Sport & Culture

The Year of the Snake Slithers In

The most important holiday in the Chinese calendar kicked off last weekend.

The Year of the Snake Slithers In
Credit: Flickr (tseedmund)

The Year of the Snake has arrived and with it, immense fusillades of fireworks and the planet’s largest human migration. From Beijing and Bangkok to San Francisco and Sydney, those of Chinese descent lit firecrackers, ate dumplings and visited family.

And for those on the mainland, the vast majority tuned into the gala celebration show beamed to TV sets nationwide, featuring Celine Dion and Psy (doing Gangnam Style again).

So widespread is Chinese New Year’s reach that even in the U.S. many are pushing for it to be recognized as a federal holiday.

For those who take Chinese astrology seriously – and millions do – the transition from the mythical dragon year to that of the earthbound snake is an interesting one. While the dragon is the most auspicious of all twelve critters in the Chinese Zodiac, the snake has a bit of a bum rap.

For a start, the faithful hold that the snake takes a serious bite out of the stock market. A brief rundown of previous snake years includes the following delightful turns of events.

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In his morning note on Monday, UBS’s Art Cashin pointed out, “The prior snake (2001) saw a loss of 13.1 percent after losing 28 percent at one point. …while 1977 saw a loss of 17.5 percent.” Not to mention, the stock market crash and the start of the Great Depression in 1929 (another snake year).

Compare this with the Year of the Dragon, with its historical average return of 10.4 percent for the S&P 500 index, according to research firm Capital IQ.

This is just the beginning. Snake years have historically had a geopolitical bite as well. In 1941 (a snake year), the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred, followed by the Tiananmen Square massacre in snake year 1989. Let’s not forget the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001.

But these factors didn’t discourage an estimated 200 million Chinese from boarding trains bound for their hometowns in the largest human migration on the planet. Videos of this frenzy in action can be seen here and here.

In total, during the peak travel season in China from January 26 to March 6, a total of 3.41 billion trips are anticipated. Of these, the country’s rail network is expected to handle 225 million trips and long-distance buses are expected to transport up to 3.1 billion passengers.

And on the cellular waves, users of China Mobile sent 831 million text messages on the eve of New Year alone, while China Unicom Beijing reported 8,000 texts per second around 7:45 pm on the same night, according to a report in the Beijing Evening News.

Fireworks seem to be the only essential New Year’s element for which numbers dropped this year. In Beijing, after seeing almost twice the usual number of smog-filled days in January, officials asked residents to tone it down a notch. Last year, fireworks elevated the capital’s pollution levels to 1,500 micrograms. See a video of this year’s “subdued” display here.

Compared with last year, the BBC reported that fireworks sales dropped 37 percent, down from 410,000 boxes to 260,000 boxes. Perhaps reflecting the times, one Beijing fireworks maker put out a line featuring slogans like “Tokyo Big Explosions” and “I love the Diaoyu Islands”.

Pollution levels and nationalist rhetoric aside, some feng shui geomancers have put a positive spin on an otherwise pessimistic New Year’s forecast. As a water snake year, it will be a relatively mild one, they say.

With the arrival of incoming Chinese President Xi Jinping (born in the snake year of 1953), regional tensions mounting and global markets on the rocks, let’s hope they are right.