Friday, February 4, 2011

Happy Tet! Cat vs Rabbit

Happy year of the cat! Mistake you say, it's actually the year of the Rabbit? WRONG, and I'll tell you why. It's a Vietnamese vs Chinese thang and I'm a Vietnamese (American).

For those who know anything about Asian history, you may be quick to say that after 1000 years of Chinese occupation, Viet Nam naturally adopted most things Chinese. Again this is not entire accurate. Viet Nam has its own unique culture (albeit challenging to define) and though it is true that it incorporated many major cultural practices from China, like Confucianism and elements of the han language, it is precisely because of the history of occupation that compels the Vietnamese to define what is uniquely theirs.

In the case of the Vietnamese zodiac signs, they share 10 of the 12 animal signs with China. The exceptions are instead of the ox, Viet Nam uses the water buffalo. Also, instead of the rabbit, Vietnamese people recognize the cat. Scholars speculate the difference of the cat and rabbit is due to the similarity in the words for rabbit in Chinese (mao 猫) and cat in Vietnamese (mèo).

I tend to side with another group of scholars who believe that the Vietnamese modified the animal sign to suit their indigenous surroundings. Thus, as farming people, it makes sense to recognize the water buffalo as it is the main plowing animal used on farms. Similarly, the cat is very useful because it deals with rodent problems in an agricultural society.

The Chinese cultural dominance has also made its way to the diaspora where Lunar New Year or in Vietnamese, Tết, is often called Chinese New Year. I'm very quick to correct those who don't make the distinction, but I fully understand why the misunderstanding persists. However, now that you know, hope you'll not make the same cultural faux pas. Enough bitching this new year.

I hope for all my readers a prosperous new year filled with good health and achievement of all your goals.

Chúc Mừng Năm Mới

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