02/18/2015, 00.00
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The Far East celebrates the Year of the Goat with trips home, lobsters and political controversy

In many countries, celebrations for the Lunar New Year begin tonight. After weeks of debate, the experts agree: it’s the Year of the Goat. The bishops of the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea and Malaysia accord special dispensations to the faithful, who can avoid fasting on Ash Wednesday. Beijing invaded by Maine lobsters, Seoul flooded with beef soup. Over a billion people are now traveling. Catholics exempted from the Lenten fast. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong invites people to "be more like sheep."

Seoul (AsiaNews) - About one billion people are on the road or traveling throughout East Asia. Migrants are pouring pout of the urban centers to reach their families in time for celebrations for the beginning of the lunar New Year. Now, after weeks of controversy, it also finally has its animal symbol: the goat, and not sheep or ram as had been debated to this day. The biggest movement of people is in China, where about 600 million people have taken the car, train or plane to get home. Beijing is "empty", at least by conventional standards.

There are 16 million people in Korea who have abandoned for the most part the capital Seoul or Incheon to return to their places of origin. The government has launched emergency numbers and police check points in all the main highways, inviting foreigners not to take to the roads if not "properly prepared". There is also an emergency number for non-Koreans who, according to the executive,  "may experience difficulties during these days".

After a long disputation between experts and linguists, the new year now has its own symbol in the goat. The problem arises from the translation of the "yang" ideogram, which can mean "goat" or "sheep" or "ram". The long habit of using the Western alphabet also to celebrate the Lunar New Year has created confusion in China itself, where the decorations prepared for the holidays show different animals.

Professor Ho Che-wah, head of the Department of Chinese Literature at the Chinese University, explains: " The Chinese word yang in oracle-bone script - the ancient characters found on bones used for divination in the Bronze Age - looked like an animal with two horns and a pointy face. In ancient China, people ate six types of animals - horse, cow, goat, pig, dog and chicken. Goat is therefore included in the zodiac, too".

Two other animals seem to be particularly celebrated these days: lobsters and calves. Beijing has been invaded by Maine lobsters, one of the culinary specialties of the United States. The steamed imported crustacean is not only a delicacy for the palate, but also a symbol of good luck and prosperity for the growing middle class in the country. About 90 thousand tons of lobsters were shipped from the US state to China ahead of the New Year.

The other animal in great demand in the region is the calf, a fundamental ingredient for the "tteokguk" soup. It is a traditional Korean dish, made of meat broth and rice cakes: drinking the soup after midnight on New Year means you erase your ugly past and start over. According to some estimates, about two billion liters of the soup will be consumed in the country between today and tomorrow.

Given the importance of food during the festivities of the Lunar New Year, the Catholic bishops of the continent have dispensed the faithful from the fasting that usually accompanies Ash Wednesday. The coincidence of the two events has not prevented Asian Catholics from preparing for the New Year, and the bishops of the Philippines, Laos, Thailand, Malaysia, Korea, Hong Kong, Brunei, Singapore have granted them a dispensation for the celebration.

"In view of the celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year" writes the Archbishop of Manila Card. Luis Antonio Tagle - its cultural and spiritual importance and the traditional practices associated with it, we therefore grant dispensation from the obligation of fasting and abstinence to our Chinese-Filipino and Chinese Catholics in the Archdiocese of Manila from the afternoon of February 18, 2015 until midnight. Those availing of the dispensation must engage in some other forms of penance, acts of mercy and charity, especially to the poor and those who suffer, in keeping with the penitential spirit of the season of Lent".

Somewhat less appreciation was expressed in greetings from the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying. After months of demonstrations for democracy, by Occupy Central, he asked everyone to be as malleable ... as sheep ("yang"). "Last year - he said - Last year was no easy ride for Hong Kong. Our society was rife with differences and conflicts. In the coming year, I hope that all people in Hong Kong will take inspiration from the sheep's character and pull together in an accommodating manner to work for Hong Kong's future".


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