The Lunar New Year begins, why so many people celebrate this event
The Lunar New Year begins on Sunday, and over a billion people will celebrate the start of a new year, resulting in one of the world’s largest annual migrations as people travel for family reunions. The holiday is observed across much of Asia and the Asian diaspora, including among Vietnamese, Chinese, and Koreans. Mongolia celebrates the holiday as well, but in February because the date is determined by a different calendar system there.
While nearly everyone will welcome the Year of the Rabbit in 2023, Vietnam will usher in the Year of the Cat. Why is Vietnam different this year from the rest of the world? The Year of the Cat has a hazy history.
According to Doan Thanh Loc, a cultural consultant at Vietnam’s Southern Jade Pavilion Cultural Center, one explanation has to do with linguistics. It’s widely assumed that the Chinese word for rabbit sounds similar to the Vietnamese word for cat, but this is not entirely correct. The Chinese lunisolar calendar is used to determine the date of Vietnam’s Lunar New Year, also known as Tet Nguyen Dan. Months are determined by the moon’s and Earth’s orbits, with leap months added every few years to keep up with the solar cycle. Each year in the calendar is given a name by combining 12 earthly branches, each of which corresponds to a zodiac animal, and 10 heavenly stems.
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This year will be known as Quy Mao, after the tenth heavenly branch, Quy, and the fourth earthly branch, Mao. The rabbit was chosen to represent the earthly branch known as Mao in China. However, in Vietnamese, the pronunciation of Mao is very similar to how the word “cat” is pronounced. “Mao does not always mean cat or rabbit,” Doan explains. “These are simply symbols that we’ve used as a code for the earthly branches.” Doan goes on to say that Vietnam hasn’t always celebrated the Year of the Cat, and it’s unclear when the country switched from the rabbit to the cat in its zodiac. Many older Vietnamese texts mention the rabbit in the zodiac. The mystery surrounding the rabbit-cat switch has given rise to a number of alternative explanations.
Quyen Di, a UCLA lecturer, suggests several other explanations for Vietnam’s unique celebration. One has to do with Chinese and Vietnamese landscapes. “Originally, the Chinese lived on the savanna, while the Vietnamese lived in the lowlands,” he explains. “The savanna people prefer a nomadic life close to nature, and they chose the rabbit as an animal that lived in the wild fields.”
The Vietnamese lowlanders, on the other hand, chose the more domestic cat. Furthermore, Di claims that Vietnamese people regard rabbits as “animals used for food” and chose cats as “friends living in their house.”
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However, these are not the only urban legends circulating about the origins of the Year of the Cat. If you ask a Vietnamese auntie or grandparent, you’re bound to get a few more stories about the Year of the Cat.
Many involve the myth of a feast hosted by Buddha or the Jade Emperor, as well as a race among the animals to determine their zodiac order. According to some legends, the cat was disqualified from the zodiac after being pushed into the river by the rat. In another, the cat completes the race and becomes the fourth animal.