Friday, February 16, 2018

Happy Chinese New Year, the Year of the Dog

Today is the first day of Chinese New Year, which this year is also Dog Year. Last night I went as usual to my friends to have dinner, but today it struck me how much the celebration of New Year has changed in the relatively short time since I came to Taiwan.

The New Year is not celebrated with the intensity and traditions it once had even a few years ago. One reason might be the banning of firecrackers as too dangerous. Before, midnight was thunderous with the noise of firecrackers (to scare bad luck away), and during the entire new year’s day, and even for a week,  there was a constant barrage. Now all is still, except for a rare pop here and they from someone intent on keeping the old traditions, or with a few leftover firecrackers.

Also, for at least a week all shops were closed and the streets were virtually empty. It was like a ghost town, but now many shops are open even on New Year’s Day, and there were quite a few people walking about, instead of spending time with their families and playing mah-jongg.  Many of my friends used to go to some other part of Taiwan for a week or two to visit family, but now they only go for a few days, if they leave at all. By Monday (since this is a weekend) I am sure that everything will be back to usual.

Another oddity is in New Year’s Greetings. There used to be a dozen or two to choose from, some of which were mentioned in the post on the tin house bank. It has even been a couple of years since I have heard the classic “Gong Xi Fa Cai” (congratulations and prosperity, in Mandarin), which has become archaic. Now all you hear, even to natives speaking to each other, at least in Taipei, is “Xin Nian Kuai Le” the literal translation of Happy New Year.

It is not unusual even to hear “Happy New Year” spoken in English between natives. Most people in Taiwan like to sprinkle some English around, the way English speakers once liked to toss in French phrases, for added cachet and élan (see!).

My selection of New Year Animals has to be somewhat skimpy this year, owing to a paucity (no pun intended) of real dogs in Chinese antiques, at least the ones I have collected. As has been touched on in the past, foo dogs (or fu dogs) are not dogs at all, but are actually lions. I have once or twice tried to look this up, but the etymology of the phrase seems lost in time. Perhaps the ‘foo’ is the same as the Chinese word meaning wealth or luck, but even that is uncertain, and it still leaves the dog part unexplained.

This small black and white ceramic dog, a charming little fellow, is however an unequivocal example. The black stripes might look more at home on a zebra, but since there is no Zebra Year, I have no hesitation in letting him be the mascot for Dog Year. Looking at it, it seems as though it might have been influenced by some of the Staffordshire ceramics from England, although a quick internet check failed to find any close parallels.

One problem with small Chinese animals is that they are often not identifiable with any degree of certainty. Take a look at this small pendant wooden case, with brass hardware, intended to be worn at the waist and perhaps for tobacco or snuff. The small animal splayed on the lid seems like it could be a dog, but this is far from certain. Let me know in the comments whether you think this is a dog or some other animal—fox?? weasel?? etc. I know that I should go after that dust with a toothbrush, but my policy with cleaning or fixing antiques is to go slowly. I imagine that in the future I will spiff this up a bit.

I deliberately withheld this wooden vinaigrette with a dog finial from the vinaigrette post, although it was visible in the group photo, because I knew that Dog Year was coming up. Almost always, an animal on top of the vinaigrette is a lion, of which many examples were shown in the earlier article. In fact, I think that this is the only animal-topped example I have seen that does not feature a lion.

This vinaigrette does seem somewhat later than the other ones—perhaps 1940’s, but that is only a vague guess. Sporting a dragon on each side, it could well have been made to celebrate some earlier Dog Year, or as a gift for someone who was a Dog, that is, born in a Dog Year. At any rate, the dog is boldly modeled, and I love the way his tongue sticks out!

Remember, this is only about 2 inches tall.

The narrow side features a coin and a connected-dot pattern; perhaps this is supposed to depict a dog constellation.

There are seasonal stores in Taiwan that at this time sell New Year decorations and merchandise. Unlike my antiques, almost anything dog-related is available, done up in the traditional red and gold. I bought a red plush dog wearing traditional brocade clothing and hat, for the same child who got the chicken last year.

As in the West, in Chinese cultures dogs are valued for their friendliness, loyalty, and responsibility. These would all be welcome traits to come to the forefront in the coming year. I wish everyone a joyful, healthy and prosperous Year of the Dog.

All photos and original objects property of the author.