Nian

I was going to call this article the Year of the Rat, since Monday marks the beginning of the Chinese New Year. If you were born in 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, or points south, this is your year.

However, I found a previous article by that name, and the rule is no repeats. It’s worth recalling why that name was given, back in 2013.

…apparently rats, and a host of other vermin, masquerading as mutton, have been consistently sold to consumers in China…

The Middle Kingdom doesn’t do things by halves—nine hundred arrests, twenty thousand tons of fake meat products. In these days of austerity, ten million Portuguese would eat for a week!

Twenty thousand metric tons of rat? A fair-sized rodent weighs in at about half a pound, or 250 grams, so we’re talking eighty thousand rats—you’d need a pretty large sewer.

Oops, I hope you’re not reading this over lunch!

The Chinese New Year is celebrated as the Spring Festival—a little early in 2020, because it is set by the lunar calendar, and this year the date falls on January twenty-fifth, almost two months short of the astronomical spring.

But don’t you believe for a minute this dampens their enthusiasm.

China is a country that moves together—it’s a collective system, a highly cooperative society. It needs to be, otherwise 1.4 billion people could not coexist—individualism is frowned upon, as reflected in the aphorism ‘man who shine too brightly cast a long shadow.’

I’m not being jocular about the grammar, I’m making the point that Mandarin doesn’t have any. No articles, definite or otherwise, no prepositions, no verb tenses, no capitals, no punctuation—if you want to ask a question you tag ma on the end of a sentence.

nǐ dē míng zì shì shěn mé or 你的名字是什么

your name is what (question)

The capacity and motivation of the Chinese to act collectively is potentially very dangerous—when the country moves, it really shifts. On the other hand, individual opinions and ideas are frowned upon, so Western education, innovation, and technology have an edge there.

The Middle Kingdom shuts down during the festival. Contrary to the West, red is a lucky color, so that’s what you wear—and of course, no Chinese celebration would be complete without fireworks—after all, they invented them.

The Chinese perform a ritual cleaning of their homes and their bodies for the Spring Festival, a true ‘spring-clean‘, and go forth to visit family—today and much of next week will be extremely busy at all Chinese airports, on the road, and on the huŏchē (火车), or train.

Chinese and German are similar in that both languages are based on compound words—in Mandarin there is little choice, since a ‘word’ is just a sequence of characters: car is a vapor vehicle, train is a fire vehicle, and bus is public common vapor vehicle (4 characters, 公共汽车 spoken gōnggòngqìchē).

The traditional greeting at this time of year is guò nián hăo, literally ‘celebrate year good.’ Of course, with so few sounds available, a slight variation of guo means something entirely different.

guo means dog in Mandarin. When I reviewed the usage examples in my Chinese app, everything was going so well until that last one…

nian (年), pronounced nien, as in Vienna, is a monster whose favorite pastime is eating people and animals all year round. The annual monster can be driven off with the color red, and the Chinese exchange the greeting in the hope of a monster-free year.

This is a time to buy new clothes, matching the clean house and body, and of course to give presents. In Xi Jinping’s China, gifts and banquets have become a sign of corruption, but this time of year is special—the Chinese manufacture and sell all the West’s Christmas products, from cellphones to sellotape, then they have another shopping boom before their own new year, then they clear inventory—now’s a good time to grab a good price on consumer electronics from the Middle Kingdom.

Everything in China comes with rules, and guò nián is no exception. There are rules for food, as in the West, but there are other interesting restrictions—it is forbidden to speak of death or illness, and the character 四 (, pronounced shèh) cannot be spoken, for it is the number four, and the word for death is also sǐ (but a different tone, indicated by the diacritical mark).

The ‘4’ superstition actually merits a Wikipedia entry for tetraphobia! I don’t suffer from it, but I made sure my phone number has no fours in it—no creo en brujas, pero que las hay, las hay.

Out of all the foibles related in the Wikipedia article, this is the most fascinating one.

The British Medical Journal reported in a study that looked at mortality statistics in the United States over a 25-year period. They found that on the fourth day of the month, Asian people were thirteen percent more likely to die of heart failure. In California, Asians were twenty-seven percent more likely to die of a heart attack on that day.

Twenty percent of the world’s population will go nuts next week, forgetting all about Trump, trade deals, and Taiwan-China conflicts.

Shanghai is the ‘fun’ city, by contrast with Beijing. In 1946, this is how they ushered in the Year of the Dog.

At the very end of the last day of 2019, to mark the start of 2020, they laid on an amazing drone display for the Western new year, broadcast on TV all over the world—except it never happened.

Let’s see what they come up with next weekend. I could be something like this.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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