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#AndrewSingerChina Newsletter Vol. 3, Issue 1

The Chinese (aka Lunar) New Year arrives this weekend on February 10, 2024. The incoming year will be a Year of the Dragon, the fifth and most powerful of the twelve animals that make up the Chinese zodiac. The Chinese New Year is a time when horoscopes are read and futures are planned. Zodiac discussions generally revolve around individuals, but what if we look at something larger, say a country?


 

The Dragon Nation (America)




Who doesn’t have a horoscope. When I was growing up in 1970’s/1980’s America, the paper placements at Chinese-American restaurants were printed with Chinese horoscopes. Generic though they were, the first thing we did was scroll our eyes over the entries until we found our respective animals. We bantered back and forth about what type of person we were and with which other animals we would and would not be compatible.



The Lunar New Year this weekend will herald a Dragon Year, and a Wood Dragon Year to boot. This is so because the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac are further paired with the five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, and water) in a revolving, sixty-year total cycle.


The zodiac is a basis for prognostication. Horoscopes are not always correct and there are always exceptions, but they can lead to healthy discussion. While horoscope territory generally involves individuals, their personalities, and their relationships, what if we think bigger? What if, perhaps, countries also have a horoscope in line with the Chinese zodiac.


Benjamin West, American Commissioners of the Preliminary Peace Agreement

with Great Britain, 1783-1784, London, England, Winterthur Museum

(unfinished because British Delegation refused to sit for portrait)


The United States of America is a Dragon. This dates back to 1784. I know, we measure our birthday from 1776, when the Declaration of Independence was signed. Legally, however, the birth of the country as an independent entity took place in January 1784 (albeit a few days before the actual Lunar New Year) when the 1783 Treaty of Paris was ratified by the requisite number of state delegates at the Continental Congress gathered in Maryland.


The Treaty of Paris was signed by representatives of the United States, Great Britain, France, and Spain. It officially declared and recognized the sovereignty of the former thirteen colonies as new states affiliated as an independent nation through a Continental Congress that was working on what became the U.S. Constitution in 1789.



Nephrite, Warring States Period, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Harvard (By Daderot)


What is a dragon? Dragons in the West are viewed as cruel and evil, creatures to be feared and slayed. Dragons in China are honored as the greatest of the “four spiritually endowed beings” along with the unicorn, phoenix, and tortoise. The dragon is an “emblem of masculine strength and power, controller of the destinies of the country….1 


According to the Times of India, “the Dragon represents authority, prosperity and good fortune. [Dragon people] are known for their captivating demeanor, distinct personality, and strong leadership abilities. The Wood Dragon Year, combined with the nourishing Wood element, will bring evolution, improvement, and abundance; it is the perfect time for rejuvenated beginnings and setting the foundation for long-term success.


Astrologer Suzanne White describes dragon people a bit more bluntly,2


  • Dragons are so forcefully selfish and strong-willed that often their self-centeredness walks right up to their good sense and pops it in the eye so it can’t see what it was saying. Yet, there is no use imagining that Dragons don’t have weighty good sense. They are among the most sensible, straight-thinking people in the universe.

  • [Dragons] honestly consider themselves superior to the norm….They tumble obstacle after obstacle in an effort to blast their way to the top in a hurry….They hate to take orders and enjoy giving them.


The Cliffs at Nahant, North Shore, Massachusetts,

William Thomas Smedley, 1892, The Met Museum


When he traveled to Boston seventy-two years ago, Chinese author, artist, and poet Chiang Yee visited nearby Nahant with a friend and spied a coastal rock formation which reminded him of a dragon. He wrote that...

a careful analysis of the Chinese dragon as it is used in designs and ornaments shows it to have the mouth of a tiger with the barbels of a catfish, the horns of a deer, the body of a serpent with a crest running its entire length…the scales of a carp, the legs of a lizard, and the talons of an eagle or possibly the large water monitor…found in South China.3

Dragons live underwater most of the year and rise to heaven to report to the Jade Emperor during the spring when the dragon constellation peaks. Dragons are immortal and irascible, but not invincible and can be tricked. They can also be welcoming to those who pay them respect. Dragons have the power to control wind, rain, and thunder, and therefore promote crops and sustenance (or destroy with drought or deluge).


American Schooner (www.eldreds.com)


One month after America’s legal birth, the first American ship bound for China set sail from New York City during a frigid Dragon winter. The Empress of China arrived in Canton six months later. The American China Trade had commenced. It was the beginning of an extraordinarily lucrative business relationship that brought riches to investors and merchants and an explosion of new prized luxury goods to the peoples of both nations. Tragically, during the following decades it also brought American involvement in the opium trade that devastated China and led to warfare throughout the nineteenth century.


Dragon years are traditionally popular birth years in China. In 2012 (the last Dragon Year), China’s birth rate jumped from 13.27% to 14.57%. While hopes for a bounce are high this year, China’s sagged birth rate since then (it was only 6.39% in 2023) means that even with a bounce, the numbers will be a shadow of 2012. While there is much ink spilled in projecting how China’s declining population is an existential threat to her continued success, leading economists in China do not necessarily hold this to be as concerning a development. In contrast and for what it is worth, America’s population recorded a one-half percent increase of an additional 1,600,000+ people in 2023.



How do Dragons interact with the other animals? The People’s Republic of China was born in October, 1949. This makes the country an Ox on the Chinese zodiac. Ox are known to be strong and steady. They are, in the words of Suzanne White, “stability personified….Oxen will stand fast in the face of most kinds of calamity.4


Oxen are natural born leaders and highly independent. While quiet and stubborn, they are also reliable, patient, and honest. These traits are not necessarily optimal when engaging with dragons because the dragon’s energy may “conflict with their traditional methods and traditional values.5  White also cautions that “Above all, Oxen must not enter a business where a Dragon or Tiger is in charge. Oxen do not take kindly to the authority of others, particularly when it is unconditional….the Ox prefers to go it alone.6 Does any of this resonate as regards aspects of the current U.S.-China relationship and the personalities involved? I think so.


Though I can hear the groans of some, the following analogy also seems apt for much of our dragon-ox relationship:  “This union [of Ox husband and Dragon wife] will be full of problems, and far from perfect. He is tedious and a stickler for detail, while she likes to blaze the trail like the typical dragon woman. He provides the calming potion, though not always successfully, and she could still be impractical and audacious. She could enliven him with her upbeat temperament, or she could widen the chasm between them. He prefers solitude and may come across as uncaring, while her extroversion could hamper the relationship. Both are strong-willed and will need to get to know and learn to relate better to each others’ traits to be able to make a relationship work” (emphasis added). Sage advice.


Beihai Dragon Screen, Beijing


2024 is a presidential election year in America. China bashing will be on the political menu, and any desire, willingness or ability to compromise will likely be in short supply. A story last week about serious American government concerns about Chinese hacking of America’s critical and vulnerable infrastructure followed a report that Xi Jinping promised Joe Biden during their meeting late last year that China would not interfere with America’s election.


There is also possible intrigue in Beijing (though when is there not in the notoriously tight-lipped bureaucracy). A recent Politburo meeting once again stressed political allegiance, stability, and security over development and growth, though giving lip service to the latter. In addition, a key, twice-a-decade economic meeting, the Third Plenum, continues to be delayed since last Fall with no indication that it will happen anytime soon. Thus, the major strategic setting for China’s now-battered economy over the next several years remains in limbo.


US-China Dialogue (www.globaltimes.com, Xinhua)


At the same time, China and America are once again publicly engaging to try and keep the relationship on a more even keel. I presume that substantial substantive contacts are also taking place informally and privately outside the glare of headline-cycle public pressure. Meetings about economic issues, international hotspots, combating fentanyl, and even at the military level are in the news. Though it seems to get outsized cheering just for being contemplated, there is also buzz about a potential Biden-Xi Zoom conversation this spring.


Would the above be happening if China’s seas were calmer, if her economy was stable, and confidence aplenty? Probably not or at least not to the same extent nor in the same manner. It does not seem to be Xi Jinping’s preferred style. Similarly, would this be happening if America’s democracy was not so threatened, if domestic and international crises were not exploding, and people were confident of the present, let alone the future? Also, probably not (see above).


The dragon and ox are superpowers. They are talking where they can, bickering elsewhere, and concertedly attempting for now to avoid further public rupture. As the Wood Dragon Year arrives, maybe we can hope to look forward to “evolution” and “improvement,” if not “abundance.”


 

Notes


1 Juliet Bredon and Igor Mitrophanow, The Moon Year, Oxford UP, 1982, Page 339.

2 Suzanne White, Suzanne White’s Book of Chinese Chance, M. Evans and Company, 1976, Pages 119-120.

3  Chiang Yee, The Silent Traveler in Boston, W.W. Norton & Company, 1959, Pages 248-9.

4  White, Page 37.

6 White, Page 63.


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