The Year of the Goat has drawn to an end without much having occurred and that is because of this quiet -- and if the astrologers are to be believed -- artistic and contemplative zodiac animal. The monkey on the other hand, astrologers are gleefully reporting, seems ready to sum up the character of the year ahead, if not the past year as well.
This mischievous beast is the patron of politicians and diplomats and -- with the international situation as it is -- there are plentiful predictions about how national elections in Taiwan and the US are going to monkey around with the rather turbulent state of international affairs.
The key to the monkey's character is its ambivalence. It is at once creative, intelligent and full of energy and curiosity, while at the same time it's easily bored and full of mischief. There is plenty of room for it to make trouble. This reputation for being the symbol of a turbulent year is balanced by the optimism that the monkey often inspires.
In this case, it is enhanced by yet another subsystem of Chinese cosmology, which makes this a year in which the element wood is in the ascendant. This element is associated with rapid development, idealism and youthful innocence. Combined, 2004 becomes the Year of the Wood Monkey, and the idea of "transformation," along with the turbulence that it often brings in its wake, is a major factor for most of those looking at cosmic cycles, rather than foreign policy, to see where the world is heading.
The last Year of the Wood Monkey was 60 years ago, 1944, which saw a turn in the tide of the war in the Pacific against Japan with the liberation of the Philippines. In Europe, the Allies started pushing back the Germans after D-Day and the Bretton Woods conference. A beacon of hope, you might say. Whether that bodes well or ill for a world still coming to grips with the invasion of Iraq, the lack of progress in Afghanistan and the terror wrought by SARS and Mad Cow disease is anybody's guess -- but unsurprisingly, the astrologers are optimistic. The almost frantic belief on Internet astrology pages that the Year of the Monkey will be a year of transformation for the better is rather touching, but not particularly encouraging.
But these dark thoughts aside, the monkey has largely been a symbol of hope for the Chinese, even as it is a symbol for the naughty world we live in. The creature's similarity to ourselves breeds a kind of affection, for it embodies both the foolishness we know ourselves capable of and the wisdom and cleverness that we often aspire to. Perhaps the greatest representative of monkeys in Chinese culture is the irrepressible Sun Wu-kung (
Sun Wu-kung was a follower of the Tang dynasty monk who traveled to India to collect Buddhist sutras for the edification of his countrymen. The journey involved passing through many lands inhabited by demons and spirits, and the Monkey King, while getting the caravan into all kinds of trouble because of his insatiable curiosity and mischievousness, generally also managed to get it out again through bravery and cleverness.
First published in the mid-1500s, the story has established itself as one of China's great novels and is available in a rather handsome four-volume set translated by W. J. F. Jenner and published by the Foreign Language Press. The book could be a good gift this monkey year, as it retains a surprising degree of contemporary relevance.
It is of passing interest that in some Buddhist texts, the human mind, as opposed to the ideal of a Buddha-mind focused on the seeming eternity of the Dharma, is described as the "monkey mind." In Hindu mythology, the god Hanuman is one of the greatest of the minor deities and -- while never specifically lauded in Buddhist or Taoist cosmology -- the monkey retains our respect because it is one of our closest relations within the animal kingdom.
In Taiwan, our simian representative is the Formosan macaque, which has already been up to all kinds of high jinks this year, causing grief to farmers in Taitung County, where -- according to one CNA report -- they were found plucking the feathers off roosters and placing hens high in treetops from which they couldn't escape. A goat ranch owner in Fuyuan even claimed macaques sexually assaulted his ewes. The Formosan macaque is protected by law and unfortunately for the farmers, they seem to know it, and are generally unresponsive to threats.
With all that the monkey represents, we can clearly all look forward to an eventful year. The astrologers tell us that this year will be best for people born under the sign of the snake, for the unpredictable monkey stimulates the intellectual snake, whose common sense balances out the exuberance of the monkey. The other zodiac signs don't do so well. While rats and dragons are expected to deal reasonably well with the complexity of a monkey year, tigers, pigs and dogs are all in for a hard time, for they are too straightforward and up-front to deal with the subtlety and guile of a monkey year.
Basically, with the upcoming Year of the Monkey, we are fated, as the Chinese imprecation goes, to "live in interesting times." How we deal with it, is up to the monkey in ourselves.