Chinese New Year is a time for family and friends. Astrologers say the Horse Year is one of activity, and surely there will be prosperity for many.
The Chinese zodiac consists of a 12-year cycle with one animal for each year: rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and pig. The annual tongue-in-cheek Feng Shui Index published by Crédit Lyonnais Securities Asia forecasts that the Year of the Wood Horse will be “pure bull from teeth to tail”, with the Hong Kong Hang Seng Index hitting 28,105, galloping up from its current level of 21,800.
In China, New Year is basically all about family, with elders using the occasion to tell stories to children – the most popular being those from the “Romance of the Three Kingdoms” and the “Journey to the West”. Storytelling today is almost a lost art, because children are more entertained by cartoon and movie versions of these stories.
One of the most popular Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) classics, the “Journey to the West” tells of the pilgrimage to India of Chinese monk Tang Xuanzang (602-664 AD) during the Tang Dynasty (608-907) to learn Buddhism and gather scripture that helped convert much of China to the religion after his return. The novel comprises 100 chapters, which suggests it was a compilation of episodes told by storytellers who would garnish the tales with poetry, prose and historical detail to create drama for their audience.
The whole journey is veiled in myth and fantasy, with Tang Xuanzang accompanied by four disciples, assigned by the female Buddha Guan Yin to protect him. The first is the Monkey king, Sun Wukong, a clever rascal prone to excesses but fitted with Guan Yin’s golden headband, by which Xuanzang could control the crazy Monkey. The second disciple is a dragon transformed into a white horse who serves Tang Xuanzang to atone for the sins of its past life. The third disciple is the greedy pig, Zhu Bajie, who offers the pilgrims protection with his fighting skills, but is obsessed with food and sex. Last is the stalwart Sha Wujing, a sand spirit who is the more serious defender of the monk when Sun Wukong and Zhu Bajie are fooling around elsewhere.
“Journey to the West” is funny, fantastical and enjoyed by children and adults alike. It has been translated into many languages, the most popular in English being Arthur Waley’s “Monkey”. In his foreword to that translation, the Chinese philosopher Hu Shih claimed it was a book of “profound nonsense”.
Is it such a simple fantasy tale?
I have always thought that “Journey to the West” is a profound and allegorical text on the contradictions within the Chinese character, as it melds three key philosophies in China – Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism. The appeal of the book lies in the contrast between the monk as a straightforward, gentle human being, and his fantastic, crooked disciples, who embark on the comic, tragic, sinful, virtuous and sometimes criminal path that a person seeking enlightenment must travel.
Life is a journey, with a beginning, middle and end. But Buddhism and Indian philosophy share with Taoism and the Book of Change (the earliest Chinese philosophy) the idea of a karmic cycle, that we transmigrate from one life to another – in other words, an unending journey.
The book begins not with the monk’s journey, but the birth of the Monkey, aptly named Wukong, meaning “awakening or enlightenment to the emptiness of mind, when one realises the meaning or meaninglessness of human desire”.
At the beginning, the Monkey is wild, combative and destructive, wreaking havoc in heaven, but in the end, he realises that he cannot escape Buddha’s hand – the all-reaching compassion of enlightenment and one’s fate. Like all good stories with good endings, the book ends with Xuanzang and the Monkey attaining Buddha status, as well as rewards and recognition for the other pilgrims.
Various experts have pointed out deep meanings and numerology in various parts of the book. Xuanzang – sometimes called Sanzang (Tripitaka) – refers to the three collections of Buddhist sacred texts that he brought back from India. Zhu Bajie means Eight Sins or forbidden things. The Chinese consider three and eight to be auspicious numbers.
In advance of the China’s Third Plenum last October, the Chinese State Council Development Research Centre gave an introduction to the reform intentions through what is popularly known as the 383 plan. The plan is called 383, because it highlights the key relationships between the state, market and enterprises. There are eight key areas of reform: governance, competition policy, land, finance, public finance, state assets, innovation, and liberalisation of international trade and finance. Finally, there are three correlated goals: reducing external imbalances, building social inclusiveness, and improving governance through tackling inefficiency and corruption.
I wonder whether it is a coincidence that the 383 plan seems like China’s new “Journey to the West”. If it is anything like the classic, the new journey will be full of drama, twists and turns, and never boring.
The Year of the Horse is half way through the 12-year cycle, marking the beginning of the second half. The first half began with the Year of the Rat (2008), which was a year of crisis in the West but marked one of the fastest growth periods for China and many other emerging markets – partly as a result of so-called quantitative easing in the West.
Will the next six years involve a period of slower growth, one which is less tumultuous and perhaps more stable?
Only time will tell.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Every day, every year begins anew with the first step. Kung Hei Fat Choy to all who celebrate Chinese New Year.
Andrew Sheng is president of the Fung Global Institute.