In the Chinese Lunar Calendar, February eighteenth began the Year of the Pig. Like many of the animals in the Chinese zodiac, the pig is considered a propitious symbol: it is associated with fertility and virility (making this a lucky year to have children). But 2007 is also the year of an unprecendented step by the Chinese government: banning representations of the pig in television advertising.
On the night of February seventeenth around eleven forty-five, Lacey and I found a lucky parking spot on snowy Broad Street and walked four blocks into the heart of Philadelphia’s Chinatown. We heard the celebration well before we arrived, machine-gun fireworks erupting in sporadic bursts and volleys above the subtler, steadier beat of giant drums. When we arrived we worked our way into the crowd until we could see the action, a bright blur of shiny dragons and white-hot explosions, grinning faces and nodding heads. The smell of gunpowder was everywhere. I was reminded of my one previous trip to Beijing, when the lack of safety restrictions around places like construction sites and major intersections filled even mundane moments with an extra twitch of caution.
That night each dragon in the parade was made up of two young people: the unfortunate one in the back, whose only job seemed to be maintaining the illusion that the dragon had hind legs, and the one in the front, who animated the dragon by opening and shutting its mouth and eyes and crouching low, only to jump up again suddenly and move in a new direction. The movements made the dragons appear curious, almost childlike, as they ducked and bobbed their way forward, eyes wide, heads swinging. As the dragons advanced an unseen hand lit a long string of fireworks, draped from awnings and parking meters or from a long stick dangled out a second-story window. The sudden explosions drew the dragons closer, dancing and ducking into the heart of the blaze, their heads sometimes inches from the crackling gunpowder. We saw one young man emerge from a dragon on the front lines urgently beckoning another troupe member, shoving the mask onto his friend’s head and pulling away with his fingers in his eyes. We watched until we made sure he hadn’t gone blind. Later an older Chinese couple was caught trying to cross an open area just as someone lit an enormous bottle rocket; the couple was pushed back just before the thing cracked and varoomed into the cold sky. And more than once Lacey and I felt the sparking heat of the dangerous red strings exploding too close to our feet, while I pushed in to snap camera phone pictures of the chaos.
The following Thursday in Mandarin class, a fellow student introduces herself by saying “wo xiang Duncan.” My teacher doesn’t correct her, although for the second time she has said “I would like Duncan” instead of “my last name is Duncan.” The teacher is a lot friendlier than the ones I had in college. There I was constantly corrected on my tones, my stroke order, sometimes my attendance. Here I am the star pupil. But the same pitfalls lurk: in Mandarin even a one-syllable word can mean four different things, depending on slight variations in tone; two-syllable words hide a treacherous infinity of meanings. Even the order in which a character’s strokes are written is fiercely adhered to.
The ban on pigs in television advertising is meant to protect China’s population of 2 million Muslims from exposure to the offensive animal. As a Westerner, this sensitivity can be hard to make sense of, given the rumors we hear about the Chinese government. But this is the same culture that regards taking a business card with one hand (instead of two) as unspeakably rude. In China, the dangers are often subtle and unexpected: a woman can walk down a dark city street at midnight with no fear of being molested, but there is no guarantee that construction debris won’t fall on her head or fireworks won’t suddenly explode at her feet. And if she doesn’t get her tones right, once she gets to the hospital she might just find herself telling the attending physician that she would like her last name, thank you very much.