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The sign of the snake

Publication Date : 15-02-2013


It is hard for people to get good impressions from the wet, scaly, sometimes deadly reptile


As a tradition, Chinese people greet each other with propitious words - to which the zodiac animals are usually related - during Chinese lunar New Year. Some years are easy, such as the Year of the Tiger, which represents power and strength. Sheng long huo hu, or "vital dragon and vigorous tiger" in Chinese, is often used to describe people who are energetic and full of life. The Year of the Ox is connected with being productive and successful, as the animal represents hard work, or simply a bull market.

The Dog is loyalty, the Monkey is smart, and the Rooster crows. Even the year of the Pig wouldn't be a problem, as the mud-rolling creature symbolizes good fortune in traditional Chinese culture.

This year, however, the lunar calendar has tossed up a major challenge: the Year of the Snake. It is hard for people to get good impressions from the wet, scaly, sometimes deadly reptile. Chinese idioms, phrases and old sayings related to snakes are often negative.

"Having a heart as malicious as snakes and scorpions", or she xie xin chang in Chinese, is an acute accusation that someone carries ill will. And places where crime and violence are rampant are usually referred to as "infested with snakes and rats".

Liu Xin, a 29-year-old Beijing resident, is finding it difficult to write greeting cards to his friends.

"I have looked in the dictionary but found no good words about snakes," he said.

Liu had racked his brain, but only came up with "Happy Year of the Snake", which was also thrown out.

"It is just weird putting the word 'snake' and the word 'happy' in one sentence," he said. "The sight of snakes crawling on their bellies makes my flesh creep."

The cards ended up being posted bearing the words "Happy Spring Festival" - less creative, but safe.

Moreover, the image of snakes - long, sneaky and legless - is hard to render in cartoon form.

"It is impossible to draw a cute snake," said Zhang Ying, a 35-year-old designer. Zhang said she wanted to bash her head against the drawing board designing wrapping paper featuring the zodiac animal.

If she drew too many details, the snake would be scary. "Nobody wants to see a standing cobra with its forked tongue on their presents," she said.

With fewer details, Zhang said, people would mistake the animal for an earthworm, or a rope. "I miss the Year of the Dog," she said. "The fuzzy little puppy would be cute either way."

In Sichuan province, a plastic snake street decoration was removed within a month of its construction, as "it is unbelievably ugly and by no means looks like snake", according to a news report.

Comprising two golden snakes with big heads and sharp, curved bird beaks, the two-story-high decoration was set beside one of the busiest highways in Sichuan.

"Chicken-head snake!" a netizen commented. The photo has been forwarded more than 400 times on Sina Weibo, the largest micro blogging platform in China.

"It looks like a giant monster, or an alien," said another netizen. "Funny, but spooky."

Nevertheless, the snake plays an important part in China's mythology and folklore.

According to a widely known Chinese legend, the Jade Emperor, the mighty god living in heaven, one day decided there should be a way of measuring time. So he invited all the animals to a grand race, and claimed that each year of the Chinese zodiac would be named in honor, and in the order, of the first 12 animals to finish.

The Snake finished sixth, right after the Dragon, one of the most powerful signs in the Chinese zodiac, and before the Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig.

People born in the Year of the Snake, are quick-witted, clever, charming, sharp and funny. They have excellent taste, are a good friend and generous and loyal to others.

There are many famous people born in the Year of Snake, including John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States who was born in 1917, the artist Pablo Picasso, who was born in 1881, and Audrey Hepburn, the British actress who was born in 1929.

Nu Wa, the creator of mankind according to a Chinese legend, was a half-woman, half-snake goddess. Having no legs, she had a snake-like tail and slithered in the sky. When an evil spirit smashed the vault of heaven, it was Nu Wa who patched the sky up with melting stone. She took up a handful of earth, mixed it with water and molded a figure in her likeness. As she kneaded it the figure came alive and became the first human being.

Other legends claimed that the snake is the earlier stage of dragon, the symbol of emperors and hence power and majesty. After living for 1,000 years, a snake will transform into dragon. Mencius, a Chinese philosopher who was arguably the most famous Confucian after Confucius himself, ranked the snake at the same level as the dragon in his work.

The Legend of the White Snake, or Madam White Snake, is another famous ancient Chinese tale. It tells the story of a white snake transformed into a woman and fell in love with a human man. After they got married and had a son, a Buddhist monk discovered her secret and trapped the white snake under a pagoda. But the gods were moved by the love between mother and son, husband and wife, and made the pagoda collapse, which enabled the family to reunite. Madame White Snake later became a symbol of beauty, love and freedom, and appears frequently in novels and operas.

The zodiac cycle was also used to tell time and direction in the old days. For example, the Rat symbolised the period between 11pm and 1am, and the Horse was between 11am and 1pm. For compass points, the Rat stood for north and the Horse was for south.

Some believe that people share a similar personality and character with the animal in which year they are born, and different zodiac animals are more compatible and should avoid others in certain years.

During the Year of the Snake, between Feb 10, 2013 and Jan 31, 2014, people who were born in year of the Pig, Tiger and Monkey tend to have bad luck. This is because those three animals are repellent to the Snake, according to Qi Yingjie, who runs a fengshui company in Beijing.

"People who were born in the Year of the Snake should be extremely careful," Qi said. "According to fengshui theory, people who bear the same zodiac animal of the year tend to suffer more disaster and damage."

Qi suggested people whose Chinese zodiac conflicts or clashes with the snake to go through a prayer session.

Every year around the Spring Festival, people gather in Taoism temples, such as Baiyunguan, the oldest Taoism temple in Beijing, to pray for peace and good fortune. They will send their messages to the gods by burning the yellow charms written with their wishes in the temple and offering sacrifices, usually fruits and candies.

"Or you could avoid bad luck by doing good deeds," Qi said. "Don't be fooled by the name, the Year of the Snake could be a very good year."


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