The Chinese New Year officially starts on February 8th 2016, marking the start of the Year of the Fire Monkey. So what is the background to this ancient tradition, and what (if anything) might it mean for the year ahead?
Astrology is one of the mankind’s enduring traditions, arousing responses as diverse as amusement and fear, scepticism and reverence. While I am not a particular believer, it is interesting to see how astrological ideas have influenced social and cultural development around the world, and they have perhaps done so more strongly in mainland China than anywhere.
Chinese astrology developed with deep roots in Daoist (Taoist) scientific enquiry and philosophy. In their excellent book ‘Taoist Astrology: A Handbook of the Authentic Chinese Tradition’ (Destiny Books, 1997) authors Susan Levitt and Jean Tang explain:
“In the distant past, humanity’s relationship with animals was necessary for survival. When animals were domesticated, Taoists observed the animals’ traits. Over the centuries, the priests developed a system of twelve animals for a twelve-year cycle. Human physical and temperamental attributes correlated with certain years. This system became the twelve earthly branches.
In the year 2637 BCE the Chinese Emperor Huang Ti standardised this Taoist twelve-year calendar, which has been in continuous use ever since.”
The twelve earthly branches are combined with the Five Phases (Earth, Fire, Water, Metal and Wood – a fascinating system that also underpins acupuncture, if you’ll pardon the pun!) to produce a 60-year cycle. Hence the construct of the Fire Monkey that will appear just once or twice in a person’s lifetime.
Daoist master Zhongzian Wu describes the monkey as follows (in his book ‘The 12 Chinese Animals’, London/Philadelphia, 2010) :
“The Monkey has an agile body and a nimble mind. Monkeys always carefully observe the situation, making sure they will not be trapped or captured by hunters before they take their food. In the Chinese tradition, Monkey is a symbol for wit, watchfulness, spontaneity, Elegance, Opportunism, and supervision.”
Levitt and Tang expand:
“Fabulous Monkey is unlike any other animal in the Taoist zodiac, a fearless hero who is much loved and celebrated. Countless Taoist folk tales recall this clever trickster’s abilities, and crafty Monkey even found a way into great religious literature.”
The Monkey Year
How do these Monkey attributes influence the year ahead according to Daoist lore? Levitt and Tang:
“The Year of the Monkey is a time of courage, action, anarchy, and true devotion to even the wildest of schemes. Success can be attained in business, politics, and real estate. Everyone wants to work the shrewdest angle, get the best deal, and win big. Now is the time to start new endeavours, for they are destined to succeed under Monkey’s influence.
But woe be to the dull or slow witted: Monkey will steal all the peanuts and leave nothing but empty shells.”
In his populist book ‘Your Chinese Horoscope 2016’ writer Neil Somerville agrees:
“Whether swinging from branch to branch, playing chase with other monkeys, or observing his surroundings, the Monkey has great character and verve. And his energy can be seen in his own year. Almost as soon as Monkey year starts, its exciting and innovative nature will be apparent.”
So can we really expect a dynamic, volatile and eventful year ahead? In our age of secular humanism, aren’t we far too sophisticated to place any credibility in such ancient superstitions?
Neil Somerville makes a number of generalised predictions about the character and potential of the year ahead in his book. But perhaps more interestingly, he relates these to observations of previous Monkey years.
Considering dramatic political and historical events, he notes that previous Monkey years have witnessed such unexpected events as the birth of the Solidarity movement in Poland (which eventually led to the collapse of Soviet rule), riots on the streets of Paris and LA, and the uprising in Hungary in 1956. The USA started its independent nationhood in 1776, which was a Fire Monkey year. Somerville also notes that assassinations have been frequent in Monkey years – including those of Senator Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, and John Lennon.
Looking at innovation, meanwhile, Somerville points out that Marconi launched the first public broadcasting service in a Monkey year, and that Facebook was launched in the last Monkey year 12 years ago, giving rise to the social networking phenomenon.
Factor in the element of Fire, and can we expect even more volatility?
1956: the most recent Fire Monkey Year
Historian Simon Hall recently published his book ‘1956: The World in Revolt’ (Faber, 2015). He does not reference Chinese astrology – his is an academic history book.
Simon Hall’s book suggests that the year 1956 – the last Fire Monkey year, 60 years ago – was one of a handful of truly “iconic” years of the twentieth century, and was a high point of global transformation to compare with other years of great change: 1917, 1968 (also a Monkey Year) and 1989.
Hall argues that 1956 was a year in which we can observe that :
“ordinary people, all across the globe, speak out … take up arms and lose their lives in an attempt to build a more just world.”
He cites the civil rights movement in the US, including the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955-6, sparked when activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger. He goes on to list the Algerian uprising against French colonialism, the uprisings against Soviet rule in Poland and Hungary, Nasser’s challenges to British and French imperial influence in the Middle East during the Suez crisis, and the arrival of Castro and Che Guevarra and their band of insurgents in Cuba to begin their revolution there.
It’s a pretty compelling list of significant – and often unexpected – activity on the world stage. Could 2016 be another year of monumental global change and initiative?
Only time will tell! But we all have a part to play in the story of 2016. And whatever the year, our own initiatives can always make a huge difference!
HAPPY NEW YEAR!