Happy New Year of the Pig! The fascinating story of the Chinese calendar

In East Asian and South East Asian countries, as well as among overseas communities of Asian origin, traditional celebrations for the start of a New Year are approaching. On February 5, we will leave the Year of the Dog , and welcome the Year of the Pig. Dog and pig are part of a series of 12 zodiac animals associated with the Chinese lunisolar calendar. The pig is the last animal of the 12-year cycle and in the Japanese and Tibetan traditions is replaced by the boar.

Illustration of a boar from 'Seiho gahakuhitsu junishi-jo' by Takeuchi Seiho, 1900. Photo credit: British Library
Illustration of a boar from ‘Seiho gahakuhitsu junishi-jo’ by Takeuchi Seiho, 1900. Photo credit: British Library

The lunisolar calendar developed in China from the solar one and was first introduced during the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC-256 BC). Years, months and days are calculated taking into account both the phases of the moon and the position of the sun which determines the seasons. Lunisolar calendars require a “leap month” or an “intercalary month” every one or two years. People born during the Year of the Pig are thought to be clever, calm, mature and well-mannered, but sometimes naive and insecure.

Illustration from the Japanese album of toys Omochabako. Photo credit: British Library
Illustration from the Japanese album of toys Omochabako. Photo credit: British Library

Zhu Baijie (豬八戒, where the first character means “pig”) is probably the most famous pig in Chinese literature. He is one of the main characters of the novel Journey to the West by Wu Cheng’en, published in 1592. The novel narrates the pilgrimage of the Tang dynasty Buddhist monk Tang Sanzang to India and Central Asia along the Silk Road to gather and take to China Buddhist texts. During his journey, he meets three creatures who become his disciples to atone for their past sins: Sun Wukong (the monkey), Zhu Bajie (the pig) and Sha Wujing (a water monster or “Monk Sha”).

A page from the 18th century woodblock printed edition of the 'Journey to the West' depicting four characters of the novel travelling. Tang Sanzang is on horseback, Zhu Bajie and Sun Wukong with martial arts sticks, and Sha Wujing bringing up the rear. Photo credit: British Library
A page from the 18th century woodblock printed edition of the ‘Journey to the West’ depicting four characters of the novel travelling. Tang Sanzang is on horseback, Zhu Bajie and Sun Wukong with martial arts sticks, and Sha Wujing bringing up the rear. Photo credit: British Library

The Chinese New Year is welcomed with fireworks, whose sound, together with the sound of drums and music, is meant to scare away the demon Nian (written 年, like the character for year). Delicious food is put on the table and chun lian (written春聯: good wishes for the new year in the form of poems, usually on red paper) are pasted on the entrance doors.

Calligrapher preparing chun lian. Photo credit: British Library
Calligrapher preparing chun lian. Photo credit: British Library

This article first appeared on the British Library’s Asian and African Studies blog.