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The Year of the Serpent: To Bemoan or Celebrate?

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The Year of the Serpent: To Bemoan or Celebrate?

By Benjamin Tong © 2001 Presbyterian Church in Chinatown, San Francisco, Newsletter. 2001.

On January 24, 2001, the very first day of the Chinese Lunar New Year, 4699, the Year of the Snake, I had the distinct pleasure of tape-interviewing Master Duan Mu Bai, a Harvard-educated 93-year-old doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), classical scholar, and teacher of Ch'i Gung and Kung Fu. He refers to himself as Christian as well as Buddhist and Taoist. We had tea and vegetarian dim sum at a restaurant in the Richmond District ("New Chinatown") of San Francisco.

Tong: It is good to see you again, Sifu. Sun Nien Fai Lok! It certainly has been a long time between visits.

Duan: Sun Nien Fai Lok, indeed! So what's on your mind?

Tong: As I said on the phone, I have a few questions to ask you about the Year of the Snake. A number of Chinese- and Asian-Americans I happen to know seem perplexed and bothered about being identified with this particular zodiac animal. Can you help them, perhaps with a bit of historical and cultural perspective on the significance of the serpent?

Duan: First of all, it would be more accurate to say "Year of the Serpent" instead of "Year of the Snake." Y'know, the serpent has certainly gotten what Americans refer to as a "bad rap." A bad reputation. In Western societies, people are told that the snake in the Garden of Eden presumably introduced "original sin" into the human dimension when it tempted Eve to take a bite of the forbidden apple on the Tree of Knowledge.

Tong: Not only that. In our mass entertainment media, the serpent is associated with giant pythons and king cobras that pursue and swallow up human beings in a single gulp. In the most recent issue of ASIAN WEEK (1.18.01), a news article reported that the business of an Asian restaurant in Dodge City, Kansas, dropped by 40% in a month's time because of a rumor that "the restaurant's owners killed and cooked dogs, cats and snakes."

Duan: Yes, given these associations, it seems one would be most unfortunate to be born in the "Year of the Serpent."

Tong: My wife usually doesn't want to acknowledge or talk about having been born in the "Year of the Rodent!" But that's another story...!

Duan: Hah! To be sure, the serpent is not viewed as evil in societies with any kind of longstanding anchoring in traditional Chinese beliefs, values and practices. In addition to "overseas" Chinese communities, we're talking mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, and so forth. For one thing, Tai Ch'i Chuan, that most well-known of health and martial arts regimens, is in fact based on the movements, the spirit and the psychology of the serpent. And by the way, Chinese do eat snake meat and consume snake soup. Snake is a source of potent "yang" or fire energy, especially in winter. These items are readily available in Chinese countries. Despite the Western taboo, I can think of at least two or three restaurants right here in New Chinatown where snake soup is available, shall we say, "on the side and on the sly."

Tong: Hey, I'm ready to order up a steaming bowl of snake soup right about now. I can't think of anything more appropriate in this kind of severe killer cold and wet weather we are experiencing in the Bay Area. But, tell me, Sifu, are there unique qualities of the serpent that have been held in high esteem among Chinese people?

Duan: Certainly. Along with the other eleven animals of the Chinese zodiac, the snake serves as a perpetual "reminder" to humankind that life involves the ability to adapt creatively to any and all situations. The serpent, for starters, is eminently flexible, is it not? Its form is ever-shifting and ever-changing. The ox, on the other hand, reminds us that there are occasions when it is best to stick ploddingly to a consistent, "straight ahead" and predictable course of action. The serpent, by contrast, reminds us of the need for....

Tong: ....flexibility of response. On that point, it occurs to me that Tai Ch'i Chuan, patterned after the movements of the snake, emphasizes the importance of being able to shift one's focus whenever necessary, and

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