Monday, January 24, 2011

Chinese NewYear: RABBIT


Rush Limbaugh, he of the golden microphone and chairman of all things looney, tried out his Chinese on his radio program last month. It just happened to be the day President Hu Jintao of the People’s Republic of China visited the United States.

Limbaugh said: “When I hear Chinese or Japanese, it sounds like all the same word. And I can't comprehend anybody understanding it."

Then he began squawking a string of noises that were his idea of what Chinese sounds like. It was as far from any language sounds known to man. It was an embarrassment to everyone but the man spouting it. The man now Senator Al Franken called Rush Limbaugh “a big fat idiot,” in his 1996 book of the same title.

Spoken and written Chinese is far older than any of the varieties of today’s English. It is easier to learn and far more beautiful to be made a parody. Limbaugh, never known to apologize for anything, may think it is satire, but his remark and attitude is the lowest burlesque, lampoon spoof.

When anyone refers to “Red China,” you know they are not knowledgeable and still fear “the yellow peril” which was so prevalent during the late 19th century. It was the West’s fear of the mysterious, unknowable Orientals. (At the turn of the 20th century such fear of the Chinese and Japanese was just as misguided as the fear of Muslims today.)

Just the other day, Feb. 3, was the first day of the Chinese New Year. The Year of the Tiger is behind us and the year of the Rabbit is here. Twelve year cycles represented by an animal has been a tradition in China for thousands of years. It is estimated our year of 2011 is the Year 4708 by the Chinese Calendar.

The Chinese New Year begins on the second New Moon after the winter solstice. It is based on astronomical observations, making it easy to calculate backward or forward for thousands of years.

It is really the only holiday for everybody. It is a time to honor the household and heavenly deities. It is also a time to honor their ancestors.

In 1912, with the birth of the Republic of China (now on Taiwan) the Western calendar was recognized as the formal beginning of the year. But the traditional Chinese New Year continued with a new name – Spring Festival.

In preparation for the lunar New Year, cleaning house and yard were meant to appease the gods who would be coming down from heaven to make inspections. (See more about this in my book, “Lao She, Master Storyteller.”)
People posted scrolls printed with lucky messages on household gates and set off firecrackers to frighten evil spirits. Elders gave out money to children.
In the 1580s, Italian Matteo Ricci and some Jesuit missionaries brought the western Gregorian calendar to China. Beginning in 1949, Chairman Mao Zedong (1893-1976), head of the Chinese Communist Party and founder of the People’s Republic of China, stopped the celebrations of the traditional Chinese New Year. There was little food or joy to celebrate anyway until his death. In 1996 the Spring Festival became a weeklong vacation. In the old days it was a month long celebration.
As with all things the Spring Festival’s traditions have changed with the opening to the West and the coming of color television. It is a time when more attend operas, eat out, but still visit family and friends.
We observed the celebration many times in Taiwan and Hong Kong back half a century ago. I am glad we got a taste of the old as well as the new. With the growth of Chinatowns in America (even Houston has street names in Chinese characters as well as English in the western suburbs), it is time for Americans to re-think their attitude and understanding of peoples of the world.
This past couple of decades has been a year of better understanding between the Chinese from Taiwan and those from the Mainland. Now, let’s have more of that on the government sides, Taiwan, China and the United States. Happy New Year of the Rabbit.

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