Exploring the symbolism around Lunar New Year

You Dirty (Metal) Rat

Ky Vien Lion team perform a traditional lion dance for the lunar new year at Morongo Casino in California. Lion dances are meant to bring good luck and drive away evil spirits. COLE TRAN/Contributed

My name is Tiffany, and I am a wood rat. I am not one of our endangered little Key Largo rodents, but, according to Chinese astrology and philosophy and by virtue of my birth year and season, my “element” is wood and I was born in the year of the rat.

The lunar new year is marked by the first new moon of the lunar calendar and typically falls in late January or early February. This day is commonly known as Chinese New Year (Chun Jie), but is also celebrated in Vietnam (tết), Korea (Seollal), Tibet (Losar), and other Asian countries. This year, tết falls on Saturday, Jan. 25 and denotes the first day of spring.

My family hails from Vietnam, where tết celebrations last from that first new moon until the first full moon of the lunar calendar, 15 days later. During this time, people visit ancestors’ graves, give children lucky red envelopes filled with money, light firecrackers to ward off evil spirits, and refuse to sweep in case it sweeps away all of their good luck.

I am the first person in my family to be born and raised in the U.S, so growing up, some of these old traditions sounded like superstitious Asian wives’ tales. Nevertheless, I followed them anyway; I didn’t want to tempt fate in case she really is an old Chinese sage.

So, what does this upcoming Year of the Metal Rat mean for me, the wood rat? “Not good. It might be a very bad year for you,” my mom warned me over the phone.

According to Asian astrology and philosophy, each person’s destiny is determined by a complex mix of their date and time of birth, zodiac sign (birth year), and where the major planets and celestial bodies (sun, moon, comets, etc.) were when he or she was born.

Your birth year according to the lunar calendar generally determines your zodiac animal. People born in January/February need to check when the lunar new year occurred the year they were born to ensure they know their correct animal, since the lunar new year occurs after the calendar new year.

A person’s birth year determines his/her zodiac sign. The 12 zodiac animals are: Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. In Vietnam, Rabbit is replaced by Cat. This cycle is part of how my mom and others like her forecast what the lunar new year will bring.

The other cycle at play has to do with the five elements: wood, fire, earth, metal and water. The belief is that the world changes according to how these five elements interact with each other — generating and overcoming, yin and yang.

Earth is balanced by the opposing forces of the generating and overcoming interactions between the five elements. TRAVELCHINAGUIDE.COM/Contributed

The five generating interactions promote development: metal carries water (buckets, pipes); water nourishes wood; wood fuels fire; fire forms earth/ash; earth produces metal. Such element pairs imply good luck and success.

The five overcoming interactions control development or create destruction: metal penetrates wood (chopping, ax, sawing); wood separates earth (tree roots); earth absorbs water; water quenches fire; fire melts metal. These interactions bring bad luck and destruction.

The interplay of the zodiac and the element cycles means a metal rat year like 2020 only comes around every 60 years. And the present-day alignment (or misalignment) of all these different philosophies determines each person’s fortune for the upcoming year.

So, my mom cautions me that it might be a rough year for me. 2020 is my zodiac year, or năm tuổi in Vietnamese, she tells me. “Remember your dad died in his năm tuổi, your grandma died in her năm tuổi, and your aunt lost all her money in her năm tuổi,” she warns. “So be very careful next year.” Whoa. I hear you, mom.

A person’s zodiac year is any year when his/her zodiac animal sign cycles back. This happens every 12 years because it is a 12-year, 12-animal cycle. According to Chinese astrology, people in their zodiac year offend Tai Sui, the God of Age and incur his wrath and bad luck. Therefore, believers take extra care every 12th year of their lives when their zodiac animal cycles back around.

As if my offending zodiac year wasn’t enough, I am also a wood rat living in a metal rat’s year. Metal cuts wood in an overcoming interaction, and so, according to traditional thinking, the metallic element of this upcoming year could wreak havoc upon my woody essence.

So what’s a wood rat gal to do to combat all this bad luck? Well, I can wear red and jade, as both are meant to bring good fortune. I can rearrange myself and my home to face away from Tai Sui and avoid his curse. And, I can invest in a water fountain or fish tank to enhance my good luck because water nourishes wood, so its presence will bolster my wood element.

I don’t know if I’ve really pissed off the God of Age and will need extra luck this year, but, come the 25th, you can bet I’ll be wearing red, driving south away from Tai Sui, and going for a swim in a southern-facing sea. Wish me good luck!

My 95-year-old grandpa with red envelopes for all his grandchildren on lunar new year. Traditionally elders exchange the lucky envelopes for good wishes from children. TIFFANY DUONG/Keys Weekly

Ways to bring good luck to yourself in the Lunar New Year:

  • Wear red because it’s lucky and can drive away bad luck or evil spirits. Red underwear is particularly highly recommended but must be bought for you by someone else.
  • Wear jade to ward off bad luck .
  • Face away from Tai Sui, or the God of Age: Tai Sui changes his position every cycle. In 2020, he is facing due North (0 °), so face yourself, your bed, and your desk away from him due South (180°) for better luck.