Sunday, February 18, 2007

Happy Ding Hai

A record 160,000 people flowed through Beijing international airport yesterday as the city geared up for the Lunar New Year's Eve. Airport staff removed business stands from airport lounges to make room for passengers and more parking lots have been arranged for large areoplanes. Beijing’s air travellers will be part of an astonishing 2.17 billion passengers on the move during the Spring Festival season in 2007. It's a number that is up 5% on last year's holiday season. Increased affluence and a greater number of migrant workers have added to the strain on China's transport system.

The reason so many are on the move is that today is the start of the Year of the Pig. The lunar new year is China’s most important festival. For 15 days, Chinese people across the world celebrate this auspicious occasion. There are parades of carnival dragons and fireworks light up the night sky, as they have done in China for 2,000 years. State TV showed pictures of President Hu Jintao visiting a ordinary Chinese family to wish them well.

It is a well-wishing time for all Chinese. The pig is the symbol of good luck and prosperity and this time it is a golden pig year, which happens once every 60 years. The formal name of the golden pig year is Ding Hai. This Ding Hai is the 8th year in the current 60-year cycle and takes us into the Year 4704, by the Chinese calendar. The names of the Chinese years come from a legend where Lord Buddha summons the animals to him before he departs from the Earth. The tardy pig is the last to arrive behind 11 other quicker animals (who were the rat, ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, sheep, monkey, rooster and dog). Despite, or many because of, its lack of speed, astrologers says the pig is honest, steadfast and generous.

But not everyone believes a pig year is a portent of good fortune. Some soothsayers caution the pig can bring turbulence, and warn of a rise in natural disasters and conflict in 2007. Hong Kong feng shui master Raymond Lo thinks the Year of the Pig will not be peaceful. “Pig years can be turbulent because they are dominated by fire and water, conflicting elements that tend to cause havoc,” he said.

There is also some religious sensitivity to the celebrations this year. China has banned ads with visual and verbal pork references. The state-run broadcaster CCTV has told major advertising agencies not to use pig images, cartoons or slogans "to avoid conflicts with ethnic minorities." This is code for China’s 20 million Muslims. Hassan Bai Runsheng, an imam at a Shanghai mosque, approves of the ban. "We see a decision like this in the context of creating a harmonious society between Han Chinese and ethnic minority groups," he said.

It is not just a Muslim aversion to pork that is the problem. There remains an aftertaste of religious oppression that China is trying to forget. The Hui people are one of China’s largest ethnic minorities. Although similar in culture to the Han Chinese, they are differentiated by their practice of Islam. About 70,000 of China's almost 10 million Hui live in the city of Xian, one of the country’s major ancient capitals. That is only a fraction of the estimated 800,000 who lived in China's northern Shaanxi province before 1862, when the Qing Dynasty sent its armies to wipe them out after a series of rebellions. More than a million Muslims were killed in the Qing crackdown. Tolerance was slow in coming to China, During Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Chinese Muslims were not allowed to attend the Hajj. This policy was reversed in 1979. Now represented by pressure groups such Chinese Patriotic Islamic Association and the China Islamic Association, Islam is on the rise again. The pig ad ban is testament to its growing power in China.

But most of the other 1.3 billion Chinese will be more favourably disposed to the year of the hog. Because of its lucky year status, babies born this year are said to be blessed with a carefree life. Demographers are expecting a baby boom in China this year. Condom sales are decreasing and wedding plans are on the increase. China’s creaking health system will struggle to keep up with demand in the maternity wards.

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