VANCOUVER—The first Opium War. The American Revolution. A famine in India over a century ago that killed as many as 10 million people. The global coronavirus outbreak.
What do all those events have in common?
They happened during the “Year of the Gengzi,” which occurs once every 60 years and brings with it natural disasters, wars and general calamity.
That’s according to Chinese astrologers, who have penned predictions in recent years warning people to prepare for a rocky 2020.
In recent weeks, Chinese social media has been awash with speculation that the coronavirus outbreak was predestined because Year of the Gengzi prophecies were coming true.
“One month has passed in the year 2020 … and our country is plagued by epidemics; Since ancient times, it has been said that there must be chaos in the Gengzi Year,” read a widely-shared article from Bazi, a website about Chinese traditional culture.
To be sure, many Chinese people dismiss these worries as superstition, but it didn’t help that coronavirus cases spiked right at the beginning of Lunar New Year celebrations in late January. This forced many Chinese citizens to self-quarantine and cancel trips to visit their families, with little to do at home but turn to social media echo chambers.
So what are the ideas behind the Year of the Gengzi?
“This is the year of the Earth Rat. Out of the signs of the zodiac, the mouse is the most unstable animal and because rats move so much, this is shaking the earth,” says Sherman Tai, a Vancouver-based astrologist and Feng Shui master.
Tai, who had consulted on the design of the Richmond Olympic Oval, said he had predicted this would be a bad year for world politics and the global economy as well.
“The mouse represents the water element, and you just have to go to the seashore to see how the water crashes against the earth. People will fight each other and leaders of countries will face endless headaches,” he told the Star.
However, Tai said there’s no need for people in many parts of the world including North America to overly worry about catching the coronavirus.
“Just wash your hands and be careful. Once warm weather comes around early May, the fire of summer will get the virus under control,” he said.
Jerry King, president of White Dragon Consulting in Vancouver, agrees that speculation about the relationship between the Year of the Gengzi and the coronavirus has mostly been exaggerated.
But he says that the Year of the Gengzi, which is part of the recurring cycle of the lunar calendar, carries patterns that can “tell us certain things about individuals and the world.”
To begin with, each zodiac is associated with one of the five elements in Chinese astrological thought: wood, fire, earth, metal and water.
“The rat being a ‘water’ animal represents characteristics such as depression and sadness. It is the yin energy of the water that brings about the negativity. There is a lack of fire in 2020, meaning a lack of excitement and happiness,” King said.
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“It depends on the individual. Some are luckier if their destiny chart likes the water element since every individual has specific lucky elements.”
So is it healthy to turn to astrology for clues to things like disease outbreaks or fluctuating stock markets?
University of British Columbia psychologist Jiaying Zhao, who studies the link between global events like climate change and human behaviours, says that religion, astrology and other spiritual or fortune-telling practices can certainly give people comfort during times of uncertainty.
“I think it’s understandable because people want to gain back a sense of control in their lives. When people turn to things like religion or astrology, they want to have some predictability. They want to know that things will be OK.”
Zhao says this can be healthy if your coping method can help calm you down.
“It’s no longer healthy when you put all your faith in a belief system and don’t do things like take medicine or wash your hands,” she said.
Timothy Brook, a historian of China’s imperial history at UBC, said many societies think of time as moving in circles, and concepts such as the recurring Gengzi Year are not unique to China.
“(But) for most people in North America, the rural age ended a century ago, and since then almost everyone who can move to a city has done so: Our ties to the rhythm of farming have attenuated. In China, that connection only began to fray a generation ago. China is leaving agrarian life behind at a terrific rate today, but the memory of the seasons of sowing and reaping is still there.”
Brook said that the coronavirus is troubling to many people who don’t like to “regard nature as indifferent to our concerns about who deserves or doesn’t deserve to fall ill.”
People are puzzle-solvers, he said, and astrology offers “a puzzle-solving system that can stand in for the randomness of reality.”