Snakes, ladders, deities and
presidents By Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - In Western lore, there is no
creature more reviled than the snake. After all,
this scaled, slimy, slithering reptile is
responsible not only for frightening rattles and
poisonous bites. For those who follow the
Judeo-Christian tradition, the wily serpent is
also accountable for no less than the Fall of Man.
Not so in Chinese culture. So, when the
Year of the Snake commences on February 10, there
will be a week-long celebration across China
featuring fireworks, parades, lion dances,
offerings to the gods and a gluttonous array of
food, including - you guessed it - snake.
In Chinese mythology, as in the West, the
snake represents the ability to strike quickly and
decisively but often without the
connotations. It is also a symbol of intelligence,
wisdom and self-discipline. Popular deities can
even take the form of snakes, especially gods who
dwell in rivers.
Even the dragon - the
most revered animal in the Chinese zodiac, whose
lunar year is now coming to an end - is sometimes
depicted as distinctly snake-like; the famous
flying dragon Teng ("soaring snake") in Chinese
mythology is an eminent example.
of Teng are, of course, worlds apart from the
Biblical account of the Satanic viper that preys
upon Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. In that
story, the smooth-talking snake convinces Eve to
persuade Adam that eating an apple from the Tree
of Knowledge, which for reasons not entirely clear
to world's first couple God has resolutely
forbidden, would be a new and exciting thing to
And it is - until, that is, the snake
is revealed as the Devil in disguise, and an angry
God takes eternal life away from the shocked pair
and condemns them and all of their progeny to an
ephemeral earthly slog of sin - not exactly a
result to celebrate for the next year with
feasting and fireworks.
So forget about
Adam and Eve and all other baneful Western
associations with snakes - the "snake in the
grass" who pretends to be your friend while
keeping his or her sinister intentions hidden
until it is time to pounce, the "snake-oil"
salesman who peddles useless cures to the sick and
dying and even "Snakes and Ladders", the popular
board game in which hanging adders can do you in.
For the next year, the snake is a symbol
of promise and hope - as, ultimately, are all 12
animals in the Chinese zodiac. Indeed, that's the
whole point of Lunar New Year celebrations. A new
year brings new challenges and opportunities - for
prosperity, for friendship, for romance and for
everything else - and for geomancers like yours
truly who are eager to prognosticate based on the
ancient Chinese art of feng shui.
however, some caution. Yes, the Year of the Snake
brings prospects of good fortune, but no feng shui
master in Hong Kong or anywhere else will promise
you that it's all going to come up roses in 2013.
While the venerable snake will be the star
of the fortune-telling show for the next year,
there is much more to the Chinese zodiac than the
12 animals that rotate through it. Five basic
elements - metal, wood, water, fire and earth -
are also part of this annual rotation, creating a
60-year cycle and a dizzying range of possible
outcomes based on the combinations.
example, this year is dominated by two elements -
water and fire - and this could mean bad news.
That's because these elements are in conflict,
which could potentially bring strife to your
domestic life as well as bad health, including the
prospect of a heart attack or stroke. So we should
all be extra-careful about building and
maintaining strong relationships in the next year
and extra-cautious about taking care of our
In the larger global picture, the
water-fire mix indicates a greater likelihood for
violence and international conflict.
1953, the last snake year in which water and fire
were aligned in this way, the Korean War had just
"ended" with an armistice that really means
hostilities between North and South continue to
this day; the United States and the Soviet Union
had commenced their nuclear arms race as Cold War
tensions heightened; and Josef Stalin, the
iron-fisted Soviet leader, died of a stroke.
There is no Cold War to worry about in
2013, but there is no shortage of international
hotspots that could turn into conflagrations. The
nuclear issue is still burning, with North Korea
threatening another test in the near future and
Iran allegedly moving closer to building a nuclear
Moreover, as Western troops trip
over one another while rushing to depart a still
woefully unstable Afghanistan, further conflict
looms there. In the roiling Middle East and North
Africa, the Arab Spring has become a Summer,
Autumn and Winter of Discontent. The ultimate
winner in these conflicts - fire or water - is not
yet apparent, but the flames of anger and revolt
certainly appear to have the upper hand at this
As for strokes, heart attacks and
aging dictators and autocrats without whom the
world would be better off, the choices are many,
so take your pick; a prognosticator's thoughts may
turn toward President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe,
who will turn 89 this month and has held his
office since December of 1987.
finance minister announced this month that the
country's bank account now contains just a little
over US$200, which may somewhat impede the
delivery of public services, not to mention the
payment of salaries to police and civil servants.
After 25 years in power, $200 is all
Mugabe has to show? Who knows? This year's snake
may choose to strike at Zimbabwe's long-standing
strongman. We'll see.
No matter what
happens to an octogenarian dictator in southern
Africa, clouds of political discord will continue
to gather around the globe. But, amid all the
troubling geomantic indicators, one nation -
appropriately enough, China, the land in which the
art of feng shui was born - stands at a distinct
The Chinese leadership may be
struggling with its Asian neighbors over
territorial disputes in the East China Sea and
South China Sea, and worrying late into the night
about the United States' recently declared "pivot"
toward Asia, but in the coming year Beijing has an
ace-in-the-hole: Xi Jinping, the newly appointed
Chinese president who will assume office next
Not only has Xi declared big
ambitions to clean up the rampant corruption that
weighs down China's economic rise and promised a
more open and transparent brand of leadership, he
was also born in 1953 - again, the last snake year
in which the fire and water elements came together
in this way.
That gives him a tremendous
advantage in world affairs. Barack Obama, born in
the Year of the Ox, should be worried. Obama may
have won the hearts and minds of Americans to earn
a second term as president last November, but Xi
has the snake and the elements on his side, as
well as China's juggernaut of an economy.
By the way, this year's strong fire
element, which is associated with economic growth,
should assure that China's happy economic
trajectory continues and spur economic growth in
general around the globe. Asia, especially China
and India, will lead the way, but the eurozone
will recover enough to fight another day while the
US economy limps forward and Africa, thanks in
good part to massive Chinese investment, keeps
In sum, it is very much a Chinese
snake, not a Western one, that will dominate the
year ahead. The much-ballyhooed American "pivot"
notwithstanding, China's rise will continue, as
will the decline of the US. A snake year and a
snake Chinese president pretty much assure that.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based
teacher and writer. He can be reached at
email@example.com Follow him on Twitter:
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