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On China and other niceties

All great civilizations, including China, have based their progress on observation. The realization, in the vastness of the universe, that there was no one like us within a reasonable distance, probably led to the assumption that it was impossible for fragile human life not to be governed, or in some way influenced, by the laws governing the mighty planets and stars of the firmament. Understanding of these laws, gained by observation of the celestial dome, and their coincidence with earthly phenomena, gave rise to omens of all kinds. As a result, the Egyptians, Greeks, Hindus, Chinese, in order to give greater credibility to omens, embarked on a long process of what we might call scientification, first creating astrology, and eventually astronomy, which became the leading knowledges in their respective times and cultures.

This process was very similar, if not the same, to the process of rationalizing myth. As they obtained data that disproved the fabulous stories that the gods and goddesses of different mythologies had drawn on to explain the birth of the world, the sunsets, or the flat horizon of the oceans, the transition from mythical thinking to rational thinking took place.

Despite the progress we have made, we remain fascinated by the great myths of East and West and we still refer to Zeus, and Pangu (盤古), the Chinese mythological being, whose birth from a cosmic egg created the Earth. The latter is referred to in the poem Genesis, by the award-winning Chinese poet, Kit Fan (As Slow As Possible, 2018, Arc Publications):

In the beginning there was
2 And the sky and the land were
muddled like an unhatched egg.
3 And Panggu lived in the egg.
4 And in darkness he lived, for
eighteen thousand years.
5 And slowly the sky and the land
6 And the place that was clouded
became the sky.
7 And the place that was cloudless
became the land…

The art of predicting the future

The art of predicting our future through horoscopes only became popular in China after the introduction of Buddhism. The first sutras translated into Chinese, which mention this practice, date back to the 3rd century of the Common Era. The reason for this is that Buddhism is more prone to individual enlightenment than was Confucianism, whose focus was the group, and more specifically, the ruler of the group, the emperor.

All aspects of peoples’ lives and the official actions of rulers were be to depend on “the accumulation of portents: celestial, metereological, and seismological phenomena, including supernovae, planetary conjunctions, comets, hailstorms, earthquakes, and their empirical correlation with events,” as the great Japanese historian of science, Shigeru Nayama, pointed out.

There was an imperial monopoly on calendars. Not unlike today. We should remember that the prevailing belief was that the stars bestowed divine knowledge, which the earthly lacked. Endymion Wilkinson, a former EU ambassador to China, and a noted sinologist, says that in China, portents (what the encyclopedists called “irregularities of nature”) were interpreted to indicate whether or not a ruler was in conformity with heaven. Hence portents held the highest political consequences and hence also the imperial monopoly on the issuance of calendars.


Superstition or science

It is easy to think that portent astrology is no more than superstition, that it belongs to a pre-stage of logical thinking. But this is not entirely true. It should be noted that many ancient civilizations observed that the moon affects the tides, even if they did not understand the laws of gravity. We all know that when we jump, we fall. This is because the Earth’s gravity pulls us towards it.

The Moon also has its own gravity, with which it pulls the oceans towards it. The gravitational attraction that the moon exerts on us is much weaker than that exerted by the Earth, so we do not feel it, and we fall irremediably to the ground when we jump. However, we can perceive the effect of the moon on the oceans, since they are attracted by its gravitational force, producing a high tide on the side of the Earth closest to the Moon. Both effects of the laws of gravity were known to the ancients of East and West, although it was not fully understood until Isaac Newton, and later Albert Einstein.

Just as optimal navigation was achieved by observing the tides, it was also observed that there were better times to harvest, because certain rains were predicted, and certain winds were avoided. Knowing which time of the year it was best to marry was not always a matter of superstition.

The traditional Chinese calendar

China has been using the Gregorian calendar since Sun Yat-sen established it in 1912. It owes its name to Pope Gregory XIII, who introduced it in 1582. This calendar replaced the Julian calendar, introduced by Julius Caesar in BCE 46, which in turn replaced the Egyptian calendar. The Gregorian calendar corrected the 11 minutes and 14 seconds of the Julian year, which caused an imbalance in the liturgical calendar. It was essential that there be an exact match between the civil and liturgical calendars – no one could afford to miss a mass!

The traditional Chinese calendar, known as the farming calendar ( 农历; Nónglì) is still maintained, however, to mark certain holidays such as the Chinese New Year. This holiday is celebrated in many Southeast Asian countries, as well as in Europe and North America. A long time has passed, but the calendar remains political.

The Year of the Ox

According to Chinese astrology, as well as others, our destiny is directly related to the position of the planets at the time of our birth. Chinese astrologers, observing the orbit of Jupiter around the sun, divided it into 12 sections, corresponding to 12 years, each named after an animal.

Many believe they see great differences between the Chinese zodiac and the one used in the West, dating from the time of the Babylonians, even if we use the Greek designation (ζῳδιακός κύκλος: cycle of animals). There is much insistence that the latter is based on the constellations, rather than on the orbit of Jupiter; that the Greeks paid attention to months, not years, as the Chinese do; and that not all the signs of the Western zodiac are associated with animals, as is the Chinese. In my opinion, we’re talking about nuances rather than differences.

This is the year of the ox, having just passed an incredible year of the rat. The ox is the second animal in that 12-year cycle. Legend has it that the Jade Emperor, inventor of the horoscope, invited all the animals to an opulent banquet, and established a rigorous régle d’étiquette. The first would be first, in order of arrival. The rat, ever astute, had asked the ox for a ride. As they were about to arrive, the rat jumped down and scampered past him.

new year

Clues for 2021

Like any self-respecting horoscope, China’s provides a series of guidelines that will exert their influence on our personal lives and earthly events. These guidelines come from the behavior of the ox, which they use as a metaphor. So it is good to know:

First, in Chinese popular culture the ox is considered a positive animal, because it has always helped with the crops, instead of stealing them, as the rat did. In principle, optimistic omens.

Second, the ox is honest, serious, and hardworking. Therefore, a laborious year awaits us. Beware, there are those who say that the ox has no patience with shirkers.

Third, if you have a relationship with anybody born in the year of the ox, you should know that they are stubborn and will fight slowly, but lethally, to achieve their goals. Their most compatible signs are the rat, the snake and the rooster, and the least compatible are the goat, the horse and the dog. You have been warned!

Fourth. The year associated with your animal, known as ben ming nian (本命年), is never a good one for you. So bad luck if you were born in a year of the ox. Also, avoid one and four, normally your lucky numbers.

Fifth. It may sound like a joke, but when it comes to health, the ox is the benchmark. He roams free in the fields, and pulls hard on the plow. Let’s hope he charges full force at this pandemic and makes it go away.

Finally, if you don’t believe in the oxen of the Chinese zodiac, you can try your luck with those of the Greek zodiac, but always bearing in mind that the fabulous Greeks invented everything, continually forcing the Romans to ground their celestial elucubrations. Hence, the jocular Latin saying Primum panem, deinde philosophari (first eat, then philosophize).

Despiciendo suspicio (“By looking down I see upward”) and Suspiciendo despicio (“By looking up I see downward”).

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