Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about tradition; In part because I’m translating a book about the effacement of old religions and the ushering in of new faiths… but also because it’s the Lunar New Year, the Year of the Ox to be exact, and that’s my Zodiac.
Some might assume that it’s propitious to be in the same year as one’s birth sign but one’s 本命年 (běn mìng nián) is actually considered inauspicious.
“2021 will be a turbulent year for the Ox,” says chinesenewyear.net (lol). “You may encounter unexpected challenges, especially in your career and studies, which can leave you feeling stressed out, distracted, and emotional.”
If it weren’t for the fact that we’re in a pandemic and I don’t have a full-time job yet, I probably wouldn’t feel on edge, but the combination of my 本命年 and this Terrible Time that we’re living in makes me a bit nervous. Yesterday, I began to wonder: did I take the right precautions? Am I doing an adequate job celebrating the new year? How come I barely own any red clothing?
Earlier this year, my mom visited a temple in Taiwan to 安太歲 (ān tài suì) on behalf of me and my brother, the two oxen in the family. Praying to “Tai Sui,” sometimes translated as “Grand Commander of the Year,” can be a way to fend off calamity during one’s 本命年, since 太歲 wields the power to create obstacles for you throughout the year. Although I’ve never paid much attention to astrology, the knowledge that Tai Sui may go easy on me does bring some comfort.
Do all children grow up “less” religious than their parents? I subscribe to some, but not all, of the traditions I grew up with, and my mom in turn believes in some, but not all, of her mother’s beliefs. I don’t stick my chopsticks into a bowl of rice and avoid clipping my fingernails at night. But I also don’t visit temples or pray regularly to any gods. Will I visit a temple to appease Tai Sui during the year of my future children’s Zodiac? Will I buy them red underwear to wear for good luck? What is the half-life of faith?
Although old customs and folklore are slowly eroding, it’s not as if our society has become less devout, per se—it’s just that faith is often placed elsewhere these days. Instead of going to a temple to pray for good fortune, one might post a “summoning circle” on Twitter instead:
Instead of keeping the shrine of a deity at home, millennials might opt for a few celebrity prayer candles:
It’s worth noting that the word “idol” can both mean “a representation of a god used as an object of worship” or a celebrity we admire. K-pop stars are called “idols” and are worshipped as such. Swifties are obsessed with numerology because Taylor times all her music releases around the number 13 (she announced her “Love Story” re-recording on 2/11 (2+11 = 13) and the new Fearless is arriving on 4/9 (4+9 = 13)). Is stan culture so different from organized religion?
Every generation has its new rituals and new gods. Some people say a prayer first thing in the morning, others check their phone.
Of course, this is not to say that religion in the “traditional sense” isn’t still of vital importance in 2021. Because of religion, deadly wars are being waged in parts of the world. Because of religion, a large number of Americans believe that abortion is immoral. But because of religion, there is also joy, unity, and love.
One of the most stirring scenes in Fleabag, a show that in some ways explores the place of “faith” in contemporary culture, is Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s confessional monologue in Season 2. She says to the (hot) priest:
“I want someone to tell me what to wear in the morning. I want someone to tell me what to eat. What to like, what to hate, what to rage about, what to listen to, what band to like, what to buy tickets for, what to joke about, what not to joke about. I want someone to tell me what to believe in, who to vote for, who to love and how to tell them.
I just think I want someone to tell me how to live my life, Father, because so far I think I’ve been getting it wrong — and I know that’s why people want people like you in their lives, because you just tell them how to do it. You just tell them what to do and what they’ll get out at the end of it, and even though I don’t believe your bullshit, and I know that scientifically nothing I do makes any difference in the end anyway, I’m still scared. Why am I still scared? So just tell me what to do. Just fucking tell me what to do, Father.”
It’s an extraordinary scene because it puts our timeless need into words—our need for affirmation, security, and direction. No matter what time period we’re in, and no matter what gods we pray to, we all want something to believe in at the end of the day.
So, in the Year of the Ox, I will try to wear red from time to time. I’ll pay attention to my health. I’ll draw on oxen traits—diligence and perseverance—to make it through an uncertain year. And in the worst of times, I’ll encourage myself to believe—to have faith.