Happy new year! Time for some monkey business

Monkey business: Astrologers say babies born in 2016 will be enthusiastic and innovative. © PA

Today marks China’s biggest festival: the first day of the new lunar year. The mischievous Fire Monkey could bring lots of surprises throughout 2016 — if you believe in astrology, that is.

China is currently undertaking the world’s biggest annual migration, as around 2.9 billion trips are made across the country. Millions have left the vast cities to return to their hometowns, and last night fireworks and firecrackers exploded into life. The Year of the Fire Monkey has finally arrived.

The story begins with an ancient Chinese legend, in which the Jade Emperor announces a race. The first 12 animals to cross the river will have a Zodiac year named in their honour, he says. The strong ox almost wins — but the sneaky rat, travelling on the ox’s back, shoots out and takes first place. Then comes the tiger, the lucky rabbit, and the honourable dragon who had stopped to help a village along the way. They are followed by the snake, horse, ram, monkey, chicken, dog and pig.

In this order, the animals form a 12-year cycle of Chinese astrology, mirroring Jupiter’s orbit of the Sun. Five elements — wood, fire, earth, metal and water — create an even longer cycle which lasts 60 years. Each of these symbols carries its own strengths and weaknesses, and their interactions are used to write character profiles and life advice.

So what is in store for 2016? Astrologer Chen Shuaifu says that it may be an unlucky year for the ‘Dog’ Donald Trump, while fortunes could smile on the ‘Pig’ Hillary Clinton. But look out, he says. The world economy is set for a ‘big slide’.

Of course, this is only relevant if you believe in astrology. For thousands of years, many different cultures looked to the planets for help interpreting events back on Earth. And despite the arrival of modern religion and empirical science, the idea never quite disappeared.

Elizabeth I consulted her court astrologer John Dee. US president Ronald Reagan timed his key speeches to match ‘favourable’ positions of the stars. Today horoscopes are published in millions of newspapers and magazines.

Written in the stars

All superstitious nonsense, say some. Astrology has been proven wrong time and again. Scientifically speaking, the position of the planets at the time of your birth has zero influence over your love life or future career. These ancient approaches to the universe may have been useful once — when we didn’t know any better — but it is silly to search the skies for answers now.

Hold on, say others. Finding ‘proof’ of astrology is not the point. Regardless of the science, reading sage advice or a nuanced character profile can still help us to understand ourselves a little better — the wisdom gathered over centuries is more about the subtleties of character than the stars in the sky. It is another ‘lens’ through which we can interpret the world around us. What’s wrong with that?

You Decide

  1. What is your Chinese zodiac sign? Do you think it matches your personality?
  2. If you were editor of a big newspaper would you keep or drop the astrology column?

Activities

  1. Draw a storyboard for a video explaining the legend of the Chinese astrological signs.
  2. The Monkey is known for being energetic and full of surprises. With that in mind, write five possible predictions for 2016 and share with the rest of the class.

Some People Say...

“People only believe in what suits them.”

What do you think?

Q & A

If it’s not scientific, why does my horoscope feel true?
Many scientists would argue that this is due to something called confirmation bias: the tendency to pay more attention to the parts of your horoscope that are relevant, while dismissing anything that doesn’t fit. Others argue that horoscopes are written to be deliberately vague. ‘Be careful with your money’ or ‘take some exercise’ is probably good advice regardless of when you were born.
So it’s nonsense. Why are we learning about it?
Many people still find astrology useful, despite its lack of any scientific proof; there is not necessarily anything wrong with that, as long as they are aware of the difference. In the end, the more we know about each other’s traditions and beliefs, the more understanding we can be in the future.

Word Watch

2.9 billion trips
According to China’s Ministry of Transport, this is the number of trips expected to be made during the 40-day Spring Festival from 21 January to 3 March 2016, with the majority taking place this past weekend. For context, China’s population is around 1.3 billion.
Jade Emperor
Also known as the Heavenly Grandfather, the Jade Emperor is a Chinese deity of the country’s traditional religions. There is no single Chinese creation myth, but in one the Jade Emperor forms the first humans out of clay.
Zodiac
An imaginary belt in the sky through which the planets, sun and moon all move. It is divided into twelve constellations. In Chinese astrology these correspond to the 12 animal years, and in Western astrology they are the basis of the birth signs, such as Cancer or Virgo.
Chen Shuaifu
Chairman of the China Fengshui Association, Chen Shuaifu is known for making astrological predictions each year.
Astrology
The study of the movement of stars and planets, and their effect on our personal experiences. Not to be confused with astronomy, which is the scientific study of space.

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