Sunday 22nd January 2023 marks the first day of the new Chinese lunisolar calendar which is the 4721st year since the beginning of the reign of the mythical yellow emperor – huangdi (黄帝).
The ancient Chinese viewed time and space and, ultimately, any expression of life, in cyclical terms. Any phenomenon was seen as a manifestation of the interplay between two complementary and opposite entities, archetypically represented by heaven – tian 天 and earth – di 地. The universe was portrayed as a gigantic bellows in a never-ending state of expansion (yang 陽) and contraction (yin 陰) and the animating breaths resulting from that movement were called qi 氣. It seems that the ancient Chinese understood that the flow of these breaths was not enough to sustain life, and its capture, storage and renewal were equally important. Only cycles can allow that since they ensure life’s dynamic stability through perpetual return. The traditional Chinese calendar was conceived to capture this idea and describes the activities and rhythms of life with cycles within cycles ranging in periods of hours, to circadian, annual and supra-annual.
The traditional Chinese calendar defines time units (double hour, day, month, and year) using symbols associated with the five phases – wu xing 五行 (水 water, 木 wood, 火 fire, 土 earth and 金 metal) and the six qi (少陽 shao yin/熱 heat, 太陰 tai yin/濕 dampness, 少陰 shao yang/火 fire, 陽明 yang ming/燥 dryness, 太陽 tai yang/寒 cold and 厥陰 jue yin/風 wind). These symbols are known respectively as the 10 heavenly stems and 12 earthly branches.
Heavenly Stems – 天干 tian gan
Earthly Branches – 地支 di zhi
Each double hour, day, month, or year is designated using a combination of one Stem and one branch. All temporal sequences always start with the first yang stem Jia 甲 and the first yang branch Zi 子 and continue with the following yin stem 乙 and yin branch 丑 etc. After 10 steps the sequence of the stems will start again from Jia 甲 and after 12 steps the sequence of the branches will start again from Zi 子. 60 steps exhaust all possible combinations of heavenly stems and earthly branches and then the sequence begins again from Jia/Zi 甲子.
The year starting on Sunday 22nd January 2023 marks the 40th step of the 78th 60-year cycle since the beginning of the reign of the yellow emperor and it is designated by the stem gui 癸 (yin of water) and the branch mao 卯 (yin of wood). The branches were traditionally memorised using the name of twelve animals and the yin of wood is specifically associated to the rabbit. Therefore, 癸卯 gui-mao is called the year of the water rabbit.
The wood phase represents the opening up and ascending of breaths/qi which, in seasonal terms, are an expression of the second month of spring (March of the Gregorian calendar). During this time nature is very prolific; prolific and fast as rabbits can be. There are sprouts everywhere and it is difficult to differentiate between plants as, during this phase of their growth, they all look the same. Although powerful, this movement is cautious like a fearful rabbit; life is still small and at risk because spring is a time of conflicts as it establishes a new order out of the remains of the previous one. With the end of the pandemic, we are experiencing something similar and since last year, when the wood phase regained some momentum, a new paradigm characterised by key concepts like authenticity, transparency, interconnectedness and, ultimately ecologism started to emerge among lacerating conflicts. To have an idea of what this means we should look at the time of spiritual and scientific growth that took place 60 or 120 years ago during the 60s and the first decade of last century (respectively one or two 60-year cycles ago). For instance, the water rabbit year of 1963 saw many lacerating conflicts but also an increased need to resolve them. Nations started regulations of nuclear powers and popular culture gained momentum revolutionising social norms, music, sexuality, education, and civil rights (in 1963 Martin Luther King delivered the speech “I have a Dream”). 2023 and even more the following years will see something equivalent and the need of establishing the emergence of a new paradigm led not just by younger generations, as it happened in the 60s, but also by much older people, primarily the baby boomers (born in the 50s and 60s) who are, for the first time in the history of humanity, more than 20% of the global human population.
The expression of the wood phase represented by the rabbit in 2023 is mediated by the yin of water which, in turns carries a unique tonal vibration. In the language of the internal canon of the yellow emperor – huangdi neijing (黃帝內經): yang is the creative, yin the receptive; yang initiates, yin responds so that every year a different vibrational tone, described using a Heavenly Stem, initiates a yearly great movement to which the yin responds with one of the six qi, described using an Earthly Branch. The yearly movement of 2023 is deficient Fire and its qi is yang ming.
A deficient yearly movement in fire implies the domination of water (which controls fire) as well as causing metal (which is controlled by fire) to rebel. Therefore, the neijing defines these years as “hidden brilliance”. The qi of water are strong and cause the yang to be hidden, in hibernation; hence, not able to fully express itself. Fruits will be smaller in summer and, if not treated accordingly, people may be more prone to experience pain, confusion, sadness, and forgetfulness – all manifestations of Heart deficiency.
You may have noticed that last year the excess of wood brought about by the year of the water tiger caused primarily digestive and respiratory diseases. In 2023, on the contrary, we should witness primarily issues related to fire deficiency and metal/water excess. Therefore, suwen 69 reminds us that in years of hidden brilliance:
- People suffer from pain in the chest
This is caused by Heart deficiency
- The flanks have propping fullness and ache
In the sequence of the channels of lingshu 10 the Shao Yang of the leg Gall-Bladder channel, which governs the flanks, is in a midnight-midday relationship with the arm Shao Yin of the arm Heart channel
- There is pain in the back, in the region of the shoulder and shoulder blades
Shao yin deficiency implies tai yang excess (they are interiorly/exteriorly related); the symptoms may be also related to the tai yin of the arm Lung channel as per lingshu 10
- Patients experience dizziness and their eyes are clouded
Coldness reduces the ability of the Heart to warm the body and infuse the eyes and the brain (in classical terms the nervous system was strongly connected with the state of 血 xue Blood and fluid circulation; hence dizziness and cloudy vision); both symptoms of Blood deficiency
- The heart aches and there is sudden muteness
Heart qi is related to our ability to express ourselves and the coordination of the tongue
- The chest and the abdomen are enlarged
The body moves away from deficiency
- The region below the flanks, the lower back, and the back pull on each other and have pain
Again, shao yin deficiency implies tai yang excess.
Therefore, in 2023 the main prophylactic/therapeutic treatment aim should be to protect the yang, warm the prevailing cold and dispel pain. In five phases terms we should encourage the wood to be infused by water allowing the fire to be protected. Diet should be frugal so as not to overwhelm the digestive system and to prevent metal from becoming too strong. Physical activity should be increased to maintain a good level of internal heat. We should be reminded that internal coldness can also manifest with effusion of heat on the exterior (i.e. stronger menopausal symptoms).
To conclude this brief post on the year of the wood rabbit, I would like to recall what my taichi teacher, Daoist master John W. Shadow, told me once about his journey through India in the early 70s: when you come back from India you can say that you have seen human faeces and deformities everywhere or that you have seen the most beautiful collection of deep mysterious eyes. Both statements are true; however, it is your decision to be a collector of faeces, or a collector of eyes. The question is: what collector are you?
2023 will be at the same time a year of deep conflicts and will present opportunities for spiritual development and paradigmatic changes. This will happen not only at a macroscopic – climatic, social and political level but also at a microscopic – personal level. Therefore, even more than in other occasions, the ultimate question for 2023 is: what collector will you be?
Principal, International College of Oriental Medicine