Superstitious Olympic nation hopes eclipse signals the end of an unlucky year


CHINA:Earthquakes, floods, Tibet - now, an eclipse so close to the Olympics has everyone worried, writes Clifford Coonan

FOR THE ancient Chinese, a solar eclipse was a dire warning, a portent of doom that would send the entire court into panic, prompting the emperor to avoid eating meat, shun the palace and read oracle bones to find out the meaning of the phenomenon.

A total solar eclipse, which is caused when the moon blots out the Sun by passing directly between it and Earth, had peasants in ancient China banging drums to scare off the dragon they believed was taking a bite out of the moon. Dynasties rose and fell on the strength of eclipses.

One week before the torch is lit in the Olympic stadium in Beijing, a total eclipse of the Sun has darkened the Chinese skies. China may be run by sober-suited Marxist-Leninists but superstition runs deep in this ancient country and the eclipse has been seen as the latest bad omen in a year marked by bad luck. The belief is strong that natural disasters and events like eclipses portend trouble for the country's rulers.

Over three millennia ago, when the Zhou rulers overthrew China's first dynasty, the Shang, the usurpers justified their move by saying the Shang king had lost the "mandate of heaven" needed to rule. Floods, earthquakes, droughts and eclipses were proof that the mandate of heaven was lost, and this belief only ceased with the demise of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century.

The origin of the eclipse as a bad omen is easily explained. Black is bad luck in China, which is why people wear white at funerals, and the vision of the sky going dark and the Sun being blacked out was a black omen.

The Chinese have kept records of eclipses since 720BC. One emperor had two of his court astrologers beheaded for not accurately predicting an eclipse, so important was the phenomenon in evaluating how long an emperor might live, or how good a harvest might be.

There are many innocent superstitions, such as a belief that wearing red underwear is very auspicious in a Rooster astrological year or the requirement to eat long noodles on your birthday because they symbolise long life.

But some are more serious. Four is traditionally an unlucky number in China because the word for "death" is similar in Chinese to the number.

Many Chinese skyscrapers will not have a fourth floor in the same way as New York apartment blocks lack a 13th floor.

Eight, on the other hand, is extremely auspicious. This is the reason the Olympics will begin at eight minutes past eight on the evening of the eighth day of the eighth month of the year 2008. The Beijing organisers even lobbied the International Olympic Committee to have the Olympics put back so they could have the lucky start date.

The reason it is lucky is that in Mandarin, the word for eight, "ba," sounds like the word "fa", which means "fortune".

During the social upheaval of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), superstition was considered "feudal thought" and could earn you a spell in jail or worse. But it runs too deep to change.

On August 8th we can expect a huge number of weddings, because of the lucky associations, and the number of caesarean section births is expected to spike.

Flooding in June was said to have fulfilled the final stanza of an internet curse involving the Fuwas, Beijing's five cuddly Olympic mascots.

One Fuwa is a panda, the symbol of Sichuan. Another resembles a torch, which is said to represent the protests against the international Olympic torch relay; a Tibetan antelope is seen as a symbol of the unrest in that region in March; a swallow that looks like a kite has been linked to a deadly train crash in Shandong province. The final Fuwa, a fish, has been linked to widespread flooding in southern and central China.

Foreign eclipse watchers have travelled to sites in Gansu and Xinjiang to watch the sky go dark.

Even if it is a bad omen, astrologers and feng shui experts say Chinese authorities have no reason to fear for the Games. And even the eclipse itself could being positive developments.

"The eclipse is a natural phenomenon. I know it was also said to mean bad luck for our nation in old times. But I prefer to think it means the end of bad luck," said Zhou Anming, a retired chef.

"China has had a lot of accidents recently. The earthquake in Sichuan, many people died. I think it is the end. It should be the end. We can go on better in future I hope."