So for the past few days here, I’ve been lying (and sitting) around in the year of the cat, enjoying the Tết holiday, occasionally going out for a bit of sun, some food, some attention, and some gratuitous killing of weaker animals (okay, that last part was a lie). The past week, I’ve felt very much like a cat, in fact (except for the beer drinking – at least the cats share my love of seafood!)
The curious thing, of course, as I’m sure most readers are already aware, is that in more global terms, we’re in the Year of the Rabbit. That’s the official Chinese zodiac animal of the year, which has spread to Korea and Japan, among other places, and of course makes its own mark in the world due to the sheer spread and dominance of China, its culture and economy in this day and age. Not necessarily a bad thing, but one unfortunate side-effect of all this is that in compilations of Lunar New Year photos around the world (usually referred to exclusively as Chinese New Year*), Vietnam almost always gets forgotten, even when places like Japan and New York – despite the fact that Tết is very much the focal point of the Vietnamese year, while in those two aforementioned places, it is a mere footnote (Japan does use the animals, but brings the new one in on January 1st each year)
Vietnam received these traditions from China (specifically from the 1,000 years of political and cultural dominance of Vietnam by China), and as such, it’s very much the same holiday in both countries, with only some divergences in the way things are done. The cat, of course, is the most notable of those differences. (Ox vs water buffalo is another, but as those are both written in Chinese with the same character, plus or minus the water, makes that one a bit more straightforward)
Why the cat, not the rabbit? That’s another one of those things that has been lost to history, and you’ll find many theories for it, but none of them quite conclusive. Some suggest that it’s because the Chinese word referring to “year of the rabbit” (卯) sounds like the Vietnamese word for cat, others suggest a mixup in translation of ambiguous characters, while others still suggest that it’s because rabbits are not too common in Vietnam, or due to a pre-Chinese cultural importance of cats that lingered in Vietnam through this expression. This blog will not provide you the answers, though there may be even more suggestions.
Still, it makes it interesting, seeing the cat imagery on walls and around town in the old Chinese styles where you wouldn’t normally see it in China. And curiously, it doesn’t seem to have prevented the rabbit from coming along entirely – Vietnamese people are aware of the original Chinese version, after all, and you do see the rabbit imagery cropping up on calenders, red envelopes, and various other markers of the new year.
* Though we prefer to refer to New Year here as Tết, or at least Lunar New Year, it is not entirely incorrect to refer to it as Chinese New Year either – Vietnamese people do often refer to their traditional calendar as the “Chinese calendar” (as opposed to the Western calendar), and it is that Chinese calendar on which the New Year is based. You’ll often see Chinese characters cropping up in various places for these purposes too.