Chinese New Year Greetings for the Year of the Ox!
“We must treat those who disagree with us with the same gentleness as the Japanese treat the cherry blossom.”
So said Pedro Arrupe SJ (1907–1991), despite being arrested and imprisoned while serving as a priest in Japan during World War II. On his release, he served in Hiroshima, where he and his fellow Jesuits survived the atomic bomb in 1945 and immediately set about helping the victims. I quoted him in my recent monthly sermon at St John’s Cathedral (English Service), Taipei. In the Bible study that followed, which included several people from the USA, we discussed how we handle family disagreements around politics, particularly with regard to the rise in Christian nationalism and the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January. It’s heartbreaking to hear of so many families divided, broken and discouraged.
While all in Taiwan were horrified by the violence, there’s no denying that President Trump has much support here among ultra-patriotic, vehemently anti-Chinese supporters of Taiwan’s independence. Taiwan has strangely benefitted from President Trump’s blaming and shaming of Mainland China; the Taiwan government is enjoying closer ties with the US, with increased arms sales, high-level visits, and an end to long-standing restrictions on official contacts. So far, President Biden continues to show his support for Taiwan, and much has been made of the attendance of Hsiao Bi-khim, Taiwan’s top representative to the US, at his inauguration on 20 January. This is the first time Taiwan has been officially represented at a presidential inauguration since official diplomatic relations were cut in 1979. But China is not standing idly by, and since then we’ve had a major increase in incursions of Chinese warplanes into Taiwan airspace, believed to be testing President Biden’s level of support for Taiwan. We wait, with some trepidation as always, to see what will happen.
We wait, also with much trepidation, to see what will happen with the pandemic. Our current statistics are about 900 confirmed cases and seven deaths. After eight months of no community transmission, we currently have a cluster of domestic cases centred around a hospital in northern Taiwan. The government has responded quickly, with thousands now quarantined for the next two weeks; the school term has just finished, so that helps. Taiwan’s borders remain closed to all but passport and resident permit holders, and mandatory 14-day quarantine rules have been stepped up. Everyone hopes that Taiwan’s pandemic success will not become undone with all the celebrations, family reunions and widespread traveling around Taiwan that will happen this coming holiday season.
We wait also, but happily without trepidation, for the start of the cherry blossom (sakura) season here in Taiwan. The first trees are just starting to bloom now, at the end of January; the dark pink first, the light pink coming later. Usually cherry blossom benefits from having endured a harsh winter, and the last few years of mild winters have left many disappointed. This year, we have had two separate snowfalls on the mountains above Taipei, the first for five years, which though painfully cold at the time, gives us hope for a good cherry blossom season coming up.
It is not just the Japanese who treat the cherry blossom with gentleness, respect and love. During the 50 years of being a Japanese colony, 1895–1945, cherry blossom trees were planted all over Taiwan, and wherever they grow, so people flock to enjoy their beauty. The start of the cherry blossom is a sign that spring is coming, a sign of hope for a new year. Their delicate flowers only last a few weeks, and then fall, carpeting the ground in a pink sea of petals. Truly beautiful while it lasts!
We wait, also in anticipation, for the start of the Year of the Ox, ox being synonymous with cattle in general, and everywhere there are pictures of cows, including on face masks. It’s my year too. 60! I was born on Easter Monday 1961, and this year too, my birthday falls on Easter weekend, which this year coincides with the four-day Tomb Sweeping Festival. It’s a strange mix of festivals and celebrations that will all fall together, but we wait in hope and of course some excitement. Goodness me, if I’m coming to 60 this year, I’d better get my act together fast!
As I write this, it’s late morning and I can hear the piercing calls of the crested serpent eagles (Spilornis cheela) as they rise on the thermals high above. I am reminded of my next sermon, on 7 February, also about waiting, also about eagles. “Those who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not be faint” (Is. 40:31). Some versions say “hope” instead of “wait”, reminding me of the words of Tertullian, African theologian, bishop and writer (155–240AD), who famously said, “Hope is patience with the lamp lit.” Indeed, that’s us, waiting, praying and hoping.
For those of you also desperately waiting for an end to the pandemic, and for a calming of the political tension in the US and with Brexit, I pray your lives may be filled with hope and your strength renewed.
Thank you for all your Christmas cards. Postal services from Taiwan to the UK and many other countries are suspended in the pandemic, so unfortunately I can’t send any Chinese New Year cards in return. Instead, this comes to wish you all a
Happy New Year 新年快樂 xīn nián kuài lè!