How Chinese New Year silliness can help us to keep our business healthy
The traditional way of counting the years in China reminds us of the cyclical nature of time. In the West, we tend to emphasise linear progression: getting one year older with each birthday, compiling annual reports, completing tax returns etc. Chinese New Year reminds us that there is also a cyclical dimension to time – in the universe, in our lives and in our business.
Chinese civilization for millennia has thought of human life as a number of phases, each of 12 years: from birth to infancy, through adolescence to adulthood, and so on. Each year in the cycle of 12 is ‘numbered’ with an animal. Which means that every time your animal comes around, it is a reminder that you are beginning a new phase of your life. This next year is designated the year of the monkey. So it’s likely to be the start of a new phase of life and work, particularly for people (and businesses) born around 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932.
The different characteristics of each animal also provide a theme for the year, which helps to ensure that communities and businesses do not overplay any one particular role, function or personality type. The main association with the monkey in Chinese people’s minds is the Monkey King. Those of a certain generation will remember a version of the fairy tale on UK TV which featured Monkey riding a splendid pink cloud and wielding a fearsome ebony-and-brass staff that would shrink to the size of a toothpick for easy storage behind his ear.
In the 7th century, a young monk called Xuan Zang (c.602 – 664) made a perilous 10,000 mile and 17 year round-trip on foot to Bodhgaya in order to study and collect hundreds of Buddhist texts that he subsequently translated in to Chinese in the city of Xi’an (where the Terracotta Warriors are). His journey has been mythologised by generations of story-tellers, who added additional characters to his tale – the most loved of which is the Monkey King. Monkey is a clown, a mischievous and playful prankster that brings a smile to people’s faces and a cheer from any audience. Yet, for all his antics, he remains fiercely loyal and ultimately subservient to the monk he is charged with protecting from bandits and other dangers of the road.
So the year of the monkey is a reminder to us all to value those in our companies who are a bit of a handful: off-the-wall jokers and risk-takers. They keep us sufficiently uncomfortable to avoid becoming yesterday’s story, and their irreverence stops us becoming too serious and self-important. We need to make sure we nurture them to retain their loyalty and give them clear parameters that allow them to bounce around without wrecking the whole operation.