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What Do Monkeys Mean to You
2004/10/27

With the Chinese Spring Festival drawing near, one can spot monkey images here and there on the streets.

According to Chinese astrology (where years correspond to 12 different animals), the coming year will be the Year of the Monkey.

The Han nationality perceives the monkey as a lucky and smart animal. When the Chinese refer to someone as "a monkey", they mean to say that he or she is extremely sly or cunning.

The homonym "hou" (“monkey” in Chinese) also sounds like "high official." In ancient times, people seeking a promotion were fond of the monkey.

The monkey often appears in paintings, such as a monkey sitting in a maple tree, a monkey riding a horse, or a monkey standing on the shoulders of another monkey. Such images represent the expectation of a promotion.

The Monkey King

The appreciation of the monkey among the Chinese may also have originated from the popular novel The Monkey King, or Pilgrimage to the West -- one of the four greatest literary works in Chinese history. The book was written by Wu Cheng'en during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

In the fable, set during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the personified monkey, Sun Wukong, together with two other accursed spirits, accompanies an honored monk to the West in search of the Buddha Sakyamuni.

On their long and sacred journey, which lasts for many years, they confront 81 devils. Sun, who has magical powers, conquers this evil. This monkey therefore earned the title of legendary hero in the mind of every Chinese person.

There is even a series of Chinese kungfu moves imitating monkeys called "hou quan" (literally, “monkey fist”).

Eating the brains of live monkeys was also a famous Chinese culinary delight, which has since become very rare.

Live monkeys were tied up and their skulls were sliced open so that the brain could be eaten when very fresh. Chefs would then sprinkle some soup, herbs or oil on the brain, making it a most delicious and nutritious dish. The practice has now been banned by the Chinese government for its cruelty and to protect wild animals. Most Chinese people can no longer bear the thought of eating this type of meal.

Animal Mystery

People of folk beliefs do not like the Year of the Monkey, which -- along with the Year of the Dog -- is traditionally linked to disasters and bad harvests.

Another bad year is that of the ram (or sheep), such as 2003. Many mothers did not want to bear children, especially girls last year since ram children were destined to lead miserable lives.

At the other extreme, a particularly good year is that of the pig.

No accurate records exist regarding when the Chinese animal calendar was first applied. The earliest description occurs in a book written during the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220). It appears that the years of certain animals were related to people's understanding of astronomy.

Twelve is considered a providential number. Ancient people noticed that 12 cycles of the moon's waxing and waning roughly made up one full year.

A day was divided into 12 "shichen" (one "shichen" equals two hours).

Starting from the early morning, every "shichen" was represented by an animal. During each period of two hours the selected animal was considered to be most active.

The first two hours (12:00 am to 2:00 am) was designated for mice, which came out to find food, followed by cattle, which began working the fields before dawn, then tigers, and so on. Monkeys were active from 4:00 pm to 6:00 pm. Of all the animals, only the dragon is fictional.

These 12 animals were used to represent years in turn, starting with the mouse and ending with the pig.

Many stories have been told about the selection of the 12 animals. However, they took shape over a long period of time, as traditional folk tales emerged by generations of Chinese.

In China and for Chinese people abroad, the 12 years form one "ji" or "lun" (a complete cycle of time).

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