The fact that our Chinese friends are marking their New Year 43 days after the rest of us is sufficient reminder that people of different cultures often see the world in different ways. The Chinese zodiac is divided into twelve houses, not so differently from the Western zodiac, but each house signifies a year, not a month. February 12th 2021 marks the beginning of the Year of the Ox, and that night’s celebrations will be both colourful and traditional.
COVID restrictions may limit the festivities this year, of course, but if you’ve experienced a Chinese New Year you’ll have seen the colour red at every turn. Legend has it that in ancient times, a sea monster named Nian would take to the land for one night each year, searching for humans and animals to eat in a coastal village. People would make their escape to the safety of nearby mountains, but one year a beggar took shelter in the village. The beggar was dressed in red and decorated the house he sheltered in with red paper. When Nian approached the house the beggar set off firecrackers, and the combination of the loud noise and the colour red was enough to make the monster run away. This is why Chinese families wear red clothes and decorate their homes in red on New Year’s Eve, and release firecrackers at midnight.
China isn’t the only country with colour preferences, of course. Japanese people believe blue symbolizes coolness and loyalty. It’s commonplace for job applicants to wear blue for interviews. Purple represents royalty in Japanese culture, and purple flowers are very popular. Orange signals love, happiness, civilization and knowledge. In India, yellow is the colour of learning and saffron yellow is sacred. While Chinese people see red as a celebratory colour, South Africans have adopted it as a colour of mourning, and in Brazil the colour purple evokes spirituality in a way that makes it a suitable colour to wear at funerals.
The better we understand our neighbours, the better our relationships with them will be. The Chinese Society in Wales is a standard bearer for cross-cultural relationships. It’s had a hugely positive impact on the lives of ethnic Chinese residents in this country as well as enriching Welsh culture. The benefits of this relationship-building were underlined in 2020 when the Swansea Grand Theatre’s Arts Wing was designated as a new multicultural hub for organisations including the Chinese Society in Wales and the African Community Centre. The plan to develop a diverse arts centre and host ambitious events and skills programmes was a sound one, but like so many good plans it’s been delayed by COVID-19. Delayed but not forgotten. When we return to some semblance of normality, the Grand Theatre’s second floor will once again be a place of welcome and vibrancy. In the meantime it’s worth reminding ourselves of the response we had from Swansea’s sister city of Nantong in China’s Jiangsu province when Coronavirus forced us into our first lockdown last Spring. At a time when the people of Nantong had plenty of problems of their own, they sent a consignment of personal protective equipment to Swansea Council. Goggles and facemasks enabled professionals in frontline roles to work safely as the scale of the pandemic began to hit home.
A spokeswoman for Nantong's Foreign Affairs Office explained this act of kindness:
"This pandemic affects many countries and only by cooperation can we defeat it. Nantong is concerned with Covid-19 outbreaks in Swansea, our sister city in UK. Though we are still in short of epidemic prevention materials, it is our will to render a helping hand within power and fight against the virus together. We hope that Swansea can win this battle and resume normal life very soon with joint efforts of your government and all citizens."
We haven’t yet resumed normal life, but with the support of our friends – at home and overseas – we’ll get there. We’ll get our lives back. We’ll make plans. We’ll travel, because the world outside our window and beyond our shores is a place of friendship. We wish our Chinese friends every happiness for their celebrations next week, and our New Year’s resolution is to keep respecting and valuing the culture of every nation. We enjoy seeing the world in colour.