The View From Asia

CNY: Time to look back, and ahead

Chinese New Year celebrations across Asia spurred writers to review the festival's meaning and reflect on their hopes for this Year of the Monkey. Here are excerpts from Asia News Network newspapers.

Wishing for a more equitable year

Zhu Yuan

China Daily, China

The monkey is a part of not only the Chinese zodiac, but also many Chinese idioms - such as "a monkey calls the shots in the mountain where there is no tiger".

But the most formidable image of the simian in Chinese society is the Monkey King.

A legendary figure from the Chinese classic novel Journey To The West, the Monkey King is still popular among Chinese children and adults, thanks to his wisdom and magic powers - with his special pair of golden eyes, he can identify a demon or monster at a glance.

What I am particularly obsessed with is the struggle between the Monkey King and his master, the Buddhist monk, who always fails to identify the traps set up for him by demons.

So there is always a verbal fight between them, which generally culminates in the monk reciting an incantation that forces the golden ring around the Monkey King's head to squeeze so hard that he ends up with a very bad headache and is forced to obey whatever wrong decisions his master makes.

Members of the Chinese community in India performing a lion dance. The Year of the Monkey should have significance for China-India ties, says one writer. China has the legendary Monkey King, while India has a monkey god, Hanuman, a key figure in its mythology.  PHOTO: REUTERS

These episodes do not seem to have anything to do with the symbolic animal of the Chinese zodiac. But there is close association between the incantations the Buddhist monk uses and the way top leaders at various levels exert control over people under their auspices.

Most of the top leaders have absolute say over almost everything in state-owned enterprises (SOEs), which central inspection teams' reports have cited as one of the unhealthy working styles there.

There is hardly any democratic decision-making in most of the central SOEs and local government leaderships that have been inspected, which is not what is expected, given the design of the local party committee structure.

Several deputy party secretaries and members of the party committee are supposed to share the decision-making powers.

Yet such a power structure very often fails to function as the top leader has his own way of bringing all of them under his sway.

As a result, anyone objecting to or challenging his absolute authority would hardly get any support from either colleagues or higher-level leaders.

Such absolute authority is an obstacle to collective leadership, which the party hopes to overcome to eradicate corruption and prevent wrong decisions from being made.

The absolute authority a top leader uses to force his will on colleagues is very similar to the incantations used by the Buddhist monk to subdue the Monkey King, to neutralise the latter's power to disobey his wrong decisions.

To further the fight against corruption and end the unhealthy working styles within the party in the Year of the Monkey, it is imperative that the absolute power top leaders enjoy be diluted through tighter supervision or other institutional constraints.

Celebrating diversity, cultivating tolerance

Sylvie Tanaga

The Jakarta Post, Indonesia

Chinese New Year has always been an important moment for Chinese families all over the world, including Chinese Indonesians. At this time, we gather to dine together, exchange hongbao, or just share stories. Perhaps the Generation Z of Chinese Indonesians (born since 2000) no longer understand the philosophical meaning of Chinese New Year. Nonetheless, it still is an important event, as well as a reminder of their cultural identity as Chinese.

The Chinese New Year ambience in Indonesia is not only felt by the Chinese, but also by the wider public. We can see various oriental decorations everywhere as well as assorted traditional food and snacks. The barongsai dragon dances are performed enthusiastically in many places.

Chinese New Year has become one of the milestones of a nation that recognises one of its minority ethnic groups as part of its diversity.

Hopefully, despite many challenges, the nation will continue to foster tolerance and respect people as human beings, not according to their race or ethnicity.

Today, Chinese Indonesians are free to express themselves in various fields after long dealing with discrimination. It takes time to remove the stigma but at least the rights of Chinese Indonesians as civilised and dignified humans are protected under the 2008 law against discrimination.

Thus, Chinese New Year is not a mere ceremonial celebration, but also reflects the history of the struggle against discrimination.

A Chinese Indonesian, I was a little girl in 1998 when mass rioting occurred.

Through conversations with friends of the Generation X Chinese Indonesians, I learnt that the struggle of Chinese Indonesians, recognised by the state or not, never receded despite the stigma caused by discriminatory policies and some conglomerates that were merely focused on personal profit.

Historical awareness should not be forgotten, especially by the younger generation.

History is the past and guides our future at the same time.

The Chinese New Year is the right moment for Chinese Indonesians to realise their history and have the courage to fight for other discriminated groups in the spirit of diversity and tolerance.

Year of the Monkey connects China and India

Swaran Singh

China Daily, China

China is not alone in preparing to celebrate the Year of the Monkey.

China's legendary Monkey King symbolises a deeper cultural connection with its biggest neighbour, India.

India is not just home to the world's largest number of monkeys, but also has a monkey god, Hanuman, as the central character of one of its mythological stories and part of everyday cultural narrative.

The Year of the Monkey should, therefore, offer China and India more avenues to address the arduous task of deepening mutual understanding and trust.

For instance, the two neighbours signed a memorandum of understanding on co-producing films during Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Beijing in May last year, and Xuanzang was their priority project.

The film was scheduled for a joint release to celebrate the Chinese New Year.

Xuanzang, the famous Tang Dynasty (618-907) monk, returned from a 17-year pilgrimage to India in AD629 with 657 volumes of Buddhist scripture.

His pilgrimage was first fictionalised as Journey To The West during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) marking the revival of consciousness about the ancient Silk Road connecting China with India.

In Journey To The West, Sun Wukong, or the Monkey King, protects Xuanzang during his journey to India, along with three other characters: Zhu Wuneng (or Zhu Bajie) the pig; Sha Wujing (or Sandy); and Bailong, a dragon prince who acts as Xuanzang's steed, a white horse.

The monkey does not just rank ninth in the 12-animal Chinese zodiac, but is also a prominent symbol in the lore and arts of various Asian religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism.

Experts, from Professor Glen Dudbridge to Professor Wolfgang Mieder, have been debating whether China's mythical character Sun Wukong was inspired by Hanuman of the Indian mythological epic, Ramayana.

While these debates remain inconclusive, the two monkeys have evolved into very distinct popular characters. And there is no denying their close cultural connections.

The Journey To The West and Ramayana have both been made into many films, TV serials, animations and operas, making the Monkey King a venerated figure even for younger generations.

This provides the two neighbours an important constituency that should represent a combined symbol of rising China and India.

And as the Chinese version of the monkey goes global, with preparations for grandiose and colourful celebrations in China and overseas, it can also become another symbol of China's cultural connection with the rest of Asia.

Hence, the monkey can become one of the many elements helping China and India come closer.

• The View From Asia is a weekly compilation of articles from The Straits Times' media partner, Asia News Network, a grouping of 22 newspapers. See for more.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 13, 2016, with the headline 'CNY: Time to look back, and ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe