Chinese New Year - Dr Vivian Wee

“When Chinese New Year comes around, one topic of public discussion is about the animal year it will be. Counting time in numbers is cumulative: the numbers increase with the passage of time. But the reckoning of time in non-numbers – in this case, animals – is non-cumulative. Instead, time is conceived as cyclical, going around in cycles of 12 years.

So what if the Chinese reckoning of time is non-cumulative? The significance is this: if there is no beginning, there is no end. There is no Year 1 in the Chinese reckoning of time: there is no equivalent to the birth of Jesus or the Prophet Muhammad’s journey to Medina. A view of time as non-cumulative is also non-apocalyptic. In the Chinese world-view, the world will not come to an end because it never had a beginning. It just always was.”

“The idea of time as cyclical is elaborated by adding the five elements of the universe: metal, water, wood, fire, and earth. Each element prevails for 12 years. This year is the last of the 12 years of the earth element. Next year will be the beginning of the 12-year presence of the metal element.

When we combine the twelve animal years with the five elements, each lasting 12 years, what we get is the differentiation of the twelve animals in relation to the five elements. For example, this year is the year of the Earth Pig, because not only is it the year of the pig, it is also the last year of the 12-year presence of the earth element. The Earth Pig will next appear in 60 years’ time. Before that, we will first have the Metal Pig, Water Pig, Wood Pig and Fire Pig. A larger cycle of 60 years is thus produced by combining twelve animal years with the five elements.

In the past, when people had shorter life-spans than at present, a normal life-span was considered to be sixty years long. Fortune-telling was previously done only for sixty years of one’s life-span. Beyond sixty years, no fortune could be divined for the bonus years.”

“[T]here are very few collective rituals in Chinese religious life. The collective rituals that exist are centred on the family, the lineage or the clan as a worshipping unit.

What are the larger implications of this world-view in modern society? The sociologist Max Weber and others characterise modern society as structured in rational-legal terms, where legitimacy is derived from a logic of cause and effect.

In contrast, the traditional Chinese world-view is not based on rational-legal thinking. However, some aspects of the Chinese world-view are unintentionally compatible with modern society. First, the Chinese world-view is orientated towards this world, this life. People are not obsessed about the after-life. Indeed, the next world is just like this world: people get married, open shops and need money! Second, individuals can take individual actions without being imposed by others who claim religious authority. This also applies to the actions of individual families – for example, in the celebration of Chinese New Year. There is no one right way to conduct such celebrations and each family can celebrate it the way they want, including not celebrating it at all. This implies that the Chinese world-view contains the seed of democracy: no one is seen as messianic or having more religious authority than others.”

To view video recording of Dr Wee's speech, click here

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