"Today [...] is the Panchom Grande[Big Firecracker] and the celebration of the Quarentoras [Forty Hours] [...]."
An entry in the diary of a nineteenth century Macanese, 11 it is followed by several remarks on the risks of encountering "bobos reinós"("revelling jesters") on the streets. 2 This takes us to a commonly recurring theme in Macao: the overlapping of the Chinese New Year (commonly called Chun jie ('Spring Festival')) with Carnival, brought to the city by the Europeans.
This overlapping of celebrations is a consequence of the fact that they are both cyclic, their dates changing according to the solar/lunar calendars. The deviation in timing that can be observed in certain years is due, precisely, to the fundamental difference between the Gregorian solar calendar3 and the traditional Chinese lunar calendar. In the first case, to accommodate the adjustment necessary when the length of time it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun exceeds three-hundred-and-sixty-five days, a leap-year is inserted, a day added to the month of February. In the second case, an 'intercalate' month is added every three years (i. e., nine times every twelve years).
A second reason for the deviation lies in the compulsory correspondence between Chinese New Year and the New Moon. This signifies that Carnival must fall on a Sunday (Shrove Sunday), thus limiting the overlapping of the two festivals to the coincidence of the New Moon with this day of the week.
From this coinciding of dates, we can arrive at the conclusion that both Chinese New Year and Carnival must be related to the same very ancient festival: that of the cult of Fire and the Sun (the end of the 'dead season'; the phenomenon of renewal; and the coming of spring; i. e., the victory of Life over Death).
Today, even in the West, Carnival is considered to correspond to the advent of spring (the Winter Solstice) and the beginning of the new agricultural year in the lunar calendar. Among agrarian populations, this was always considered a time of purification during which rituals would be performed to expel winter's dark forces. Homage would be paid to the fertility of the land and the fertilising powers of the sky — a New Year celbration in its most fundamental form.
Many ethnologists and historians compare the celebrations surrounding Carnival with the Roman Saturnalia (the New Year festival of classical Roman times). 4 As both are grounded in an old agrarian theism which perpetuated in the collective memory the orgiastic character of the Carnival, equivalent to the excesses allowed in the Roman Saturnalia, they therefore correspond to the notion that fertility is attracted by fertility and abundance attracted by abundance. After Julius Caesar's reform of the calendar, this festival, which occurred in February/March, was changed to December. However, the agrarian world didn't lose sight of the former date, which became the future celebration of Carnival that was to shake Europe and travel beyond its borders.
With the advent of Christianity, the Church, in order to refrain its believers from participating in the old pagan orgies, established different dates for the old celebrations of the New Year. Thus, Christmas (the celebration of the birth of Christ), overlaps the Winter Solstice (the celebration of the New Sun) and coincides with New Year's Eve and Epiphany (6th of January)). And, equally, the Meditation of the Quarentoras [Port.], preceding Lent, coincides with the date of the subsequently named Carnival, from the Latin expression came levare (i. e., abstinence).
In the Middle Kingdom (the Chinese Empire), the celebration of the New Year, with all its ancient and largely forgotten rituals, seems to testify to the existence of a similar ancient cult. Several of the practices have, however, come down to us intact. Amongst these we may mention the burning of the Zaoji (Kitchen God), a figure worshipped all year round, with incense, candles and flowers, by more conservative Chinese. Burned on the twenty-fourth day of the twelfth moon — the celebration of the Winter Solstice, preceding New Year — the figure of the Kitchen God is returned to its shrine at precisely zero hour, between the Hour of the Mouse and the Hour of the Ox, of the un tan.• The reason why the Kitchen God is especially venerated during the New Year celebrations is perhaps due to the fact that he is considered to represent the very fire which, in ancient times, had to be permanently tended in ovens. The ceremonies of the 'renewal of fire' and those marking the end of the 'dead season' — during which no work was done in the fields —were characterised by orgiastic festivities connected with the fertility cult. 5 These, according to Marcel Granet, seem to point to a celebration common to all agrarian economies. Equally, in China, the first day of the year was considered the Day of the Rooster6— the announcer of the rising sun — a symbol of Fire and resurrection in the ancient Mediterranean civilisations.
In the first years of the Zhou dynasty (ca 1122-255BC), the New Year started during what is now the Jidong (twelveth or last Lunar month). However, as calendars differed from province to province, it is now very difficult to establish an exact chronology. In 104BC, the old Chinese calendar was reformed, but it was only in 1912 that the government of the Republic of China adopted the Gregorian Calendar of the West.
After the reforms of the year 104BC, New Year's Day started to coincide with the first Moon of the Menchung • (first Lunar month) after the Sun had entered the Eagle Constellation [sic], which corresponds to a period somewhere around our 21st of January. However, the rural populations never ceased to celebrate the old date, which eventually became the modern celebration of Spring, a fact altogether similar to what had happened in Europe with the birth of Carnival.
In Imperial China, according to the Yue Li•(Monthly Instructions) of the early Zhou dynasty, the religious year started in springtime — its celebration involving a number of grandiose ceremonies performed by the sovereign, the magistrates and the people. These ceremonies consisted of Heaven, Earth and Ancestor worship.
As the interdictions imposed by winter came to an end, farm work was resumed. The Emperor himself would sacrifice to the Shangdi • (Emperor of Heaven), the precise day being determined by the elders through the use of a tortoise carapace for divination.
When the precise day arrived, the kai ian (rooster-men) would announce the rising of the Sun, and the Emperor, who had been in abstinence for ten days, would dress in a garment embroidered with representations of the Sun and Moon and place a twelve pendant diadem on his head. A carriage decorated with symbols representing the Twelve Flames and Dragons, allied to the Sun and Moon, would then take him to the circular altar south of the capital, where a sacrifice would be performed. There, amidst great solemnity, the sacred bull would immolated to the sound of musical instruments.
The new season was thus initiated, and with it the population resumed its agricultural tasks. There would be orgiastic celebrations scattering the young throughout the fields, much joy and abundant feasting. Villagers would paint their doorframes with the blood of sacrificed animals to cast away malign influences and attract Heaven's blessings for the New Year. Piles of dried bamboo would also be burnt, crackled over the fire's flames. 7
In the same way as in the West, where Christianity transformed pagan celebrations by adopting them, in third century BC China, Confucianism managed to transform ancient orgiastic celebrations into celebrations of family cohesion and ancestral veneration. Thus, of the ancient New Year practices that have come down to us through the ages, we still have the red pieces of paper, with or without congratulatory messages — mainly the three rectangular papers glued to the door posts and lintel in substitution and in imitation of the blood of the sacrificed animals — and the fire-crackers, which fill the air with noise for three consecutive days, covering the soil with the auspicious red of the gunpowder-shattered cartridges and reenacting the noise of piles of crackling bamboo. Heaven and Ancestor worship has also survived through the centuries, as has both family consolidation and social cohesion through ritual domestic and temple practices.
Another tradition which has its origins in ancient times, and which still has quite a large following in Macao, is the offering of laisi • (lucky money) in small red paper packets. In ancient times, however, laisi were not usually decorated with the symbolic elements which they auspiciously display today.
Mention must also be made of the exchange of complimentary cards with erudite and/or symbolic phrases wishing a 'Happy and Prosperous New Year'. Although there are those who claim that this is a European creation, spread by the British around the middle of the nineteenth century, in truth, Chinese scholars used to exchange large red cards with finely painted auspicious phrases long before the habit was introduced by westerners. They would do so together with traditional presents, in accordance with the archaic and complex cultural habit of receiving and giving. This entailed that just a portion of the present would be accepted, the remaining part being returned to the giver. 8 Influenced by the cards exchanged by the British in the East, Chinese cards evolved into a hybrid form, resulting in the modern mixed form used in Macao and Hong Kong today, where the old symbolic elements are still valued. Although there is a wide variety, these symbolic elements generally correspond to the three most desired forms of happiness: fecund progeny, social promotion and long life.
There is not space here to attempt to give a detailed description of what remains of the old Chinese New Year ceremonies in Macao, with their ritual dishes characterised by abundance, variety and symbolism. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that from abstinence food to the more exquisite dishes that are eaten there is still a wide range of bolinhos [Port.] (sweets), dried sweets, mushrooms, algae, roots and lotus seeds which, along with tangerines, bear names homophonous to the phrases used to bestow the desire for a Happy New Year. In effect, during New Year, all words and gestures must be selected with the utmost care. One should only make use of words denoting prosperity and should always maintain an auspicious attitude.
The risk involved in gambling during New Year is a vehement expression of the wish for wealth in the year about to begin. Smiles and happiness are exchanged amidst the shreds of colourful red paper that pour into the streets from the deafening bursting firecrackers. Red can be seen everywhere: on the sidewalks; all over the floor; on clothes; and even on children's lips.
On this day, renewal is compulsory: of clothes, houses, meals, and in the very interruption of work. It is Cosmic renewal performed on Earth. 9 Hardship and bad luck are forgotten. The tiredness of the Old Year is exchanged for the vitality of the New Year and welcomed with boundless joy and saluted with the wishes expressed in the friendly greeting: Kong Hei Fat Choi! Kong Hei Fat Choi!• (Happy New Year! Happy New Year!).
Translated from the Portuguese by: Rui Cascais Parada
* Ph. D (Lisbon). Lecturer in Anthropology at the Instituto de Ciências Sociais e Politicas (Institute of Social and Political Sciences), Lisbon. Consultant for the Centre for Oriental Studies of the Fundação Oriente (Orient Foundation). Author of a wide range of publications dealing, primarily, with Ethnography in Macao. Member of the International Association of Anthropology and other Institutions.
1BSGL: Secção de Desenhos (Drawings Section), Est. [Bookshelf] 9, Mç. [Pile] 2. Doc.15 — Diário do macaense Francisco António Pereira da Silveira (1841-1872) — Espólio de [Estate of] João Feliciano Marques Pereira.
2European Portuguese wearing masks.
3In the first Roman Calendar attributed to Romulus, and found in Alba Longa, each year numbered three hundred and four days and was divided into ten months. After it was reformed, the work for which was attributed to Numa, each year started to have twelve months and three-hundred-and-fifty-five days. To account for the difference between this and the solar year, an extra month consisting of twenty-two or twenty-three days was added every two years. This correction, however, proved unsatisfactory and the Calendar suffered a succession of changes. In 46BC, Julius Caesar readjusted the civilian year with the astronomic year, giving it four-hundred-and-forty-five days, adopting for future years a period of three-hundred-and-sixty-five days and six hours (eleven minutes and fourteen seconds more than the translation of the earth). With the remaining six hours, a system of leap years was created which consisted of the addition of one day every four years. The beginning of the year was then transferred from the 1st of May to the 1st of January. The time difference accumulated through many years pointed to the need for new changes. After thorough study, Pope Gregory XIII, in the Bule Inter gravissimas of 24th February 1582, declared a new correction, hence giving birth to the Gregorian Calendar, which substituted the Julian [Julius Caesar].
4The Roman Saturnalia marked the end of the year, which, before Caesar's reform of the Calendar, and even since more remote times, ended in February/ March.
5GRANET, Marcel, Légendes et Chansons de la Chine Anciènne, 1945, 2 vols., Paris, Payot, vol.1.
6The first hour of the day, the first Lunar Month of each year and the first year of each Jiazi zhou qibiao. (Sexagennial Cycle) correspond to the sign of the Mouse, one of the twelve animals of the Zhongguo huangdaodai (Chinese zodiac).
Some authors attribute a totemic origin to these animals, others, an astronomic one, while there are also those who argue that they were in fact introduced into China at a late date from Turkey or even Mesopotamia.
A legend attributes to Buddha the convocation of all animals, electing the first twelve to arrive as characters of the twelve months or Moons, the twelve hours of the day and the series of twelve years of each Sexagennial Cycle.
Another legend, supposedly more ancient, attributes to the Shangdi (Jade Emperor), the mythical heavenly lord of archaic China, the establishment of a date on which all the animals should come to his palace to be elected by order of arrival as the characters of the Shier dizhi • (Twelve Earthly Branches).
Being extremely clever, the Mouse travelled on the back of the Ox which, due to its patience, strength and labour, walked day and night, therefore being the first to arrive near the meeting place. However, the Mouse anticipated the Ox, jumping to the floor and running ahead. Thus, it was the Mouse, and not the Ox, who was the first to arrive, first to have the honour of giving its name to the first hour of the day, the first lunar month, and the first year of every Sexagennial Cycle.
Surprisingly enough, the Cat is not to be found among this group of mythical domestic and wild animals. Nevertheless, it should be remembered that the Cat, part of the sacred traditions of Ancient Egypt and the Middle East, was unknown in the North of China, a similar situation to that of the Lion, which only later, with the advent of Buddhism, became part of the Chinese symbolic system.
This astrological system is considered to be very old in China, going back to the semi-legendary Huangdi • (Yellow Emperor) (ca 2637BC).
In Chinese Astrology, the Twelve Earthly Branches are also masculine or feminine according to the 'even' or 'odd' numbers with which the correspondent animals may be identified: the Ox, the Goat and the Pig have split feet and, therefore, are considered 'even' animals, equivalent to 'yin '• (the 'female principle'). The same happens with the Cock and the Rabbit, whose lip is split, and also the bifid tongued Snake. The Mouse, the Horse, the Tiger, the Monkey, the Dragon and the Dog are connected to the 'odd' elements and, therefore, with 'yang'• (the 'male principle').
7The day must have been 'sin' (eighth day of the Deccenial Fate Cycle) of the month before the spring equinox. These dates change according to the Calendars that were not unified at the time. As there are three decades a month, three 'sin' days, there was the need for using divination to determine the correct date.
8MASPERO, Henri, La Chine Antique, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France, 1970, pp. 187-219 — For quotations from the ancient texts collected in the eighth century AD.
Also see: GIRAUDIÉRE, Henri Chavannes de la, Les Chinois, Tours, 1845.
9This practice of reciprocity seems to have also been common among the Egyptians and Romans, where archeological excavations revealed oil lamps with the words "Happy New Year" written alongside the figure of Victory and the double face of Janus.
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