The sign of the snake

Updated: 2013-02-16 10:21

By Peng Yining (China Daily)

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The sign of the snake

It might not be easy to think of a nice wish for this zodiac year, but the reptile is an important part of Chinese culture. Peng Yining provides some insights.

As a tradition, Chinese people greet each other with propitious words - to which the zodiac animals are usually related - during Chinese lunar New Year. Some years are easy, such as the Year of the Tiger, which represents power and strength. Sheng long huo hu, or "vital dragon and vigorous tiger" in Chinese, is often used to describe people who are energetic and full of life. The Year of the Ox is connected with being productive and successful, as the animal represents hard work, or simply a bull market.

The Dog is loyalty, the Monkey is smart, and the Rooster crows. Even the year of the Pig wouldn't be a problem, as the mud-rolling creature symbolizes good fortune in traditional Chinese culture.

This year, however, the lunar calendar has tossed up a major challenge: the Year of the Snake. It is hard for people to get good impressions from the wet, scaly, sometimes deadly reptile. Chinese idioms, phrases and old sayings related to snakes are often negative.

"Having a heart as malicious as snakes and scorpions", or she xie xin chang in Chinese, is an acute accusation that someone carries ill will. And places where crime and violence are rampant are usually referred to as "infested with snakes and rats".

Liu Xin, a 29-year-old Beijing resident, is finding it difficult to write greeting cards to his friends.

"I have looked in the dictionary but found no good words about snakes," he said.

Liu had racked his brain, but only came up with "Happy Year of the Snake", which was also thrown out.

"It is just weird putting the word 'snake' and the word 'happy' in one sentence," he said. "The sight of snakes crawling on their bellies makes my flesh creep."

The cards ended up being posted bearing the words "Happy Spring Festival" - less creative, but safe.

Moreover, the image of snakes - long, sneaky and legless - is hard to render in cartoon form.

"It is impossible to draw a cute snake," said Zhang Ying, a 35-year-old designer. Zhang said she wanted to bash her head against the drawing board designing wrapping paper featuring the zodiac animal.

If she drew too many details, the snake would be scary. "Nobody wants to see a standing cobra with its forked tongue on their presents," she said.

With fewer details, Zhang said, people would mistake the animal for an earthworm, or a rope. "I miss the Year of the Dog," she said. "The fuzzy little puppy would be cute either way."

In Sichuan province, a plastic snake street decoration was removed within a month of its construction, as "it is unbelievably ugly and by no means looks like snake", according to a news report.

Comprising two golden snakes with big heads and sharp, curved bird beaks, the two-story-high decoration was set beside one of the busiest highways in Sichuan.

"Chicken-head snake!" a netizen commented. The photo has been forwarded more than 400 times on Sina Weibo, the largest micro blogging platform in China.

"It looks like a giant monster, or an alien," said another netizen. "Funny, but spooky."

Nevertheless, the snake plays an important part in China's mythology and folklore.

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