The Year of the Horse

Tianjin. 6:00 a.m. Explosions. The Year of the Horse is upon us.

No, not the completely awesome and totally unnecessary 1997 Neil Young concert film, the actual year of the horse 馬年 or, more accurately, the year of the Wood Horse.

I am, once again, in Tianjin even though I had planned to be in Beijing.  I think I’m getting a cold.  Austin Ramzy, ace journalist, psychotic road biker, and my former neighbor is being deported because his colleagues had the temerity to do their jobs.

So far, the Year of the Horse kind of sucks.

The only saving grace is early scuttlebutt suggesting tonight’s Craptacular will be even more craptastic than ever.

If last night’s “Old Military Cadre” warm-up gala is any indication, CCTV-1 is in for a long night.  The evening began with a horde of small children dressed in horse bodysuits shimmying randomly to some kind of blaring military anthem while film clips of exploding bombs and missiles were projected onto a giant screen behind them. Seriously, who needs drugs in a country like this?

What else will the year of the horse bring…

Would it be too easy to say bet on the Broncos for Monday’s Super Bowl especially since Bronco coach John Fox (born February 8, 1955) is a Horse?

(Actually, bet on the Broncos anyway. Every petty-spiteful-overly entitled-Patriots-fan fiber of my being wants Peyton to lose, but it’s not going to happen.  My prediction: Broncos 41 Seahawks 28)

Previous Anni Equus have been a mixed bag including the start of one war (Sino-Japanese War, 1894) and the end of another (World War I, 1918 ).

Coincidentally, 1918 was also the last time the Red Sox won a world championship before 2004–which wasn’t a Horse year–but during that 86-year drought Sox fans had to suffer through this un-bleeping-bearable moment which occurred in 1978 A.K.A. the last time we had an Earth-Horse Year.

Of course 1978 also marked the beginning of the Reform and Opening Era in China.  Chinese astrologers (and history geeks) love  neat elemental/astrological parallels such as :The “Earth” Horse year 1978 extinguishing the flames of the “Fire” Horse year 1966 which saw the start of the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution.

And what of all the Horses wearing red underwear this New Year’s Eve?

Two old horses, born 12 years apart

Two old horses, born 12 years apart

Famous celebrity horses include John Travolta, Clint Eastwood, Harrison Ford, and Sean Connery (the latter two once played father and son despite being only 12 years apart in age).  Horse is also a great year for left-handed guitarists with both Paul McCartney and Jimi Hendrix being born in the year of the horse 1942.

How about female vocalists? Barbra, Aretha, and Ella –three singers who need only their first names–all born in the year of the horse.

Staying musical for a moment but delving a bit further back: Bernstein? Chopin? Puccini? Vivaldi? Yep, all Horses.

Three US Presidents–Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, and Theodore Roosevelt–were horses but the only one worth caring about is Teddy.  Naturally, the leader of the Rough Riders was born in the year of the horse.

in the literary world, e.e. cummings was a horse, as was samuel beckett and also aldous huxley

A painting of a horse? Edgard Degas, Jean Renoir, and Rembrandt–all horses.

Horse can even equal crazy.  How else can you explain Ross Perot, Mike Tyson, and Jackie Chan all having the same zodiac sign?

Some of the greatest names in history were horses. Names like  Armstrong, Cicero, Charlemagne, Khrushchev and, of course, this guy…..

Yes, that is a fake trailer for an all too real movie about Genghis Khan produced by (the) Howard Hughes starring John Wayne and Rita Hayworth playing the first–and so far only–naturally red-headed Manchu in history.  You can watch the whole thing here.

Happy New Year!May the Year of the Earth Horse be a good one for you and your family.

Why do we call it “Spring Festival”?


Cross-posted at

For most of us 春节 chunjie or “Spring Festival” is an opportunity to enjoy a delicate mix of high-proof alcohol and shoddily made explosives.  There are also dumplings and television specials so neutered they make the Lawrence Welk show look like “Kid Rock Night” at Cheetah’s.

Speaking of neutered, has there ever been a blander term than “Spring Festival”? What the hell does it even mean? It’s held in the middle of winter. In North China that means we celebrate spring by huddling around in weather that is so goddamn frigid the sheep start voluntarily walking up to chuanr guys and saying, “Seriously fucker, let’s just do this.”

For thousands of years it was simply the New Year, at least according to the moon.  So what changed?

Well, the calendar for one.  On January 1, 1912 Sun Yat-sen declared the founding of the Republic of China.  One of the perks which carried over from the old imperial era was that the founder of a new government gets to decide on the calendar.  Sun chose the Gregorian calendar and to avoid any confusion declared January 1 “New Year’s Day. This required a re-branding of the Lunar New Year as something else and “Spring Festival” was born.  Of course by the time Spring Festival 1912 rolled around Sun had already traded the presidency to Yuan Shikai for a bag of dumplings and a vague promise that Yuan “would honor the democratic process or some shit like that.”

In 1928 Chiang Kai-shek decided to take it a step further and tried to sync the lunar and solar New Year holidays, declaring that henceforth Chinese New Year/Spring Festival would be held on January 1. This was another one of Chiang’s brilliant “But that’s the way they do it in Japan” ideas.  Japan still does it, in China it lasted a year.  Spring Festival 1929 was held according to the Lunar Calendar.

When the PRC was established in 1949, Mao decided to keep the Gregorian calendar and with it the name “Spring Festival” to refer to the Lunar New Year.  Over time however many of the more colorful customs associated with Lunar New Year such as the burning of the Kitchen God or visiting a temple to pray for luck and fortune gradually succumbed to government campaigns against feudal superstition.

During the Lunar New Year 1967, the first “Spring Festival” of the Cultural Revolution era, workers were encouraged to turn in their train tickets and celebrate with overtime. Village loudspeakers blared messages telling farmers that nothing said “New Year spirit” like digging irrigation ditches.  For the next thirteen years, few dared to openly celebrate the Lunar New Year. Instead people enjoyed new traditions like “turning in your neighbors for thinking mean things about Mao” and “Whack a Teacher with a 2×4.” Good times!

In 1979 an op-ed appeared in the People’s Daily asking “Where is Spring Festival?”  The next year the fireworks returned.  In 1983, the first 春节晚会 Spring Festival Gala debuted on CCTV and had people immediately wishing for a return of the Cultural Revolution.  Two hours into the first broadcast Deng Pufang tried to throw himself out of a window.

Stupid name or not, it is a special time.  Over the next few days, families will gather to eat, drink and remind everyone of all the horrible shit they’ve done to each other over the past year.  Then the whole family goes outside and to toss lit firecrackers at loved ones.

I love it.  Even if spring still feels like it’s months away.

Highlights from the CCTV Spring Festival Gala

Last night, in between mass consumption of jiaozi and the occasional trip outside to blow shit up, we gathered around the television for the annual CCTV New Year’s Gala. I’m a cornball at heart and I actually get a kick out of the program, so in the spirit of Chunjie, I thought I’d pass along eight random thoughts on the 2008 broadcast.

1. Good list of international stars–Zhang Ziyi and Jay Chou did musical numbers, though Jay’s was a helluva lot more musical than Zhang Ziyi’s. I mean, I know she’s famous and all but seriously. I turned to YJ and asked, “What’s next? Yao Ming break dancing?” On an unrelated note, who wins in this deal: Is Song Zuying lucky she bagged Jiang Zemin and so gets invited to every gala from now until the Great Wall falls down or is old panda eyes the one who should be thanking Marx that Song gives him the time of day? Not sure how to score that one.

2. Sorta topical with sketches on traffic rules, public transportation, dishonest real estate developers and irrational investing in the stock market, plus yet another bit this year celebrating migrant workers. It was almost edgy. I mean, in a well-rounded, safety first, pillows on every hard surface kind of way.

3. A tribute to the snow disaster last week, complete with a group reading/song recapping the struggles and triumphs battling the storm. (Though I kept waiting for a Kayne West moment that never came.) That said, I’m not sure what the propaganda department was drinking when they cut to shots of the Guangzhou ‘celebration’ held for the workers who couldn’t get home. Not many happy cheery faces in that room, and who can blame them? Not good times, bad times.

4. Did you know a lot of foreigners speak Chinese? Really, it’s true.

5. Montage of leaders: Mao, Deng, Jiang, Hu…Where was Hua? Wtf.

6. The two funniest sketches? The “three women and the sailor” bit (Lao Gong! Wo ai ni!) and Song Dandan and Zhao Benshan answering questions on an Olympic trivia quiz show. (Q: What is the English word for ‘cha’? Song: “Tea!” Q: What is the English word for ‘lucha’? Zhao: “Lu Tea!” Runner-up: Zhao Benshan’s ‘Mahjong Tai Chi.’)

7. CCTV did a decent job (at least until the last hour) of not burying the telecast in Olympic schmaltz, though the basketball demonstration was probably more impressive to people who have never seen And 1.

8. Finally, nice touch at the end with the astronauts. Who doesn’t give it up for astronauts?

After the show, we went outside to watch total bedlam. One neighbor was carrying around strings of exploding M-80s, another was shooting sparks out of his 3rd floor apartment onto somebody else’s brand new car below. YJ’s parents live next door to a fire station, and the trucks were coming and going all night. Renao, indeed.