2016: The Year of The Monkey? Er, Fire Monkey? Tell Me More!

With every new year, comes another "New Year" for those who follow Chinese tradition. On February 8 of 2016, we will shift from the former year of 乙未 (yǐwèi) in the 60-year Chinese cycle, which was the "Year of the Sheep" to the new year known as 丙申 (bǐngshēn) in the 60-year cycle, which will be the Year of the Monkey. This means we are coming out of a "Yin" year and going into a "Yang" year. Great news for guys, as the feminine energy turns into masculine energy. We won't bore you with the inane details of the Taoist beliefs or the lunar calendar, but if you're so curious, you can read up on the Chinese calendar here.

Year of the Monkey!

By birth years, who belongs to the "Year of the Monkey" that would be around right now? Well, considering the 12-year cycle, we can work out that this is anyone who was born in 1920, 1932, 1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, or 2004. What does that mean for you? Well, remember, first of all, this is just superstition, and asking this is tapping into Taoist beliefs, but if you're so curious, it means that you'r in for a bad year! What? Isn't it supposed to be "your" year? Actually, no. The idea of good or bad luck for the New Year is based in Taoist tradition. And the bad news is, they're not the only ones in for a bad year either?

Why the Bad Luck? Who's In For It?

As we've discussed last year, every year in Taoist belief, has a "god of the year", known as a 太岁 (Tàisuì). These figures are all major figures in Taoist beliefs, some of which come from Chinese history as well. Each of these figures is said to bring good luck to some during that year, neutral luck to others, and bad luck on those who oppose him. Each year, this works out to a various balance of allies, neutral parties, and foes every year that correspond to the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac. In the particular year we are now entering, known as the 丙申 (bǐngshēn) year, the Taisui this year is said to be General Guan Zhong. It is belived that bad luck will fall on those who "offend" General Guan Zhong this year. That would be anyone who belongs to the Year of the Monkey, Pig, Tiger, and Dog this year. Of course, if you're superstitious, you might be able to regain some favor by wearing a lot of red, changing the layouts of your rooms to suit the "lucky direction" of south, or get yourself a pixiu for good luck.

The Legend of The Monkey

Each of the twelve animals in the Zodiac has an associated myth behind it, so let's take a look at the Monkey's myth. This is the story of how out of all the animals in the world, a mischevious and small monkey would come to be one of the divine twelve of the zodiac.

The Monkey is said to be particularly close to the Tiger (Monkeys and Tigers, take note). This is because in the Monkey's myth, he was said to be good friends with his neighbor, the Tiger, who he respected like an older brother. He would watch over the Tiger's domain when he was away. It said one day that the Lion fell into a trap, and he thougt of his monkey friend and roared ferociously. Hearing the noise, the monkey went to rescue the lion, The lion of course, felt shame in being saved by the monkey, and perhaps feared that one day, the monkey might be able to best him. He considered whether or not he should attack or harm his neighbor. However, as he thought some more, he realized that he didn't have many friends, so he shouldn't let his pride get in the way, and simply opted to offer to return the favor to the monkey, who was glad to give his lion brother some face. The two lived harmoniously, with the lion promising to save the monkey if he ever was in danger. The monkey, being clever and observant, never had the misfortune occur to him. However, a "lion of his word", the lion would find another way to repay the favor. When the Jade Emperor, god of the humans, came about to select from the world the twelve divine animals, he selected them carefully on the basis of those who were useful to humans. Lions and horses, of course had their advantages, but monkeys not so much. When the monkey went to speak with the Jade Emperor, he was coldly rebuffed for this reason and was so declined. However, with the memory of his friend's timely action, when the lion spoke with the Jade Emperor, he made the case that the monkey was a great ally, and even if not important, a caring and friendly animal worthy of the recognition, although the lion, with pride on the line, was admittedly a bit ashamed of helping his friend achieve accesion into the 12 divine animals. It is said even today, the implicit friendship is a bit straned. It is however, part of Chinese history, and the monkey story reminds us that even the meek can have big moments, and there is power in having friends and allies.

Why The Fire Year?

You may hear that this year is a "Fire Year" as well. Why is this? Well, it goes back to the all-important 60-year cycle, of course! To gently remind you, the 60-year cycle is assembled from a combination of ten "heavenly stems" and twelve "earthly stems" that alternate in a variety of ways to create a sixty year cycle. Each specific year has a special name within the 60-year cycle, with this coming year being 丙申 (bǐngshēn) and the previous being 乙未 (yǐwèi). These two-character year names are made up of one heavenly stem, and an accompanying earthly stem. Are you still with us?

Well, basically, the first character (the heavenly stem) is considered dominant, and the second character (the earthly stem) less so. Now, each of the ten heavenly stems has an associated element from the "five elements". Now, you mathematicians out there have deduced that there's ten stems, and five elements, right? Well, each element has a corresponding "Yin" year as well as a "Yang" year, and the elements follow a certain order. So, the first two heavenly stems which are, 甲 (jiǎ) and 乙 (yǐ), correspond to the wood element, which is considered the first of the five elements in this context. In fact, the previous two Chinese new years were 甲午 (jiǎwǔ) in 2014 and 乙未 (yǐwèi) in 2015. Notice how the first character in both years corresponds to the heavenly stems. These years were considered "wood years", as they corresponded to the Wooden Yang (2014) and Wooden Yin years (2015). The next two heavenly stems, 丙(bǐng) and 丁(dīng) correspond to the element of fire, with 丙(bǐng) being the masculine Yang fire year, and 丁(dīng) being the feminine Yin fire year. These will be the heavenly stems for 2016 and 2017. The other six, by the way correspond as follows:戊(wù) and 己(jǐ) correspond to the Masculine/Yang Earth year and feminine/Yin Earth year (2018 and 2019), 庚(gēng) and 辛(xīn) will represent the Masculine/Yang metal and feminine/Yin metal years (2020 and 2021), and 壬(rén) and 癸(guǐ) will represent the Masculine/Yang water and feminine/Yin water years (2022 and 2023). As you can guess, the cycle starts over again in 2024. So, it's just a function of the cycle.

Anything else?

This year, 丙申 (bǐngshēn) is said to have especially close ties to the heat of the sun, being that it has the fire element in common. Some sources say that anyone turning 60 this year, or being born this year will have an especially large reserve of energy, and be able to accomplish anything that the mind is put to. It is also said that people born in the 丙申 (bǐngshēn) year are well-liked and like the risks, but need to keep in mind safety and stability to some degree, and need to be careful not to let other people drain them too much. Some other factoids about the year include the "dominant direction" being South-west, the "dominant season" being summer, and the dominant symbol being the Vermillion Bird.

Modern Chinese New Year

Most typically, Chinese New Year in America is celebrated amongst Chinese communities. The varying degrees of “American” and “Chinese” in American-Chinese identity need to be pointed out. Not all Chinese people will celebrate all traditions. But amongst the most common ones are the handing out of red evenlopes, 红包 (hóngbāo) with money to wish prosperity upon children, a usual visit to family and sometimes friends to wish them a happy new year, often with plenty of food, drinks, and games. This kind of visiting in particular is known as 拜年 (bàinián). There are also usually dragon dances held at larger community centers. Another tradition is the lighting of fireworks, both this and the dragon dance are said to help ward and scare off evil spirits to start the year off on the right foot. Each country that celebrates it usually has its own rendition of a Chinese New Year party on TV, most famously China puts on the “Chinese New Year Get-Together” known as 春晚 (Chūnwǎn). All in all, Chinese people take this time to throw out the bad luck and sorrows of past years and start the new year off on a good foot.

Related Vocabulary

The current year in the Chinese cycle from February 8, 2016 until until Jan 28, 2017.
The Year of the Monkey
The Chinese traditional agricultural calendar, upon which Chinese New Year is based and calculated
A group name for the twelve mythical animals of the lunar cycle
The current "ruling god of the year"
A "guardian animal" usually worn or placed nearby thought to bring good luck on those who have/wear it
The evening before Chinese New Year, typically when much of the festivities take place.
A famous TV arts and talent showcase program in China watched on Chinese New Year's Eve
The first day of the new Chinese year, literally "Spring Festival".
ancient times
red envelope (usually filled with money as a gift, esp. to children)
verb - to pay a visit to friends/family near Chinese New Year
the "return" year of the Chinese cycle to your birth year/animal, allegedly unlucky