Tai Sui, the Year Gods

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on August 28, 2017.)

The Tai Sui (Year Gods) at Man Mo Temple, Hong Kong

Quite a few people in the world are able to identify themselves--at least partially--in the Chinese astrological system. They can say, "I was born in the Year of the Sheep," or "I'm a Snake in the Chinese Zodiac."

Far fewer realize that the system actually embraces, not just 12, but actually 60 variations. Why 60? Just take the 12 animals--Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig--and multiply them by the five elements: Wood, Fire, Earth, Metal and Water. So rather than just being a Sheep, one might be a Wood Sheep (as I am) or a Metal Snake.

For this reason, ancient Chinese tradition divided life into two sixty-year cycles. In the first sixty years, one was to be active in the world, outgoing--in other words, Yang. Then, from age 60 to age 120, one became Yin, retiring from the world and concentrating on the inner life. Many Confucian cultures still recognize 60 as the most appropriate retirement age.

If a temple visitor is lucky, he might find a bank of small figures ranged along shelves or on a set of tiers. These are the Tai Sui, gods said to represent each year. Sometimes, like at the Man Mo Temple in Hong Kong, one can pick up papers from a niche under each statue, telling one's fortune (alas, usually in Chinese characters). At some temples, the animal is easy to find, as the five Sheep years would have the face of a Sheep, etc. Each will also have an attribute, like a gourd, a scroll, or a sword, representing some aspect of that year's character.

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