The Passing of the Old Year: Confucian Thoughts

01/13/2014 11:28 am ET | Updated Mar 15, 2014

The holidays are over, Winter Solstice has passed, and with each day, the sun warms our bodies and our hearts with a few more minutes of light as we move slowly toward Vernal Equinox and spring. Each religious tradition has expressed thoughts about this transition in our year and thus in our lives, both physical and spiritual. We move from darkness to light and we celebrate the rebirth of light. Humankind has celebrated that transition for seemingly as long as humankind is old.

And where is the Confucian tradition in terms of that transition from darkness to light, the passing of the old year?

There are the obvious features of the Chinese calendar - the 12 animals of the so-called Chinese "zodiac" (sheng-hsiao), meaning more accurately "the likeness with which one is born."

Rather than a Western system of constellations on the celestial equator, the Chinese "zodiac" system is contained within a larger cosmology of correspondences changing and transforming in regular fashion across the cosmos. This cosmology is made up of both the Yin/Yang system, the complementarity of opposing modalities of existence, as well as the so-called Five Elements (wu-hsing), a constantly changing system of "elements" moving in regular fashion demarcated by the symbols of water, wood, fire, earth and metal.

Within the Chinese calendar, each year is represented by an animal that carries with it a profound set of meaning and understanding to suggest salient features of the year that is unfolding. Many know of the 12-year cycle and its animals. The system starts with the rat, proceeding in order to ox, tiger, rabbit, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, rooster, dog and ending with the pig before beginning again. Less know are the more subtle aspects of the system that account for major and minor animals within the year with divisions by months, days and even hours, suggesting further animal connections for each of the time divisions.

Obviously the system is complex -- far more complex than I have outlined -- and deeply rooted in traditional Chinese thought. Much more could be described and explained, but what I have discussed leads us to several major operative categories of traditional Chinese thought, foundational to both Confucianism and Taoism.

First is the idea of change and transformation. There is nothing in the universe that is not subject to constant change and transformation.

Second, and of equal value and importance, is the notion of regularity within that change. There is no chance, no capriciousness, nothing accidental, within the system. Change and transformation take place by way of a pattern to the process, not by chance.

Third, and equally important as well, is the notion of the correspondence of the microcosm and the macrocosm. What is within is also without. The individual is a microcosm of the macrocosm of the universe itself -- both move and transform in regularity and synchronic fashion.

Fourth is the ramification of the correspondence of microcosm and macrocosm. That ramification underlies all of traditional Chinese thought and suggests how humankind might find peace within and thus ultimately peace in the world. Such peace is found in the harmony or alignment of the macrocosm and the microcosm, the individual and the cosmos, within life itself. It is not "pie in the sky by and by," but harmony between self and cosmos in the here and now.

Such harmony comes as close to a traditional Chinese concept of "salvation" as any other idea -- the alignment of the individual and the universe. In the terms of Yin/Yang theory the notion is one of aligning one's yin and yang with the macrocosm of yin and yang in their process of change and transformation. To be dominantly yin when the macrocosm is in its yang phase is to be out of alignment and thus lacking in harmony and peace. On the other hand, to see that yin and yang correspond at micro and macrocosmic levels is to find peace within oneself and thus ultimately within the world itself.

Bringing these larger issues back to the understanding of the calendar and the advent of a Chinese New Year to be celebrated at the close of January -- the initiation of the Year of the Horse -- the same principles we have discussed are operative. With the Year of the Horse there are certain modalities and patterns of behavior suggested symbolically by the horse -- high energy, but the need to keep under rein. These modalities and patterns can become models and blueprints for how the individual can and should approach the New Year.

It is the Year of the Horse. Act and think in terms of the modalities of a horse. If you act as a pig or a rat or a dragon, then you are in conflict with the basic rhythms of the universe itself. Such conflict will produce a year of adversity, of turmoil, and of rancor -- rather than the peace and harmony offered by "followings the signs," as we say! This is the year to ride the horse, not lead the ox.

And what of the Confucian tradition? What I have described are major features of traditional Chinese thought. These ideas have been a basic part of Confucianism as well as much of Taoism for 2000 years. Were they fully developed at the time of Confucius? No, they were not. But as the subtlety and complexity of these systems evolved they became quintessential parts of Chinese thought, be it Confucian, Taoist or any of a variety of other less well-known systems.

Are they alive and well today? Returning from a recent trip to China, one can only marvel at the degree to which these aspects of traditional thought remain foundational to how China, and much of East Asia for that matter, understands the world and the place of the individual within it.

Happy New Year in this coming year of the horse.