Calendars, whether written or symbolized by solstice markers and stone circles, are probably as old as humanity. Although today we think of calendars as ways of remembering holidays and other important dates as well as organizing or allocating time, they also have many other important uses. Calendars mark times for planting, harvesting, sailing (tides), healing, and blessing; they may advise us of activities to do or avoid. The original time keepers are the sun, moon and stars, and calendrical systems are based on their movements.
The traditional Chinese calendar is based on the moon and is thus called the “Lunar Calendar”. The Lunar New Year is generally the second new moon after the winter solstice. In 2024, Chinese New Year’s Day is the new moon on February 10. The celebration lasts two weeks long and ends with the full moon, called the Festival of Heaven or Lantern Festival on February 24. The year of the dragon ends on January 28, 2025.
"Elements" of the Year
Let’s talk about the elements of the year in Chinese Five Elements (Wu Xing) Theory. Although I will use the popular term “five elements” you should know that “Five Phases” is a more accurate translation. The word Xing, translated “Element”, really means to move. The five phases are moving forces. But Xing is also a picture of a cross-roads, nodes of intersection where for example a north-south road crosses an east-west road. In ancient Chinese cosmology, the Five “Elements” are categories of intersecting, mutually interdependent, and corresponding phenomena. Wood for example represents springtime, green, the east, the liver, and so on.
Now back to the characteristics of the year. Each year is represented by an animal and an element. In other words, if you were born in the year of the dragon, it would be interesting to know if you are a water dragon, a fire dragon, a metal dragon, an earth dragon, or a wood dragon.
2024 is a Wood Dragon Year. However, each animal in itself also relates to an element. The Dragon belongs to the Earth category. Hence, this is a Wood Earth Year. The first element “wood” is called the “heavenly stem” 天干and represents spirituality. The second element, earth, is called the “earthly branch” 地支and symbolizes the physical/earthly realm, especially the environment and economy.
Elements may be either in harmony or conflict. In this Wood Dragon year, the elements are in conflict. Because wood, for example the roots of a tree, break up earth (element of the dragon), wood is said to destroy earth. Another way of putting this is that this year heaven—the mind and spirit-- are in conflict with the environment. Nothing new, but certainly an indication that environmental policies and challenges could worsen unless individuals and governments act with strength, determination, and integrity.
In general, the dragon symbolizes the dynamic power of nature, especially manifest as thunder, lightning, and rainbows. Dragon years and dragon people tend to be passionate, enthusiastic confident, powerful, adventurous, generous, and intelligent. Dragons also symbolize leadership. In Imperial China, the throne of the emperor was called the Dragon Throne 龍椅.
Preparing for the New Year
Feb 9 New Year’s Eve. Families symbolically seal their doors with blessing charms and vertical scrolls of Chinese characters embossed on red paper. Examples include: “May Gold and Jade Fill Your Home,” and “Live Long as the Pine and Crane”.
Feb 10 New Year’s Day. At dawn open the front door to welcome the energy of the New Year. Some families set off firecrackers as a way of celebrating and to scare away any lingering negative forces. It is traditional to have a festive family meal and to wish a happy near year (bai nian) to friends, teachers, and family, especially older relatives who may have been unable to attend the family celebration.
Particular foods are believed to enhance good fortune if eaten on New Year’s Day, including chicken (for good fortune), fish (for abundance), noodles (for longevity), and dumplings because they look like ancient gold ingots. Avoid duck, because the word duck (ya), sounds like the word that means to oppress. Also, don’t say the number four in Chinese (si), because it sounds like the word for death. On the other hand, some numbers are especially auspicious: three (san) because it sounds like life (sheng), six (liu) because it sounds like “flowing” (also pronounced liu), and eight (ba) because it sounds like wealth (fa). After the meal, the younger generation are happy to receive the traditional gift of red envelopes (hong bao) with money inside. My Taoist teacher, Dr. Huang, always gave me a red envelope on New Year’s Day and encouraged me to offer the same to my students. We also burned incense and performed special rituals at his Taoist altar.
And how wonderful to visit a Chinese restaurant or cultural center during the new year period to enjoy the acrobatic Lion Dance, representing wisdom, prosperity, good luck, and the power to scare away misfortune.
Lucky and Unlucky Forces
大利在東北 The North-East is lucky this year in terms of health, wealth, and opportunity— a good direction to face, to travel, and for home renovation. If you live in the US, it would be a great year to see the autumn colors in New England!
三煞在南 San Sha "Three Killing Forces" in the South. For every year, there is a direction of bad luck (called the San Sha)-- including disasters, financial loss, loss of reputation, worry, misunderstanding, and conflicts. This year the killing forces are in the South. That means it is best not to travel south, or do home renovation in the south side of your home or office, or disturb the ground by digging holes in the south side of your property. The latter would disturb the Lords of the Soil (Tu Di Gong and his wife, Tu Di Po), who influence prosperity and the well-being of ancestral spirits. It is best not to sit with your back to the south, thus facing north, but fine to sit facing south. If you have a choice, don’t spend much time in the south portion of a home or office. Do not buy or move into a house this year with a south facing main door. If you already have a south facing door, be sure to close it gently with minimal noise this year, in order not to disturb or awaken negative forces. You can prevent adverse influences from the san sha by keeping the south portion of your home especially clean, orderly, and quiet. The san sha may be neutralized and the qi in your home stabilized by placing feng shui brass gourds 葫蘆 in the san sha area (south). Some people prefer to place statues or images of three mythical beasts in the san sha region. These are the pi xiu (also called pi yao) which looks like a winged lion, fu dog (guardian lion), and chi lin (also called long ma “dragon horse” or Chinese unicorn) which has the body of a horse, head of a dragon, and scales like a carp.
五黃在西 Wu Huang "The Five Yellow Sick Forces" This year illness is associated with the west direction. It is best not to travel to the western part of your country or state/province or disturb the ground, dig or do home renovation in the west area of your home or business. For example, this is not the year to create a garden on the west side of your property. If possible, avoid spending much time in the west section of your home. The Five Yellow may be neutralized by placing six Chinese coins (sometimes called I Ching coins) tied with a red ribbon or a metal six-tube wind chime in your home, particularly in the western section. Six is considered a lucky number because in Chinese it is pronounced almost the same as the word “flow.” In other words life flows (liu 流) more smoothly through the influence of the number six (liu 六). Normally I might also suggest placing a statue of a green pagoda in the western portion your home or work space. In five element theory, green (wood) neutralizes the power of yellow (earth). However, since these two elements are already in conflict during the wood dragon year, I feel that this “cure” is not advisable.
太歲在東南 Tai Sui the Great Year Star, also called Grand Duke of Jupiter, is a spirit that is different each year, appointed to oversee the energies of the year and the world’s affairs. The Tai Sui spirit this year is General Li Cheng 李城, a famous Tang Dynasty scholar, general, and governor who was deified and adopted into the Taoist and folk pantheon because of his courage and service.
This year the energy of Tai Sui is in the Southeast. Tai Sui likes cleanliness, light, dryness rather than humidity, peace and quiet: thus, keep that part of your space especially clean, well lit (curtains and windows open). Remove flowers plants or water containers from that area, and it is best to not have noisy appliances or devices such as a computer, TV, speakers, or air conditioner in the southeast area. It is considered auspicious to place a plaque or image of General Li Cheng in the southeast section of your home or work space.
In this Dragon Year, Tai Sui is predicted to clash with those born in years of the Rabbit, Dog, Dragon, and Ox. If you were born in any of those years, then starting on Feb 10, 2024 take extra safety precautions, avoid arguments and risky behavior, and avert misfortune by engaging in virtuous and charitable activities. Chinese markets, feng shui shops, and some Chinese bookstores sell special Tai Sui ritual paper that may be burned as an offering to Tai Sui. Taoist temples offer more elaborate An Tai Sui 安太歲 (Pacifying Tai Sui) or Bai Tai Sui 拜太歲(Worshipping Tai Sui) rituals. If you were born in a year that puts you at risk of Tai Sui affliction, it is advisable to do the An Tai Sui Ritual on Chinese New Year’s Day and, for extra protection, on the new and full moon throughout the year. When Tai Sui conflicts with my birth year, I like to keep a Tai Sui talisman card (the size of a credit card) in my wallet. These are available in shops and online.
Directly opposite Tai Sui, in the northwest is another inauspicious influence, the Year Breaker Star (Sui Po) 歲破. The usual rules apply: keep that area clean and avoid loud noises, construction or renovation in the associated direction.
Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept It
As you think about predictions and characteristics of the New Year, please remember that a core principle of Taoism is change and adaptability. The astrological influences are just that: influences, and not “written in stone”. Consider predictions as an encouragement to make better choices and meet challenges with responsibility and intelligence. If there are negative tendencies, you are called to leadership to help turn things around.
As your mind becomes free of limited views and conditioning and when your life is guided by virtue (De 德), you are less subject to the decrees or forces of fate. “Is there free will or predestination?” I once asked my friend, noted author and Buddhist scholar, Alan Watts. He replied, “You are free to the extent that you know who you are and not otherwise.” I am reminded of a saying of the great Howard Thurman, mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. “There is something in every one of you that waits and listens for the sound of the genuine in yourself. It is the only true guide you will ever have. And if you cannot hear it, you will all of your life spend your days on the ends of strings that somebody else pulls.” May you be blessed with inner freedom, wisdom, and good fortune in this new year!