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Snakes, ladders, deities and presidents

Sunday 10 February 2013

By Kent Ewing

HONG KONG - In Western lore, there is no creature more reviled than the snake. After all, this scaled, slimy, slithering reptile is responsible not only for frightening rattles and poisonous bites. For those who follow the Judeo-Christian tradition, the wily serpent is also accountable for no less than the Fall of Man.

Not so in Chinese culture. So, when the Year of the Snake commences on February 10, there will be a week-long celebration across China featuring fireworks, parades, lion dances, offerings to the gods and a gluttonous array of food, including - you guessed it - snake.

In Chinese mythology, as in the West, the snake represents the ability to strike quickly and decisively but often without the associated negative connotations. It is also a symbol of intelligence, wisdom and self-discipline. Popular deities can even take the form of snakes, especially gods who dwell in rivers.

Even the dragon - the most revered animal in the Chinese zodiac, whose lunar year is now coming to an end - is sometimes depicted as distinctly snake-like; the famous flying dragon Teng ("soaring snake") in Chinese mythology is an eminent example.

Stories of Teng are, of course, worlds apart from the Biblical account of the Satanic viper that preys upon Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In that story, the smooth-talking snake convinces Eve to persuade Adam that eating an apple from the Tree of Knowledge, which for reasons not entirely clear to world’s first couple God has resolutely forbidden, would be a new and exciting thing to do.

And it is - until, that is, the snake is revealed as the Devil in disguise, and an angry God takes eternal life away from the shocked pair and condemns them and all of their progeny to an ephemeral earthly slog of sin - not exactly a result to celebrate for the next year with feasting and fireworks.

So forget about Adam and Eve and all other baneful Western associations with snakes - the "snake in the grass" who pretends to be your friend while keeping his or her sinister intentions hidden until it is time to pounce, the "snake-oil" salesman who peddles useless cures to the sick and dying and even "Snakes and Ladders", the popular board game in which hanging adders can do you in.

For the next year, the snake is a symbol of promise and hope - as, ultimately, are all 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. Indeed, that’s the whole point of Lunar New Year celebrations. A new year brings new challenges and opportunities - for prosperity, for friendship, for romance and for everything else - and for geomancers like yours truly who are eager to prognosticate based on the ancient Chinese art of feng shui.

First, however, some caution. Yes, the Year of the Snake brings prospects of good fortune, but no feng shui master in Hong Kong or anywhere else will promise you that it’s all going to come up roses in 2013.

While the venerable snake will be the star of the fortune-telling show for the next year, there is much more to the Chinese zodiac than the 12 animals that rotate through it. Five basic elements - metal, wood, water, fire and earth - are also part of this annual rotation, creating a 60-year cycle and a dizzying range of possible outcomes based on the combinations.

For example, this year is dominated by two elements - water and fire - and this could mean bad news. That’s because these elements are in conflict, which could potentially bring strife to your domestic life as well as bad health, including the prospect of a heart attack or stroke. So we should all be extra-careful about building and maintaining strong relationships in the next year and extra-cautious about taking care of our health.

In the larger global picture, the water-fire mix indicates a greater likelihood for violence and international conflict.

In 1953, the last snake year in which water and fire were aligned in this way, the Korean War had just "ended" with an armistice that really means hostilities between North and South continue to this day; the United States and the Soviet Union had commenced their nuclear arms race as Cold War tensions heightened; and Josef Stalin, the iron-fisted Soviet leader, died of a stroke.

There is no Cold War to worry about in 2013, but there is no shortage of international hotspots that could turn into conflagrations. The nuclear issue is still burning, with North Korea threatening another test in the near future and Iran allegedly moving closer to building a nuclear weapon.

Moreover, as Western troops trip over one another while rushing to depart a still woefully unstable Afghanistan, further conflict looms there. In the roiling Middle East and North Africa, the Arab Spring has become a Summer, Autumn and Winter of Discontent. The ultimate winner in these conflicts - fire or water - is not yet apparent, but the flames of anger and revolt certainly appear to have the upper hand at this point.

As for strokes, heart attacks and aging dictators and autocrats without whom the world would be better off, the choices are many, so take your pick; a prognosticator’s thoughts may turn toward President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who will turn 89 this month and has held his office since December of 1987.

Mugabe’s finance minister announced this month that the country’s bank account now contains just a little over US$200, which may somewhat impede the delivery of public services, not to mention the payment of salaries to police and civil servants.

After 25 years in power, $200 is all Mugabe has to show? Who knows? This year’s snake may choose to strike at Zimbabwe’s long-standing strongman. We’ll see.

No matter what happens to an octogenarian dictator in southern Africa, clouds of political discord will continue to gather around the globe. But, amid all the troubling geomantic indicators, one nation - appropriately enough, China, the land in which the art of feng shui was born - stands at a distinct advantage.

The Chinese leadership may be struggling with its Asian neighbors over territorial disputes in the East China Sea and South China Sea, and worrying late into the night about the United States’ recently declared "pivot" toward Asia, but in the coming year Beijing has an ace-in-the-hole: Xi Jinping, the newly appointed Chinese president who will assume office next month.

Not only has Xi declared big ambitions to clean up the rampant corruption that weighs down China’s economic rise and promised a more open and transparent brand of leadership, he was also born in 1953 - again, the last snake year in which the fire and water elements came together in this way.

That gives him a tremendous advantage in world affairs. Barack Obama, born in the Year of the Ox, should be worried. Obama may have won the hearts and minds of Americans to earn a second term as president last November, but Xi has the snake and the elements on his side, as well as China’s juggernaut of an economy.

By the way, this year’s strong fire element, which is associated with economic growth, should assure that China’s happy economic trajectory continues and spur economic growth in general around the globe. Asia, especially China and India, will lead the way, but the eurozone will recover enough to fight another day while the US economy limps forward and Africa, thanks in good part to massive Chinese investment, keeps growing.

In sum, it is very much a Chinese snake, not a Western one, that will dominate the year ahead. The much-ballyhooed American "pivot" notwithstanding, China’s rise will continue, as will the decline of the US. A snake year and a snake Chinese president pretty much assure that.

Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at kewing56@gmail.com Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1

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