Last weekend, at the Museum of Chinese in America, Joanna Lee and Ken Smith spoke about the Pocket Chinese Almanac, which they’ve been publishing since 2010. I met them a few years earlier, and have been to their presentations before, which are always interesting and fun. The Pocket Chinese Almanac is an English translation of part of the Tong Sing, the traditional Chinese Almanac, whose roots are in the Imperial Calendar. But it’s more than a calendar or guide to weather conditions. As Joanna and Ken note in their introduction: “The Tong Sing is an expression of cultural memory transcending such categories as modernity and tradition, the original self-help book, and an inspirational guide to channeling positive energy in all walks of life.”
Naturally the almanac starts with the New Year; however, this is no one-day celebration but rather a major week-long holiday in China and other countries in Asia. In addition, many businesses close a week before the festival begins, so people have time to get back home to their villages and prepare, so if you’re trying to get business done during those two weeks, forget about it.
To properly welcome in the New Year, it is absolutely essential that the house be spotless – like cleaning for Passover – and pomelo leaves are recommended for this task. Since this is a family celebration, there is lots of food, so its best to prepare as much as you can ahead of time. Because the New Year sets the tone for the rest of the year, large meals on that day are seen as a harbinger of abundance ahead – and vice-versa. One of the traditional foods is sticky rice cakes, which are offered to the Kitchen God, so he can’t say anything bad about you to the Celestial Emperor. And don’t forget to make an offering to the Kitchen God’s wife!
The modern Tong Sing divides the Lunar Year into 12 months; like Western almanacs, it includes sections to entertain while instructing the reader, such as Confucian stories of filial piety, and Wisdoms in Governing a Household. The Pocket Almanac, which features folk art from different regions in China, focuses on the declarations of activities which may be good or bad for a given day. While many of the activities in the almanac are rooted in an agrarian society, they are nonetheless applicable to modern, urban life, and the authors have included a notes section to explain some of the terminology. For example, in the below predictions for the start of the year, “destroying houses/walls – only by destroying the old, can you bring in the new;” “making fishing nets – originally for fishermen, now applicable for modern-day capital overhauls (perhaps an upgrade on your Internet browser?)”:
As to what lies ahead in 2016: change, change, change, so learn to adapt, and go with the flow.
Joanna and Ken ended their talk with a Ming Dynasty poem, sent by their geomancer, over the Internet. Here’s the on-the-fly translation Joanna gave:
Don’t worry – remember
The Yangtze River flows for a long time
Throughout all these millennia
how many heroes have died
But in life, you must remember
that despite where we human beings are
The mountains, as well as the sun and the moon