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The Asian side of the world

Jean-François Sabouret

Part two. National challenges and their strategies to overcome them

The lunar rooster

Dang Tiên

Texte intégral

1February 2005

2The new lunisolar year will begin on 9th February 2005 in the Western calendar, under the zodiac sign of the rooster, Yi You in Chinese, Ât Dâu in Vietnamese (hereafter abbreviated as V). For all its rich symbolic significance, the sign is somewhat ambiguous in its prophecy, as the Vietnamese recall that during the Ât Dâu year in 1885, they lost their independence to the French, only to win it back at the end of the cycle, and in 1945, an unprecedented famine unfortunately claimed the lives of two million people.

The Moon and the Sun: Month and Year

3The term, “lunisolar” requires a brief explanation: the Chinese calendar has combined the cycles of the moon and sun since ancient times. Some say that this dates back to the 15th century BC, while the more realistic of us estimate either the 7th or 8th century AD. The lunisolar calendar combines the 12 lunar months (354 days) with the solar cycle of 365.25 days, with an additional month making up the difference from time to time. In short, according to the lunar cycle, a month has 29 or 30 days while a year has 12 months, and every three years, there is a 13th month called run, V: Nhân.

  • 1 Han, H. X., “Vietnamese calendar and calendars”, Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi review (Sciences Sociales), Paris (...)

4The solar year is divided into 24 periods named Qi, V: Khi. The odd periods are referred to as “nodal” (Jie, V: Tiêt) and the even central periods are called “central” (Zhong, V: Trung). The solstice and the equinox belong to central periods, whereas the beginning of any season is a nodal one. The start of spring falls in a Jie, V: Tiêt, hence the word, Têt, meaning “New Year” in Vietnamese. Run months are those without a zhong1.

5New Year’s day is the equivalent to the Festival of the First Light, Têt Nguyên Dan, a few days after spring begins (Tiêt Lâp Xuân: Jie Li Chun). Compared to the Western calendar, New Year’s Day falls between 21st January and 20th February. Determining it is easy; one has to just look for the new moon, which is indicated by a black circle on the Julian calendar.

6Today, East Asian governments have all opted for the more practical Western calendar. Yet people, in Vietnam for instance, still keep the yin (âm lich) calendar when it comes to traditional festivals, ancestral remembrance, and the choice of a lucky day for important events, but they also use it to follow the cycle of the moon whose influence on human life and nature is acknowledged by all.

From rooster to monkey

7Astronomy attracts less attention than astrology, even among certain intellectuals and political or economic leaders.

8The Chinese people divide time into cycles of 12 earthly branches (Zhi, V: Chi), which tradition associates with the 12 animals that belong to their domestic, natural or symbolic environment. In chronological order, they are the Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Boar.

9The 12 Zhi are included in a cycle of 10 heavenly trunks (Gàn, V: Can). As both cycles are even numbers, each “animal” falls on either an odd or an even trunk, and this results in cycles of 12 x 10/2 = 60 years, the lifespan of a human being.

10If we go back to our initial example of 1945, the year in which Vietnam regained its independence is dated Ât Dâu. The current year, 2005, 60 years later, is Ât Dâu once again and also the beginning of the new cycle. The Gan Zhi pair, which refers to the year, may also apply to months and days, broken up into twelve hours, referred to with the same pairs without any confusion. Each day starts at midnight, which is always the “Rat”, and the day peaks at noon, which is always the “Horse”. Just like the Rat and Horse, the “year of the Rooster” belongs to the spoken tradition and has no linguistic, astrological or symbolic connection. The twelve animals are easy to remember and probably also helps to make use of the cycles of the universe through the collective imagination. No zodiac sign is luckier than another, as a matter of principle. In 1789, the year of the Rooster, Nguyên Huê, after a resounding victory, fought off the Chinese invasion and founded the Tây Son dynasty, which was overthrown in 1801, another year of the Rooster.

11People born under the sign of the Rooster are not necessarily punctual or early risers, nor are people born in the year of the Tiger fiercer than those born under the sign of the Ox, who are not more hard-working. The irrational is fascinating because of its poetic nature, and the reciprocality is true as well.

The Mysticism of Power

  • 2 Granet, M. (1929), La Civilisation Chinoise, (1929), Paris, Albin Michel, 1968, p. 407-408.
  • 3 Granet, M., ibid., p. 22.

12In ancient China, the calendar was an instrument of political power. Marcel Granet, renowned specialist in this field, painted the portrait of the Chinese emperor as follows: “The sole master of the Calendar, and the driving force of the whole country, this is how the Son of Heaven appears in the Han tradition (…). His virtue has spread across the entire empire, for in the House of the Calendar, he rules time on behalf of heaven2.” Long before the Hans, since ancient times, “the emperor ruled space because he was the master of time3”.

13The mystery of the cosmos worked to the advantage of the mysticism of power. The emperor, who was assigned heavenly rules, was also in possession of earthly rules. He made the calendar and New Year’s Day known, which were established by an Astronomical Council whose scholars carried out thorough research, the results of which were kept secret. Information on astrology, geomancy or military strategy was not published.

14In parallel to this ritual and imperial etiquette, however, Chinese farmers did not go by the official calendar to plough their plots; they had their own old calendar, consisting of sayings from which traditional Chinese poetry originates.

15Vietnam, as a vassal kingdom of China, at least in theory, thus periodically welcomed the heavenly calendar. While Vietnam already had its own lunar calendar before the Christian era, it had to adopt the Chinese calendar after ten centuries of Chinese colonisation. The Chinese calendar was more comprehensive, having undergone changes from one century to the next, and it was much improved in the 17th century, owing to the contribution of the Jesuit missionaries, in particular.

16There are a few differences, albeit minor, between the two calendars. Some of them are unintentional, due to technical changes in China, with which Vietnam had not yet caught up; some of them were made deliberately in order to highlight national independence.

The Time of Love

17The New Year in the lunisolar calendar is marked by two kinds of spring festivals. These include ritual and religious celebrations on one hand, and spontaneous and folk festivities on the other. Going through archaic popular songs compiled in the Che King, the Book of Poetry, by Confucius (551-479 AD), Marcel Granet reconstructed these two aspects in ancient China. He first situated the date:

“Driven by the East wind, thaw comes in the first month of spring. However, another tradition places the festival at the time when peach trees blossom and the first drops of rain fall (…) it is clear that the festival, which was initially associated with the early signs of spring, was later fixed to a date on a specific day of the calendar.”

18He then focused on the folk event itself:

  • 4 Granet, M., Fêtes et Chansons de la Chine Ancienne, 1919, Paris, Albin Michel, 1982, p. 155-156.

“Young men and young girls came together where the Tchen River met the Wei River. They went in groups, looking for orchids. There, they would sing songs in turns, girls would then hitch up their skirts to cross the Wei, and when couples had formed, new lovers would part and offer each other a flower as a token of their love and proof of affinity4.”

19This old, young, happy and noisy festival included sexual rites that expressed hopes for fertility, both in human and agricultural terms. According to a survey carried out by Bonifacy, it was still celebrated by the Lolo, an ethnic group from northern Vietnam at the beginning of the 20th century:

  • 5 Bonifacy, quoted by Granet, 1919, ibid., p. 293.

“Young unmarried people are very free. They sing together despite coming from the same village. The entire first month is dedicated to courtship. Young people could do as they pleased; it is the con-ci festival, which varies from tribe to tribe5.”

20Remains and relics of such ancient festivals devoted to fertility can be found in the Red River Delta.

21In the Che King, Granet picked out three other spring festivals, one of them a ritual, royal celebration led by the Son of Heaven, at a precise date and place, south of the capital, on the day of the spring equinox, the official day when swallows are due to fly back (op. cit., 1919, p. 164).

22These were the various forms and formalities of Têt or the New Year, as we celebrate it today.

Têt in Vietnam in the 13TH Century

23The oldest Vietnamese historical text dates from the 14th century. Lê Tac, a Vietnamese refugee in China, had written it. During the Mongolian invasion in 1284, following his master Tran Kien, he took sides with the Chinese and fled to China after they had been defeated. From 1285 to 1307, he wrote his Short History of An-Nam (An Nam Chi Luoc), which was published in China. It is still relatively unknown in Vietnam since its author is regarded as a traitor to his nation.

  • 6 Lê Tac (1340), An Nam Chi Luoc, Hue: Dai Hoc, University of Hue, 1961, p. 46. Lê Thanh Khôi provid (...)

“Every second year, two days before the Têt festival, the King in his chariot, preceded by his guards in ceremonial dress, makes his way towards the De Thich temple. On the last day of the year, he sits at the Doan Cung door, where his men honour him as he watches a hundred singing and dancing performances. In the evening, the King pays homage to his ancestors, and the Buddhist monks come into the city to exorcise the demons. People open their doors, set off firecrackers and make offerings to their ancestors. Boys and girls from humble families, who cannot afford a matchmaker, marry as they wish. Early in the morning on New Year’s Day, the King takes up his residence in the Temple of Longevity, where he receives the wishes of the princes and his close associates, and then goes to the Palace of Eternal Spring to pay homage to his ancestors6.”

24In the same chapter, Lê Tac provides us with invaluable ethnographic documents.

Universal Harmony

25After being passed down from generation to generation for millennia, the ancient festival is as fresh, young and joyful as ever, but free from its outdated ceremonial etiquette. Respects to the ancestors, albeit in a simpler way, around a lit-up, incense-perfumed and flower-ornamented altar, and respect is paid in the form of a large tray of symbolic fruits, rich in shapes and colours. Offerings are not as lavish either, consisting of a “Têt cake” (Banh Chung), which is a bar of glutinous rice that had been left to boil for hours. This goes back to ancient times, as far back as the Hung kings, as legend has it.

26The Vietnamese have always celebrated Têt even during the years of war. In the depths of the devastated countryside, the flicker of a candle and a tiny bit of incense were all they needed to commemorate the dead. Once peace had been restored, and when the economy had improved, they increased the scale of Têt and modernised the celebrations, even at the risk of being perceived as engaging in idol worship and bribery, or being extrovert and wasteful.

27For members of the Asian diaspora, each New Year is an opportunity to go back home, back to their roots, traditions and possibly back to themselves, halfway between the Moon and the Sun, halfway between memory and hope.

28Each New Year is a chance to reassert their trust in the possibility of renewing personal and domestic happiness, in social peace and universal harmony, just like our great ancestors from ancient times.


1 Han, H. X., “Vietnamese calendar and calendars”, Khoa Hoc Xa Hoi review (Sciences Sociales), Paris, 1982; Han, H. X. (ed.), tome I, Hanoi, Giao Duc, 1998, p. 1 018-1 028.

2 Granet, M. (1929), La Civilisation Chinoise, (1929), Paris, Albin Michel, 1968, p. 407-408.

3 Granet, M., ibid., p. 22.

4 Granet, M., Fêtes et Chansons de la Chine Ancienne, 1919, Paris, Albin Michel, 1982, p. 155-156.

5 Bonifacy, quoted by Granet, 1919, ibid., p. 293.

6 Lê Tac (1340), An Nam Chi Luoc, Hue: Dai Hoc, University of Hue, 1961, p. 46. Lê Thanh Khôi provided extensive extracts from his Histoire du Vietnam, Paris, Sud Est Asie, 1981, p. 179.

© CNRS Éditions, 2012

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