Red Underwear in the Chinese New Year

Happy Chinese New Year of the Snake

Happy Chinese New Year, which began a few days ago on Sunday, February 10th.

If you are a snake, born in the lunar year of 1929, 1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, CONGRATULATIONS! People born in the Year of the Snake are said to be intuitive, extremely intelligent, and to have good luck with money.

The Chinese New Year begins on a different day each year, typically in February but sometimes January, according to the lunar calendar. So the place mat under your soup at the local diner may not correctly identify your zodiac birth animal if you were born in those months. You have to Google your birth date to be sure. You might discover you are not a snake after all, for example, but a dragon.

Whatever your zodiac animal, there are also five elements – earth, air, fire, water, wood – that temper characteristics and add complexity. My Mandarin teacher was born in the year of the earth dragon, for example, and earth dragons are said to be practical and level-headed, not as combustible as fire dragons (advice on earth dragon personalities and other zodiac characteristics in this guide).

I was surprised to learn that Chinese people consider your zodiac birth year (in Chinese běnmìng nián, 本命年, literally “root life/destiny year”) a time of bad luck. So, if you are a Snake, expect some challenge. Even more disheartening, the bad luck continues past your běnmìng nián into the following year. When your běnmìng nián year is at hand, Chinese mothers advise their daughters to wear red underwear, and jade necklaces, to ward off the malicious forces.

Besides year of birth, birth weight is also an important indicator of personality and fate. Your birth weight can predict your “whole lifetime fortune.” Time of birth is additionally significant.

Such beliefs reinforce the perception of Chinese as superstitious, though superstition is hardly a rich enough word for the millenniums-old folk and cultural traditions that situate them in the world, and give birth years, names, and colors special meanings. Red for example is famously auspicious, corresponding with fire, and symbolizing good fortune and joy. Red lanterns and red signs are found everywhere on holidays and especially during Chinese New Year.

None of this should be surprising, really, as societies everywhere have all kinds of credulous traditional practices; last month my business partner wished me happy New Year but moaned that he’s worried. “This year is 2013. Thirteen. That’s unlucky, right? It’s the only year in the entire century with 13 in it. We’re going to have bad luck.”

I’ll have to buy him some red underwear. And since I was born in the year of the snake, yikes, a couple of pair for myself. And start wearing a jade ring. The world’s a dangerous place. There’s a lot to watch out for.

Seattle’s International District wasn’t the only local place bathed in red over the New Year weekend. The Pathfinder school located in West Seattle had its first annual Chinese New Year performance, and red lanterns made from construction paper festooned the hallways and stage so everything glowed. Pathfinder, an alternative kindergarten through 8th-grade public school, has a special teacher from mainland China who teaches Middle Kingdom culture to grades K-5, and Mandarin to grades 6-8. Half his salary is paid by China and half by Seattle Public Schools.

The Pathfinder Chinese program is a fractional aspect of Seattle’s international education ambitions, manifested in a dozen special International Schools around the city where students enjoy language immersion and a global perspective on all content.

You can enter an International School in kindergarten and continue all the way through graduation, though the project is only about 10-years-old and so no students have quite done that yet. Preliminary metrics suggest the program provides a superior education. The International Schools started out with Japanese and Spanish but Mandarin was soon added, in large part due to parent demand. The business community, Gates Foundation, Confucius Institute of Washington State, Asia Society and others have been willing partners in the international education effort, and sometimes instigators.

About ten-percent of Seattle students will be in International Schools, according to Karen Kodama, the International Education Administrator.

On Friday evening the youngest Pathfinder students poured tea and folded red construction paper into lanterns, while the older students performed folk stories, did Tai Chi and wished everybody xin nian kuai le, happy New Year. And parents looked past the stage to see titans of the globalized 21st century world.

Parents watch as students perform the first annual Chinese New Year celebration at Pathfinder school, a K-8 public school in Seattle.


About the “Happy Chinese New Year” image at the top: I drew the snake and characters using traditional brush and black ink, then scanned the image and  edited it with Photoshop Elements














about the image at the top: I drew the snake and calligraphy using traditional brush and ink, scanned the image into the computer, edited it and added color and English text with Photoshop Elements