BEIJING — At a Chinese New Year family celebration, one of Liang Bing's aunts pulled her aside and cautioned her to be careful not to get pregnant before April. In fact, she continued telling her niece, it would be even better to put off a pregnancy until after May or June.
"Giving birth to a goat baby is definitely a bad idea," she concluded in total seriousness, referring to 2015 being China's year of the goat.
This kind of drama actually repeats in China every 12 years in accordance with the Chinese zodiac calendar that assigns an animal for each year. While this is the year of the goat, we can look forward to the year of the monkey in 2016.
Internet discussions about birth signs and their meanings, and how they affect personalities and life events, have become enormously popular. But while the Internet has made a lot of new knowledge accessible, it also breeds rumor and ignorance.
As Chinese academic Li Jie puts it, "These crackpots, including lots of young people with higher education, have formed an independent system of their own that is opposed to natural and social science theories."
As a result, there are many bizarre ideas floating around about zodiac signs and what they can mean for people's futures. Such beliefs are used to support feudal ideas and are packaged as disciplines for Chinese well-being, success and utilitarianism.
"While they forward each other articles about the new functions of the Apple watch, youngsters also forward crank articles with titles such as "Lessons one must learn before January 15th of the lunar calendar,"" Li laments. "You have to admire this deep-rooted ancient Chinese "wisdom," which obviously convinces a lot of the public."
The plight of goat babies
The implausible beliefs associated with "a goat baby" are generalized as follows: death of the baby's parents during childhood, the child eventually suffering widowhood, or the child being doomed never to have offspring.
These misguided beliefs have also inspired certain details in Chinese films. For instance, a television series asserted that Lin Daiyu, the main character who suffers a grim destiny in the Chinese classic Dream of the Red Chamber, was born a goat baby.
The northern Chinese seem to take the superstition the most seriously. On China's version of the Internet, it's common to see young people from the north filtering out people born during a goat year from their online dating profiles.
The superstitious are also more common in the coastal areas of Jiangsu and Zhejiang provinces. It is said that a marriage proposal to Lu Xun, an important figure of modern Chinese literature, when he was 16 was refused by his mother for fear that the girl would bring her son bad luck. She was, of course, a goat baby. Alas, Lu Xun later married Zhu An, another girl his mother found for him. It was an unhappy 30-year marriage. It turns out Zhu An had another unpopular zodiac sign, especially for a woman — that of the tiger. But that's another story.
Such irrationalities even influence the Japanese. In his masterpiece The Makioka Sisters, Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki wrote that since ancient times men who lived near Osaka would avoid marrying a woman born with the goat zodiac sign.
Social custom and reality
Of course, not all Chinese embrace these ridiculous superstitions. Among them is the very popular writer Ma Boyong. Ma has explained the notion that "a goat will live a bitter life" as originating from the Song dynasty, which observed that the eyes of goats have small irises and larger white areas all around. It was reasoned that a woman with a similar eye shape would have a staring and unpleasant look. Somehow this concept later evolved to linking women born during a goat year with a jinx.
Hold on! Photo: Sherrattsam
Such forced analogies exist throughout much of traditional Chinese folklore. So it's not at all surprising that many Chinese believe that eating pig lung is good for cleaning up human lungs, or eating cartilage and bones are good for their tendons and muscles.
When extended to the zodiac system, people born in the year of the dragon are considered noble, year of the snake babies are treacherous, and year of the buffalo people are sedate. And as we now know, tiger and goat babies aren't suitable marital partners.
In a country where most people aren't religious, such necromantic delusions can probably be rescued only by time. Meanwhile, no matter how intense the Internet debates, in reality most Chinese people don't alter their fertility plans because of the zodiac cycle.
According to a survey conducted by demographer Ma Yan during the 60 years between 1949 to 2008, the years of pig, buffalo and rat have birth rates even lower than years of the goat. Meanwhile, even if the dragon years have always been the most popular year for making babies, the reality is that birth rates for these years came in only third. In other words, zodiac preference is much discussed but not exactly influential.
Valerie Chen is an example. A friend told her that the reason why her boyfriend's mother forced her son to leave her was because of her animal sign, the goat. "Isn't it a perfect excuse?" she says. "Since she couldn't say directly that it was because my curriculum vitae isn't great, my figure is so-so, and my family is too ordinary! If I were born with a silver spoon, mind you, no one would have held anything against me even if I had the zodiac sign of a cat!"
Editor's Note: the cat sign doesn't actually exist.
The military has seized control in one of Africa's largest countries, which until recently had made significant progress towards transitioning to democracy after years of strongman rule. But the people, and international community, may not be willing to turn back.
This week the head of Sudan's Sovereign Council, General Abdel Fattah El Burhan, declared the dissolution of the transitional council, which has been in place since the overthrow of former president Omar el-Bashir in 2019. He also disbanded all the structures that had been set up as part of the transitional roadmap, and decreed a state of emergency.
In essence, he staged a palace coup against the transitional authority he chaired.
The general's actions, which included the arrest of Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, are a culmination of a long period of tension between the civilian and military wings of the council.
A popular uprising may be inevitable
The tensions were punctuated by an alleged attempted coup only weeks earlier. The days leading to the palace coup were marked by street protests for and against the military. Does this mark the end of the transition as envisaged by the protest movement?
Their ability to confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The popular uprising against Bashir's government was led by the Sudan Professional Association. It ushered in the political transitional union of civilians and the military establishment. The interim arrangement was to lead to a return to civilian rule.
But this cohabitation was tenuous from the start, given the oversized role of the military in the transition. Moreover, the military appeared to be reluctant to see the civilian leadership as an equal partner in shepherding through the transition.
Nevertheless, until recently there had been progress towards creating the institutional architecture for the transition. Despite the challenges and notable tension between the signatories to the accord, it was never evident that the dysfunction was so great as to herald the collapse of the transitional authority.
For now, the transition might be disrupted and in fact temporarily upended. But the lesson from Sudan is never to count the masses out of the equation. Their ability to mobilize and confront counter revolutionary forces cannot be underestimated.
The transitional pact itself had been anchored by eight arduously negotiated protocols. These included regional autonomy, integration of the national army, revenue sharing and repatriation of internal refugees. There was also an agreement to share out positions in national political institutions, such as the legislative and executive branch.
Progress towards these goals was at different stages of implementation. More substantive progress was expected to follow after the end of the transition. This was due in 2022 when the chair of the sovereignty council handed over to a civilian leader. This military intervention is clearly self-serving and an opportunistic power grab.
A promised to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
In November, the rotational chairmanship of the transitional council was to be passed from the military to the civilian wing of the council. That meant the military would cede strong leverage to the civilians. Instead, with the coup afoot, Burhan has announced both a dissolution of the council as well as the dismissal of provincial governors. He has unilaterally promised return to civilian rule in July 2023 through national elections.
Prior to this, the military had been systematically challenging the pre-eminence of the civilian authority. It undermined them and publicly berated them for governmental failures and weaknesses. For the last few months there has been a deliberate attempt to sharply criticize the civilian council as riddled with divisions, incompetent and undermining state stability.
File photo shows Sudan's Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in August 2020
Generals in suits
Since the revolution against Bashir's government, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.
For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council.
This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy. True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19.
Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse.
Demands of the revolution
The success or failure of this coup will rest on a number of factors.
First is the ability of the military to use force. This includes potential violent confrontation with the counter-coup forces. This will dictate the capacity of the military to change the terms of the transition.
Second is whether the military can harness popular public support in the same way that the Guinean or Egyptian militaries did. This appears to be a tall order, given that popular support appears to be far less forthcoming.
The international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin.
Third, the ability of the Sudanese masses to mobilize against military authorities cannot be overlooked. Massive nationwide street protests and defiance campaigns underpinned by underground organizational capabilities brought down governments in 1964, 1985 and 2019. They could once again present a stern test to the military.
Finally, the international community's appetite for military coups is wearing thin. The ability of the military to overcome pressure from regional and international actors to return to the status quo could be decisive, given the international support needed to prop up the crippled economy.
The Sudanese population may have been growing frustrated with its civilian authority's ability to deliver on the demands of the revolution. But it is also true that another coup to reinstate military rule is not something the protesters believe would address the challenges they were facing.
Sudan has needed and will require compromise and principled political goodwill to realise a difficult transition. This will entail setbacks but undoubtedly military intervention in whatever guise is monumentally counterproductive to the aspirations of the protest movement.
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