an increase in birth rates during dragon years. Parents try to have their children born on those years because the dragon is the best zodiac animal. If you are born in a year of the dragon, so the astrologers say, you will be smarter, luckier, and more successful in life than if you were born any other year.


In an era when text is created, stored, processed, and distributed through computers it is easy to forget the expressive power and historical significance of the handwritten word. Writing letters to loved ones has been replaced with email and texting. Books are printed by the millions. There was a time when each copy of a book was written by someone with quill and ink. Modern efficiency and convenience facilitate the spread of ideas like never before. This mass production of text can make us overlook the value of writing as a visual art. Calligraphy remains beneficial even as technology makes handwriting less prevalent in our lives.
In some Asian cultures, particularly China and Japan, penmanship carries greater importance than it does in other parts of the world. This is partly due to the structure of a language. Written Chinese, for example, has no alphabet. Every word has its own character, and characters can be quite elaborate. An individual word is an artwork unto itself rather than a string of smaller symbols. To some it may be just black and white scribbles. Under aesthetic consideration, however, the contrast between tonal simplicity and complexity of shape gives vitality to such artwork.

The act of writing a word, of drawing a character, can be a vehicle for pursuing mental tranquility and spiritual strength. Calligraphy, for many, is as much meditation as it is a form of communication. Every stroke of the brush or pen is given complete attention. Every movement carries a sense of purpose. In relation to Zen Buddhism this practice is called Hitsuzendo. Zen calligraphers clear their minds of distracting thoughts and translate that experience into ink-based images. The state of mind while writing a word is of higher importance than the word itself. In this way, calligraphy benefits the practitioner regardless of technology or culture.