Friday, January 25, 2013

Auspicious beginnings for the Year of the Snake

A dragon-heart mandarin is considered a doubly auspicious plant as its name combines dragon, a symbol for power, strength and good luck, and mandarin, which is a symbol for riches and good fortune. I couldn't resist it, so now it is bearing both flowers and fruit at the same time on my balcony. We'll see if any good luck and fortunes will follow!
On Sunday, February 10th 2013, Chinese people all over the world will say goodbye to the Dragon and welcome the New Year of the Snake, one of the twelve animals inhabiting the Chinese zodiac. While in Western Culture the snake often represents betrayal and evil, in Chinese culture it quite surprisingly is a symbol of wisdom and kindness. According to an old Chinese saying "A snake in the house means the family will never starve" - so the snake is seen as a good omen instead of a horrible pest (maybe it scared the rats away - who knows?). The shedding of snake's skin denotes renewal and rebirth in life, and it is believed that those coming in contact with a person born in the snake year will gain greater vitality and energy. In mythology, the snake represents healing and renewal, so the Year of the Snake is a good time for inward reflection and transformation through release of past blockages.

Small paper packets like these are used to give money as a New Year's gifts to children. In art, still lifes and other arrangements, mandarins and oranges add the meaning of "speedily"; I was told (I can't read or speak any type of Chinese) that with the characters of "luck" (left) and "good fortune, happiness" (right), mandarins add the meaning of "speedily". Mandarins of course, are themselves a symbol for riches and good fortune, and the left packet has even small gold ingots symbolizing wealth scattered around the mandarin fruit. Layers upon layers of meanings to be read, even in the most simple objects as these. 
The New Year is the most important traditional holiday for the Chinese all over the world, and and so for the large majority of Singaporeans who are of Chinese origins. Most families try celebrate the holidays together, often travelling long distances in order to do so. Countless traditions and customs are connected to this celebration: special foods are prepared for the different times and days of the holiday and houses are cleansed and the floors swept to drive away any lingering ill luck and to make way for good fortune. New clothes are worn to ensure a clean, new start for the year, presents are bought and given to ensure prosperous new beginnings, and firecrackers are fired to scare off the evil spirits. 

Chinese lucky charms are no just decorative... The charm in the left has a tiny glass "cabbage" in Chinese is a homophone to cash and money, and therefore symbolizes wealth. An old-fashioned coin above it adds to the auspiciousness. The second charm has a green and a golden mandarin with a gold ingot above them - both are symbols for riches, wealth and good fortune. The charm in the right has a gourd, which represents the power of healing or protection against disease. And the cloud pattern of the fabric under them is one of the oldest decorative motifs in Chinese art; clouds represent the heaven and the word cloud is homophone "good fortune" (are you getting exhausted by now...?)
Decorations for the Chinese New Year are important part of the celebration, and loaded with auspicious omens and symbols to entice the gods and to bring good luck, health and prosperity. Many of them have been chosen as their names are homophones for something desirable, like one of the most common, the mandarin. The Chinese character for mandarin consists of two components that mean "plant or tree", and "auspicious, lucky", so the mandarin is considered as an "auspicious plant" (the Western convention is to translate this to orange, but the plant the character really refers to is botanically a mandarin type of orange). And as if this would not be enough, both its golden color and round form are also considered propitious, and serve as symbols for riches and good fortune. I'm not a very superstitious person, but I went and bought three dragon-heart mandarin plants (including the one in the first picture), so there's should be no end to the auspiciousness in our lives in the coming year. May the Year of the Snake bring prosperity, luck and health to you all.

The local nursery has gone wild with all things orange... expensive arrangements with mandarins fill the ground; to the left, high mandarin plants have been trimmed into eight separate tiers (eight is a lucky number for the Chinese). The plants are decorated with red bows (color red is a symbol of joy and protects against evil), and with symbols for good fortune (fu is the Chinese character) and surplus (the fish, as in having enough to eat with leftovers). The paper pineapple lanterns are symbols for prosperity, and all shops have several of them hanging from the ceilings this time of the year to secure good profit in the coming year. Below, a sea of small mandarin plants - oh, the agony of choosing only one...


Streams Full of Stars said...

Dear Liisa,
Your photographs are so beautiful and the information interesting. May visitors to your blog post your photos on Pinterest? (linking to your blog of course)

The Intercontinental Gardener said...

Thank you, Sharen! It is so nice of you to ask; I've seen my photos on Pinterest without anyone asking, so if you want to put them there yes, but it would be great if you can link them to my blog (they are my "babies", after all...).