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Celebrating Chinese New Year

PUBLISHED: 14:29 28 January 2009 | UPDATED: 16:04 25 August 2010

COLOURFUL: Ashley Davis helps organise the parade in north Kent.

COLOURFUL: Ashley Davis helps organise the parade in north Kent.

ON first glance newly-elected president of the USA Barrack Obama, Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson and abstract painter Pablo Picasso may seem to have little in common. But according to the Chinese zodiac they share startling similarities...

ON first glance newly-elected president of the USA Barrack Obama, Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson and abstract painter Pablo Picasso may seem to have little in common.

But according to the Chinese zodiac they share startling similarities as they were all born in the Year of the Ox, clearly evident from the success they have all achieved.

The Ox is the second animal in the 12-year cycle of the Chinese zodiac. Each of the 12 years is named after an animal which is believed to be the governing factor in determining the personality, success and happiness of anyone born in that particular year.

Oxen are said to be self-assured, patient and thoughtful but can be stubborn and narrow-minded. They are often well-suited to becoming doctors, managers or business leaders and most romantically compatible with those born in the years of the Rat, Snake or Rooster.

According to legend the sequence of the zodiac animals was arranged following a race ordered by the ruler of heaven, the Jade Emperor.

He gathered all of the animals together and promised to name the 12 zodiac years in honour of the first 12 animals that crossed a fast-flowing river the quickest. The animals all lined up on the shore and the cat and the rat, once close friends but poor swimmers, convinced the gullible ox to carry them across the water.

Fearing that the cat might win the race the rat pushed him into the river halfway across sparking the animosity which the two animals now feel for one another.

Just before the ox reached the shore the rat jumped off his back and took first place, leaving the ox to finish second followed by the tiger, the rabbit, the dragon, the snake, the horse, the sheep, the monkey, the rooster, the dog and finally the pig and so the order of the zodiac years was established.

Unlike the western Gregorian calendar, which is arranged arithmetically according to movements of the earth around the sun, the Chinese calendar is based on cycles of the moon phases. This is why the Chinese New Year isn't always on the same day in the Western calendar as the first new moon of the year falls sometime in January or February.

This year the New Year was on Monday and skies around the world were lit up with fireworks and streets resounded to the sound of beating drums as people everywhere celebrated to usher in the Year.

Kit Leung, secretary at the Faith, Hope and Love Fellowship Chinese Service Centre, said: "The word year in Chinese, nian, is the name of a terrible beast. Many years ago it came out to frighten the village people. That's why people want to make loud sounds to try and scare that animal and gradually they developed firecrackers to make louder sounds to get rid of it.

"The beast is also afraid of the colour red so the fire crackers are red to scare it away and we give red envelopes with cash in them to people.

But envelope givers should be warned as the amount of money inside can affect the kind of luck the gift brings.

Mrs Leung added: "We usually like to give things in even numbers as it is good fortune to pair up. Eight is good luck as it means wealth."

Another instantly recognisable element of the Chinese New Year celebrations is the acrobatic lion dance. The performance usually involves two dancers, one being the lion's head and the other its hindquarters, that mimic the movements of the lion accompanied by the sound of drums, gongs and cymbals. The lion is regarded as a guardian animal with the power to drive away evil spirits.

Ashley Davis, Chairman of Medway Dragon and Lion Dance Sports Association, organises the dances every year for the Chinese New Year parade held in Chatham. The celebrations are the third largest in the country and attract people from all over the county.

Mr Davis said: "The Chinese people are superstitious and they want to scare away the evil spirits of the New Year and the bad things that happened in the last year. There's a lion, a drummer who plays a heavy-skinned drum and a gong player who makes a really loud sound and you also have fire crackers. It's all intended to scare away evil spirits.

"Here in Chatham we have a performance called 'The Lion Climbing the High Pole'. The lion climbs up a scaffolding pole about 18ft tall and eats a lettuce which is at the top. This is known as 'Taking the Greens'.

The person in the costume will shred the lettuce and cascade it over the people below and that represents the spreading of good luck and wealth. In addition to their five lions the group also has two dragons which are much larger and involve many more performers.

"A dragon has got eight people in it and it operates on bamboo poles," Mr Davis explains, "In front of the dragon there is a person carrying a globe on a pole which represents the Earth. The dragon is a bringer of rain and in farming villages the crops grow well in the coming year so they have a dragon dance to bring the rain."

jason.goodyer@archant.co.uk

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