Friday, February 14, 2014

A tale of 12 animals, as told by Zhou En-lai...

Today (Feb 14) is Valentine's Day. It is also the 15th day of the Lunar New Year (Chap Gor Mei in Hokkien). The festive celebrations for this Year of the Horse wrap up today.

There are 12 animals in the Chinese zodiac. In 2015, it will be the turn of the goat (or sheep). With this context in mind, there is this story about the Mao-era Chinese Premier, Zhou En-lai, legendary for his quick wit and deep mastery of Chinese culture:

The significance of the 12 animals in the Chinese Zodiac

It was said that Mr Zhou En-lai was once having a meal with his European friends. A person by the name of Klaus, obviously drunk, passed an impolite comment.

"You Chinese carry the signs of pigs, dogs, and mouse at birth. I can't understand what's going on in the minds of your ancestors?"

At that point, the distinguished group of friends started to laugh. They started to toast each other rowdily. The cultured and serene atmosphere was broken.

Some people believe that when someone insults your ancestors, even if you don't have a response to it, the least you could do is to overturn the table against him. Fortunately, nobody acted rashly or in violence.

After the burst of raucous laughter, quiet returned. For a while, not a single word was uttered. Then, Mr Zhou En-lai stood up and spoke to everybody in a calm and peaceful way.

"The Chinese ancestors were very wise. They arranged the 12 zodiac signs in pairs. Six pairs in a cycle. In this way, they expressed their hopes and wishes for the generation that came after them."

By then, the room was in complete silence. There were some sceptical looks among the audience. Mr Zhou En-lai continued:

"The first pair of animals is the rat and the cow."

"The rat represents wisdom and the cow represents diligence. Wisdom and diligence must operate in harmony.

"If there is wisdom but no diligence in applying it, it's foolishness. On the other hand, if there is diligence but no wisdom, it's an act of folly. That's why wisdom and diligence must go hand in hand.

"This was our ancestors' first wish for us. The first pair of animals also represents the most important hope.

"The second pair is the tiger and the rabbit."

"The tiger represents courage and the rabbit represents carefulness. These two qualities must work closely together. In that way, there is a better chance of achieving success.

"Without carefulness, courage becomes recklessness. Similarly, without courage, carefulness becomes cowardice. This pair of qualities is very important. That's why it is the second pair."

Mr Zhou En-lai looked at the audience and then he added, "Therefore, when we demonstrate our carefulness, please do not think that we do not have the courage to fight for social justice.

"In truth, what our ancestors were pursuing is wisdom through integrity, harmony and balance. It's never about a single hope or task."

When he saw that the audience was deep in thought, Mr Zhou En-lai continued, "The third pair is the dragon and the snake."

"They represent strength and flexibility.

"Strength without flexibility becomes brittle. Without strength, flexibility becomes meaningless.
That's why strength with flexibility is an important lesson from our ancestors that has lasted through time.

"The next pair is the horse and the goat."

"The horse represents the ability to gallop to success. The goat represents the ability to be considerate and have compassion. 

"If a person only looks after himself as he pursues his goal and with no consideration for others, he will face obstacles from the people around him. He may not even be successful. However, if a person only looks after others and seek only to be amiable, he will not have a sense of direction. His goal will eventually be lost.

"That is why the spirit of the horse and virtues of the goat must be applied in harmony with each other. This was our ancestors' fourth wish for us.

"The next pair is the monkey and the chicken."

"The monkey represents agility. As for the chicken, as there were no clocks in the days of old, it was needed to wake up humans to start each new day.

"The chicken represents stability. The qualities of agility and stability must be tightly coupled together. If you have agility but no stability, your best plan will not come to pass. However, if you focus only on having stability and refuse to change, you will not have a better future.

"When the two qualities are in harmony, on one side, there will be stability in terms of having, for example, effective systems and collaboration. On the other side, there will be a release of unrelenting creativity and innovation to achieve progress. 

"When these two qualities operate in synergy, it is one of the basic imperatives to achieve success.

"Lastly, we have the dog and the pig."

"The dog represents loyalty while the pig represents good nature. 

"If a person is loyal but does not have a good nature, he will be blindly following others. On the other hand, if he has a good nature but does not have loyalty, he will have no people and principles to guide him. 

"That is why whether it is about loyalty to a country, loyalty to a team, or loyalty to an ideal, you will need to ensure that good nature is tightly coupled with it, and working alongside it. In that way, you can have a deep-seated sense of loyalty that comes from the heart. 

"This is why the Chinese believe that the outer core must be in alignment with the inner core.
At the inner core, we must have a pure heart that subscribes to high moral values. We must seek to live with ethos and positive principles. 

"We must live up to our words and not do anything that will harm others. 

"At the external core, we must be knowledgeable about the ways of the world. We must be wise in managing affairs around us. We need to focus on what matters in life and not be influenced by evil. 

"We need to live with integrity and in harmony with others and the environment. We must not have any form of prejudice or seek to discriminate against anyone."

At the end of his speech, there was complete silence. You could even hear a pin drop.

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