Talking Point

Venomous times ahead?

WiC’s preview of the Year of the Snake, which starts on Sunday

Those born in the Year of the Snake are viewed as charming and lucky, though also prone to scheming

In the Harry Potter series, the only thing likely to frighten 10 year-old readers more than Lord Voldemort’s veiny skull is his malevolent pet serpent Nagini.

Like her master, Nagini is deadly and the scene in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows in which Severus Snape perishes on her venomous fangs will only reinforce the fear of snakes common to children and adults alike.

While the hissing reptile is often regarded as a symbol of evil in many parts of the world, snakes can actually be auspicious in Chinese culture. In part that’s because a snake can coil itself into the figure eight, which is considered to be a lucky number. The Chinese also refer to it is as a little dragon, itself considered an auspicious creature (notably snake soup is considered very healthy in China).

So as the Year of the Snake approaches – the Lunar New Year starts on February 10 – what might it hold in store? Will the snake see the global economy slither further into recovery or will there be a sudden withering in financial fortunes?

First, who are some of the most famous Snakes?

People born in the Year of the Snake are said to be lucky and insightful. And although their characteristics can include a scheming mind, they are usually charming and likeable. China’s new president Xi Jinping is a Snake. So too were Abra­ham Lincoln and Mao Zedong. Oprah Winfrey is also one (and so are you if you were born in 1953, 1965 and 1977 or any year twelve before or after).

But for those born in the Year of the Snake, events this year could be inauspicious. That’s because being born under the same sign as the cycle year brings the risk of offending the ‘Heavenly God’. So Snakes should “stay positive and always keep a good intention,” Hong Kong Economic Times suggests.

For Xi, it will likely be a challenging year ahead. Snake years are often marked by major transformations and sometimes great upheaval. The Russian Revolution (1917), the Great Depression (1929) and the September 11 attacks (2001) all took place during the Year of the Snake.

Perhaps that’s why Xi looks to be going out of his way to present a new image to the public. For instance, he’s taken a tougher public stance on corruption and official extravagance – two issues that have provoked public anger. On an official tour to Shenzhen in December, he avoided the usual banquets and fanfare, opting for a more frugal and low-key approach. Already head of the Party and the military, Xi will be consolidate his position when he assumes the presidency from Hu Jintao next month.

So who will prosper in the Year of the Snake?

For those born in the Year of the Rat (such as 1960, 1972, 1984, or any year 12 before or after), the stars are aligned this year. Rats and snakes are notoriously good friends according to the Chinese zodiac, and as a result, the Year of the Snake should be a good one for its rodent friends, says feng shui practitioner Li Chengze.

That’s good news for Vice Premier Wang Qishan, a Rat, who was selected to be the new anti-graft tsar (see WiC176).

Hong Kong Commercial Times reckons that Horses (1954, 1966, 1978) are in luck too, especially those that work in government. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a Horse, must be happy to hear it. Perhaps he could use his good fortune to mend fences with Beijing over the conflict in the East China Sea.

Similarly, Hong Kong’s new chief executive CY Leung – also a Horse – could use a bit of luck this year, as his popularity in the city continues to slip.

Next magazine says that Monkeys (1956, 1968, 1980) will also have a good year, especially by finding “helpful friends that will give them a boost when it comes to career advancement”. That sounds positive for Celine Dion, a Monkey, who will be hoping to start the year strongly by singing on CCTV’s Spring Festival Gala on Saturday evening in the countdown to the start of the Lunar New Year.

Dion is easily the most high-profile international performer to appear at the event. No surprise, either, that her repertoire for the evening will include My Heart Will Go On. But the audience is likely to get even more excited when Dion sings a Chinese song. According to the China Daily, the diva has spent hours rehearsing the folk ballad Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower) in order to impress an estimated audience of 700 million TV viewers. No doubt she’ll be planning to sell quite a few Greatest Hits albums in China as a result of all the publicity.

Who needs to watch out?

Keep your heads down those of you who are born in the Year of the Goat (1955, 1967, 1979). According to newspaper Lianhe Wanbao, “all the lucky stars are missing” but Goats can improve the fortune by “doing more charity work”.

Bill Gates, a Goat, will be relieved that he has made a decent head start.

Pigs (1959, 1971, 1983) will also have to be careful this year, as it’s another of the zodiac signs likely to offend the presiding god.

In fact Wang Hua, another feng shui master, says those born in the Year of Pig are likely to be the unluckiest of all this year. Lance Armstrong, a Pig, should probably delay his plans for a comeback.

Learning from hiss-story…

Many feng shui masters believe that the Year of the Snake will be less tumultuous than last year’s Dragon year. Snakes are generally referred to as having a more feminine mindset, including a calmer mood. But this particular Year of the Snake is also associated with water, one of the five traditional Chinese elements. And a ‘water snake’ year is supposedly marked by greater peace and quiet.

It also means that industries related to water can hope to do well, such as gaming (because of water’s association with money in Chinese wisdom) and logistics (this one is a more practical: good for shipping firms). Companies linked to metal (including finance) could also have a decent year.

However, industries associated with the elements of earth and fire, such as construction, oil and gas should batten down the hatches. And also keep a close watch for scandals and accounting fraud: “The Snake seldom smiles and therefore it is going to be a sad year with tears,” warns Lynn Yap, a feng shui practitioner in Singapore.

For those considering buying property, the Year of the Snake could be a good time to get into the market. Yet another feng shui consultant Mak Ling-ling told Hong Kong Daily News that China’s property market will be buoyant in the first three quarters of the year but may face “headwinds from government intervention” in the final quarter.

But stay out of the stock market, which will snake up and down, advises Mak. Nor does it bode well that Hong Kong’s Hang Seng index has dropped in four out of the last five Snake years.

And to splurge?

Luxury goods firms are already gearing up for the millions of Chinese who will be travelling and shopping over the week-long holiday ahead. Many have incorporated snake-themed products into their latest collections to attract Chinese shoppers. For instance, a huge illuminated snake adorns the exterior of jewellery brand Bulgari’s Fifth Avenue store in New York, where the luxury label is also offering a necklace shaped like a serpent against a backdrop of pavé diamond and emeralds. An all-diamond version of the necklace was sold the day it arrived in the store despite the $1.34 million price tag.

Harrods in London is selling its own snake-emblazoned gold bullion bars, weighing from 5 to 100 grams and selling from $320 to $5,700 each. Last year was the first time the store offered the gold bars, which were met with “strong demand,” a spokesman told the Wall Street Journal.

Keeping track: We screwed up. In last week’s article about the Year of the Snake we listed some famous politicians born in a ‘Snake’ year, including Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy. This week we discovered we’d made a mistake.

Out of curiosity we had decided to check whether a lot of US presidents were Snakes. Then we realised that we couldn’t just look at the year of their birth, but also needed the exact dates on which China’s Lunar Year fell (it changes every year). It turns out there are two presidents who were born very close to the Chinese New Year period and, accordingly, on the cusp of two zodiac signs. One is William McKinley (he’s a Tiger, but had he been born a day later he’d be a Rabbit). The other is Abraham Lincoln. He was born on February 12, 1809; the Lunar New Year fell that year on February 14. That means he was born at the tail end of the Dragon year. So we were wrong to categorise him as a Snake.

In total five US presidents were Snakes. Aside from JFK, these were Franklin Delano Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Henry Harrison and his grandson Benjamin Harrison. And it turns out that Snakes are in a dead heat with Rats and Pigs as the most common Chinese zodiac for American commander-in-chiefs (at five each).

The first president, George Washington, was a Rat.

Representatives of all twelve signs of the Chinese zodiac have resided in the White House, but there has only ever been one Rooster: Grover Cleveland (unique too as the only president to serve non-consecutive terms and therefore the only one to be counted twice in the numbering of presidents, as 22nd and 24th).

We weren’t alone in our confusion about who qualifies for Snake status. The Shanghai Daily reports on a vibrant debate among Chinese netizens on the subject, based on the idea of when ‘Lichun’ falls. This denotes the commencement of spring and in ancient times was the date often used for determining the sign of the zodiac. Normally Lichun falls a few days before the official date of the Lunar New Year. This year it fell on February 4 (while the actual new year was celebrated on February 10).

“Netizens are all at sea over whether children born between February 4-9 this year come under the zodiac sign Dragon or Snake,” the newspaper suggested. Incidentally, if the Lichun system is used, Abraham Lincoln does count as a Snake. So, in WiC’s defence, we were at least partly right… (Feb 15, 2013)


© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.

Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.

The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.