From The Email Bag: May Fourth Movement, Darby And Who?

A couple of minor items from the email bag.

• First item: A listener to last week’s podcast wonders about my speculation that the intensifying control-freakery of the ChiCom leadership may be intended to forestall protest next year, at the centenary of the May Fourth Movement.

Why would the Chinese take note of a centenary, asks my listener. Doesn’t their calendar work on a sixty-year cycle?

Answer: No, modern China uses the Gregorian calendar and marks anniversaries on a decimal basis. When I was there in 2001 the media air was thick with commemorations of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party eighty years previously.

To be sure there is a traditional calendar based on a sixty-year cycle. It’s not much in play nowadays, though. The only time you hear it used in everyday life is in reference to the overthrow of the last Imperial dynasty in 1911. That’s called the Xinhai Revolution, because 1911 is the year Xinhai on the sexagenary system.

The second syllable in those year names repeats on a twelve-year subcycle (so there are five of those in the sixty-year cycle). Those twelve syllables correspond to the twelve animals you hear about at Chinese New Year. We are now in the Wuxu year; “xu” (戌) corresponds to “dog.” It doesn’t mean “dog,” it just means the eleventh term in this twelve-year subcycle.

(And there’s an Orwell connection here, too: 1984 was the first year of a sixty-year cycle, as Andrei Amalrik and no doubt others noted. I doubt Orwell had this in mind. He most likely just flipped the last two digits of 1948, the year he wrote the novel.)

• Second item: Some listeners to my February 16th podcast were baffled by the reference to Darby and Joan. Sample reader response: “Darby I guess is you, but who the heck is Joan?”

I’m sorry. “Darby and Joan” is Brit-speak, generic  for any long-married older couple. There seems not to be an equivalent in American English. Under the influence of the late Peggy Lee, I assumed for the longest time that “Baby and Joe” was that equivalent, but native Americans tell me not.