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China's Dragon is a Snake in Laos, where 2012 Spells Fear

By Souksakhone Vaenkeo, a journalist from Laos who is on exchange with the Economic Observer

Chatting recently with friends from back home has made me realize that a large, if decreasing, number of Lao local people are still avoiding organizing significant events in the coming year. This is because it is considered by Laotians as an inauspicious year. For the Chinese, the significance of next year is the opposite.

In the Chinese zodiac, 2012 is year of the dragon. For Lao it is the year of mar long – literally, the big snake.  “Long” in Lao also means coffin. This unlucky association means that certain activities, like marriage and the breaking of ground for the building of new houses, are avoided by some. These people fear that these important activities will be afflicted by the ill luck inherent in the year.

When I made a joke that assumed that she would get married next year, my friend laughed at me. She said: “Are you crazy? Don’t you know next year is the year of mar long? The elderly people don’t allow it,” she said.

When I heard people in my home mention this belief before, I used to think it had been just practiced in ancient times.

I went on to talk to another friend, Mr Vanna, a resident of Laos capital Vientiane, asking whether people in his hometown still follow this belief.

“Personally, I’ve never heard about that belief, but we have just organized a wedding for my wife’s brother; my mother-in-law said we cannot hold it next year - because of the mar long year,” he said.

Although the belief still exists, numbers are getting smaller these days. Only those influenced by their parents who still strictly follow traditional beliefs follow these customs now. They generally live in rural areas.

Many Lao people admitted they have no idea about this tradition.

Tai Soutthivongnorlath, who is now preparing his wedding slated for early March, (just before the Lao New Year in April), said he did not follow this tradition. His wedding, though organized to take place before the year of mar long, is taking place in March due to other considerations.

“I would rather consider it (the year 2012) as an auspicious year as the Chinese do,” he said.

In the past, more people followed the Lao custom, which considers the mar long year as an inauspicious year, but the younger generation no longer follows it, my aunt Khan explained.

While some in Laos, like the ancestors, associate the upcoming year with misfortune, many Chinese see the year of the dragon as an auspicious moment.

Its status as a special and meaningful symbol since ancient times has meant that the dragon remains a meaningful symbol for many modern-day Chinese.

Many parents have tried ensure that their babies are born on this meaningful year.

reported that five percent more babies are typically born in a dragon year, because many parents want their babies to be associated with the symbol of China’s emperors.

Parents expect children born in the year of the dragon to be more outstanding than those born in other years.

My Chinese tutor Baobao, who was born in the year of the dragon, said that although her parents had not specifically planned to have her born in the favorable year, her parents did think she would perform better than her two older siblings.

Just like in Laos, for many younger Chinese 2012 is just another year, dragon or no dragon.

This translation was edited by Nathan Wakelin-King, a Tsinghua University student interning at the EO.


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