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January 11, 2010

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Golden Tiger Year All is well, despite Net 'widow' chatter

THE forthcoming lunar "Golden Year of the Tiger" is supposed to bring fortune and good luck, especially since the powerful tiger is linked with the element gold.

However, recent talk swirling on the Internet has captured attention and cast a bit of a shadow on the golden beast.

The uninformed chatter by many young people is that the next Chinese lunar year is a so-called "widow year" in which bad luck and infertility for life are said to befall those who marry in the year.

They're curious about the weird notion and many wonder if there's a way to avoid bad luck if they marry in the Tiger Year.

There was similar talk in 2005, the Year of the Rooster, and 2008, the Year of the Rat, but it isn't related to the animals of the zodiac, but rather to more complicated solar terms (we elaborate later).

The notion of a "widow year" stems from the difference between lunar and solar calendars, and it's all about the importance of fertility and child-bearing.

The vast majority of people today don't believe in "widow years" and a survey of marriage planners shows that they expect more marriages in 2010, not less, partly because it's the year of a great event for China - World Expo 2010.

Still, this astrology riff sheds light on Chinese culture and folklore.

Here's a bit of common mythology, In choosing a wife, it is said that men should avoid women born in Tiger Years, especially born at night (3-5am), when tigers are especially fierce and hungry. These women are said to be domineering, Also tigers and dragons should not marry because they are natural antagonists. Of course, tigers should not marry sheep/goats.

In ancient Chinese tales, the tiger was once a guardian of the Jade Emperor and was sent to kill monsters in the human world. The Year of the Tiger is often considered to be a bright and lucky year. In old sayings about prosperity, the tiger is frequently linked with the dragon, another auspicious beast. "Flying dragon and leaping tiger" was a common saying.

But the notion of a "widow year" is not related to the tiger. It originates in the Chinese lunar calendar based on moon phases, which do not accurately reflect seasonal and weather changes important to agrarian culture.

So drafters of the lunar calendar added 24 seasonal markers, 15-day solar terms based on the solar year, to indicate these changes in nature's rhythm to farmers and help them decide when to plant crops or harvest them.

The seasonal markers covering the year are called jie qi (jie means period and qi means weather).

In ancient times, the solar terms were the only indicator of seasons and weather, and played a vital role in agrarian life. Many traditions originated in solar terms.

For example, the Qingming Festival, or tomb-sweeping day, marks one of the 24 jie qi. Qingming means clear and bright and indicates nice warm weather. It usually falls around on April 4-6 of the solar calendar.

The notion of a "widow year" comes from the terms.

The solar terms start with Lichun, or the Start of the Spring, usually on February 4-6 of the solar calendar. Li means start and chun means spring. In traditional terms, the day of Lichun indicates that the yang (hot) energy rises rapidly in the universe as it enters spring - it also represents procreation.

The coming Year of the Tiger starts late on February 14 and ends on February 2 in 2011, which means there is no Lichun in the whole year.

Since there is no start of spring in the entire year, there is no rising yang energy (hot yang for male and cold yin for female) and no procreation, it is said.

Thus the year is called a "widow year," though it does not refer to a woman who has lost her mate or suggest disaster befalls the husband. It refers instead to fertility and it is said that women who marry in a "widow year" will have a hard time getting pregnant (since there is no start of spring, representing procreation). Infertility, of course, is disaster.

"The so-called 'widow year' is just a natural phenomenon due to the difference between solar and lunar calendars. It is silly to believe the talk and change wedding plans," says professor Zhong Fulan from East China Normal University and an expert on folk customs.

"Those who want to get married should just do so," he says.

Every 19 years there are seven years (non-successive) with two Lichun (start of spring) and seven years without Lichun due to the different number of days in solar and lunar calendars.

For example, the years 2005 and 2008 were both years without Lichun, and called "widow years." The year 2013 will be another "widow year."

On the other hand, the year 2009 had two Lichun, and so will the year 2012.

The "widow talk" hasn't affected wedding plans in Shanghai and prices have increased by 5 to 10 percent because of high demand.

One wedding company predicts 150,000 couples will tie the knot in 2010, compared with 140,000 last year.

Zhang Fanlin, a retired middle school teacher, agrees with professor Zhong. The 73-year-old Henan Province native now lives in Shanghai with his family and prefers the 24 solar terms to weather forecasts.

In his hometown in Henan near the Yellow River, the cradle of Chinese civilization, the 24 solar terms and related predictions are said to be quite accurate.

For example, it is said that if it doesn't rain on Dongzhi or the extreme of winter, usually around December 21-23, then it will rain on the Chinese Lunar New Year. And it always gets cold, rains a lot and there's a lot of dew on Bailu or white dew around September 7-9, Zhang says. That's when he starts wearing a light jacket.

"There's a lot of folklore related to the 24 solar terms but young people today don't know most of them. Most don't even know the 24 terms, to say nothing of the tales surrounding them," says Zhang. "That's why they get so curious over things like the 'widow year'."

He first heard of the Internet chatter from his 27-year-old grandson who asked him if there was anything to that weird talk and whether Zhang believed it - his grandfather doesn't.

The young man was fascinated because he had never heard of such a thing, didn't know how many solar terms there are and only knew the names of three or four.

Zhang's grandson is not alone. Unlike their grandparents and parents, young people today, especially those in cities, have grown up without knowing about many traditions and customs. Without much knowledge of folklore, some embrace quirky old concepts rather than challenge them, while others simply ignore customs.

"If some customs have been carried on for thousands of years, there must be a reason. If they are not too ridiculous, I would prefer to follow the customs although I don't believe them completely," says 23-year-old sales agent Jiang Ailan.

Jiang cites the saying, "One who holds the chopsticks too far away from the tips might marry far away from home." She holds the chopsticks quite high and her friends often tease her that she might marry a foreigner.

"It doesn't mean we believe in it," says Jiang, "but it's fun to joke about it."

About solar terms

Lichun (start of spring)

Lichun, the first solar term, means the start of spring. From that day, the days get longer and warmer. It is not the same as the vernal equinox.

In the ancient times, Lichun, instead of the Chinese Lunar New Year, was considered the beginning of a year. The beginning is said to predict the year. If it is fair weather on Lichun, the harvest will be bountiful, but if it rains, farmers will have to work harder for their harvest.

The folklore also applies to individuals. Never quarrel or fight with anyone on this day, otherwise the whole year will involve disagreement and conflicts.

On this day it's supposed to bring good luck to walk in an open field or park to welcome the spring. It's not a good day to go to doctors, cut hair (it's the season to grow, not shear) or shift household.

Besides Lichun, the other major solar terms are Lixia, Liqiu and Lidong.

As li means the start, xia, qiu and dong mean summer, autumn and winter, respectively.

The terms reflect the ancient saying, "plant in spring, grow in summer, harvest in autumn and preserve in winter."

Lixia indicates that summer heat (and yang energy) is on the way and the custom is to eat eggs, beans and bamboos on that day to fight the upcoming heat.

Eggs are protein and strength. Those who eat bamboo are said to have strong legs like bamboo and beans are good for the eyes because they are of similar shape.

In traditional Chinese medicine, the shape and appearance of a food represents its properties. Thus, eating heart is good for the heart, eating brain-shaped food are good for mental acuity, and so on.

Liqiu in autumn is the day to mark weight because people often lose weight in summer when it's too hot to eat meat and protein. Tradition calls for eating all kinds of meat on Liqiu.

Lidong, the start of winter, is the first break for farmers, who are busy for the whole year, following the advice to "plant in spring, grow in summer and harvest in autumn." Now it is time to "preserve in winter," especially to preserve energy. But before they start storing and preserving food, they reward themselves with a hearty meal on Lidong.

Jingzhe (insects awaken)

Jing means thunderstorm and zhe means hibernation. Jingzhe is the day when the first thunderstorm of spring awakes the animals in hibernation.

It's often around March 5 to 7. Farmers in ancient times took the day as a signal to start getting busy, as the insects have already awakened.

It's also a warning to be careful of insect pests. In traditional Chinese medicine, it is the time to take care of one's liver, as spring corresponds to the liver.

Xiazhi (summer solstice)

The opposite of Dongzhi is Xiazhi, or the summer solstice, falling around June 21-23. This is the longest day of the year. Yang energy reaches its peak on Xiazhi and yin energy begins to ascend. It's a tradition to worship the gods for good luck on this day.

Bailu (white dew)

Bailu, or white dew, indicates that it's starting to get cool and there's dew on the grass in the morning. It usually falls around September 7 to 9, when it gets chilly in the evening.

Yin (cold) energy starts rising in the universe and also rises from the dew. It starts to rain. Birds start to migrate. Farmers know it's time to put on a light jacket in the evening and get ready for the busy harvest season.

Dongzhi (winter solstice)

Dong means winter and zhi means extreme. Dongzhi is when the night is the longest and the day the shortest in the year. Days get longer after Dongzhi.

There's a traditional Chinese belief that yin and yang energies reverse when one reaches the extreme. Dongzhi is when yin energy reaches its extreme. After Dongzhi, yin energy declines and yang energy starts to rise.

In ancient times, Dongzhi was a big festival and in some areas it was even more significant than the Chinese Lunar New Year because it marks the rising of yang energy. Today on Dongzhi, many people still keep the tradition and get together with the family to eat dumplings, as they do on the new year.

Other solar terms

Yushui, or rain water, indicates the beginning of the rainy season. February 18-20.

Chunfen, the vernal equinox, means in the middle of spring. March 20-22.

Guyu, or grain rain, indicates a warm rainy season good for plants. April 19-21.

Xiaoman, or grain ripe, means grain begins to ripen. May 20-22.

Mangzhong, or bristles on grain, indicates that some grains are mature as awns (bristles) form at the end of the stalk. Mang means awn. June 5-7.

Xiaoshu, or minor heat, is when it starts getting hot. July 6-8.

Dashu, or major heat, is the hottest time of the year. July 22-24.

Chushu, or limit of heat, indicates that the hot season is about to end. Chu means terminate. August 22-24.

Qiufen, or autumnal equinox, is the middle of autumn. September 22-24.

Hanlu, or cold dew, is an indication for oncoming chill. October 8-9.

Shuangjiang, or frost descends, means it's getting cold enough for frost. October 23-24.

Xiaoxue, or minor snow, indicates the beginning of snow. November 22-23.

Daxue, or major snow, is when the snow gets heavy. December 6-8.

Xiaohan, or minor cold, is when it starts getting cold. January 5-7.

Dahan, or major cold, is the beginning of the coldest period. January 20-21.


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