Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)
Wednesday,22 November, 2017
Issue 1182, (30 January - 5 February 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Year of the wooden horse

What can we expect from the Year of the Horse according to the Chinese philosophies of sheng xiao and wu xing, asks Gamal Nkrumah

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Al-Ahram Weekly

“Some people regard private enterprise as a predatory tiger to be shot. Others look on it as a cow they can milk. Not enough people see it as a healthy horse pulling a sturdy wagon.”  
Winston Churchill


This is the Chinese Year of the Horse, which is both promising and propitious. The horse is one of the animals that appear in the Chinese zodiac, which is related to the Chinese calendar and means that this Chinese year commences at midnight on 30 January, or officially on 31 January 2014.

The horse is a magnificent animal, and the Chinese appreciate its proverbial stamina and pertinacity. Yet, there are aspects of the horse in classical western culture that should be born in mind. It was a wooden horse, for example, that was used by the Greeks to defeat the Trojans at Troy, an episode recounted by Homer and reiterated by Virgil.

According to these stories, the Greek warriors at Troy presented the Trojans with a large wooden horse in which they had secretly hidden other warriors. During the night, the warriors emerged from the horse and overran the city – a classic story from the Trojan War about the subterfuge used by the Greeks to enter the city of Troy and win the conflict.

In the canonical version of the western zodiac not all the signs are those of animals as they are in the Chinese. Take Virgo, Gemini, Aquarius and the like, for example. In the Chinese zodiac, all the signs are of animals, and they are meant to convey something of the characteristics of the beasts in question.

I am sure that had the ancient Chinese had the Trojan horse in mind, a Trojan horse, or perhaps at least a wooden one, is certainly what one might have expected for the 2014 year of the animal. Needless to say, one expects some sort of treachery, Trojan horse-style. Perhaps there might even be further conflict, too, as horses are often associated with the battlefields of yesteryear.

Unlike in the western zodiac tradition, the Chinese animal signs are associated with one of the wu xing or five elements — earth, water, wood, fire and metal — just like the western list of water, earth, wind and fire. Wood in the Chinese zodiac is associated with the colour green and with the spring. The year of the horse is closely aligned to summer and noontime. Animals are also associated with yin and yang, the Chinese contrasts of feminine and masculine and day and night. The horse is aligned with yang and hence with the masculine and daylight.

Sheng xiao, literally “birth likeness,” is a Chinese science that is revered and venerated throughout East Asia. There are minor differences between the Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese versions of this science, yet all concur that the Year of the Horse represents summer, yang and noontime, or, in other words, brilliant sunshine.

But ironically in much of East Asia summer is also the wettest season. And water is aligned to yin, the feminine principle, and to darkness. In short, the zodiac signs are not always what they appear to be in sheng xiao.

Chinese tradition stipulates that the Year of the Horse is an auspicious one. After all, the horse is a symbol of speed and success, and it is hoped that 2014 will result in many people achieving their goals and realising their aspirations, on horseback so to speak.

People as different as Rembrandt, Ella Fitzgerald, Aretha Franklin, Sir Isaac Newton, Barbara Streisand, Cindy Crawford, Denzel Washington, Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, and the legendary Mongolian potentate Genghis Khan were all born in Years of the Horse, though not necessarily wooden ones.

Just as the exquisite Arabian horse is quite different in both looks and temperament from the sturdy draft horses of the Russian Altai, so the characters of those people born under the Year of the Horse are remarkably different. Some are inherently vain-glorious, while others instinctively understand the value of work.

“When I was so fatigued that I couldn’t move, the excitement of going to the barn and getting my foot in the stirrup would make me crawl out of bed,” said the former first lady of the US state of Massachusetts, an accomplished equestrian and the wife of American tycoon and Republican nominee in the 2012 United States presidential elections Mitt Romney.

The horse of 2014 may be Auxois or Ardennais, in other words a war horse, or it may be a heavy draft and farm-work breed, rather than a dainty Brazilian campolina with its ambling gait. People born in the Year of the Horse tend to be conscientious workaholics, or patient and even passive, and the Year of the Horse richly rewards hard workers in the Chinese horoscope.

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