The Lunar New Year comes early in 2023, and the incoming Year of the Rabbit offers possibilities of significant changes in personal and national fortunes. Those responsible for formulating Australia’s China policy are advised to watch developments carefully and be flexible in their responses.
Over the years, I have learnt the important place in Chinese culture of the teachings of the philosophical classic, the Yi Jing (Book of Changes). It teaches that the positions of the planets and the stars can affect human destiny, and from this is derived the categorisation of years according to the mythical animals and natural elements of the Chinese zodiac. The twelve animals are each paired with one of the five natural elements, that is, metal, water, wood, fire and earth.
The year 2022 was the Year of the Water Tiger. This year, 2023, belongs to the Water Rabbit. There could hardly be a greater contrast. The Tiger, as the king of beasts, embodies power and majesty. In 2022 the tiger was dominated by the element of water like a flowing river, carrying all along in its powerful current. The Water Rabbit of 2023 presents a striking contrast. The rabbit is considered to be the mildest and happiest of all the animals, representing domesticity, sociability and fertility. This year, its water nature refers to rain to nurture crops and creeks that rise quickly after rain, not to the tiger’s mighty river flows.
Both the twelve animal symbols and the five elements are divided into two categories, as either yin and yang, the dual active principles of the universe. Last year belonged to yang, the forceful and active principle. On 21 January 2023, the first day of the Lunar New Year, this will switch to yin, which is passive, relaxed and contemplative. This promises a very different year from the last. There will be a change of pace and momentum, although things will not come to a halt. Rabbits are fast, intelligent, and quick to respond to warning signs. A Chinese proverb says, “The clever rabbit has three burrows”, meaning that people, like rabbits, should adapt to changes in the environment to avoid danger.
The wisdom of the Yi Jing is accepted throughout East Asia, (When Chinese friends learn that I was born in the Year of the Tiger they nod sagely, knowing that it would be unwise to trifle with a female tiger.) Families in China may well decide to try for a baby in a Rabbit Year that favours successful pregnancies, and no doubt authorities would be happy to allow such thinking, because they are concerned about the declining national birth-rate. Cognitive science tells us that what we think is likely to happen is based on what we believe to be true, and that in turn shapes our actions. Contemporary China may espouse scientific materialism, but old belief systems still operate throughout the land and affect behaviour.
The prophecies of the Yi Jing shape people’s views of their personal fate and of other individuals. They can also be applied to nations and to business opportunities and they are taken seriously by many. One Hong Kong tycoon that I used to know made all his investment decisions after consulting his fortune teller, including those to establish businesses in Australia. Many ordinary folk likewise decide whether to buy or sell, to travel or to build, according to the predictions of the Yi Jing.
In mainland China and Hong Kong, the Year of the Tiger was marked by prolonged lockdowns based on government policy to maintain Zero-Covid; international relations seemed locked in rigidity; and President Xi Jinping (born in the Year of the Snake) consolidated his leadership. The tiger was not for turning. Moving from yang to yin, however, from Tiger to Rabbit, it is time for change. Leaders are considering their options; and people are hoping for a quieter time, for relaxation of restrictions and for more mobility.
When reviewing our China policy, we should factor in these astrological beliefs. I do not recommend that Canberra should call in an astrologer or fengshui master, but policy-makers should understand how much sway these beliefs hold across the region. My advice is to accept that fixed plans are not appropriate for the Year of the Water Rabbit. After all, the rabbit’s long ears are there to help it get information faster so that it can be a jump ahead of others. While Beijing will be more flexible and will adapt to emerging circumstances, demographic and social changes and a new international strategic environment with continued war in Ukraine and tensions in US relations, we should also be rabbit-like and nimble at home and abroad, dealing with extreme weather events and natural disasters, managing the economy and expanding strategic alliances in the region. Above all, Australia and China should abandon tigerish solutions.