COMMENTARY: Thinking Chinese on Lunar New Year

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DAVAO CITY (MindaNews / 18 February) — We celebrate two New Years in our household: on January 1 and the Lunar New Year. Our Lunar New Year celebration is more elaborate. I thought it was because of the strong Buddhist beliefs of my partner. But from her perspective, we do so because it is part of Filipino culture.

Now I do not know that many Filipino homes actually mark the Lunar New Year. But Filipinos certainly are aware of it, although we refer to it as “Chinese New Year.” The Vietnamese, Koreans, Laotians, Singaporeans, and Taiwanese also commemorate Lunar New Year.

Perhaps the size of the Chinese population — in China and elsewhere — and the distinctive ways they celebrate the Lunar New Year hav caused the association with the Chinese.

It is easy for our minds, thus, to flit to other things Chinese on Lunar New Year.

Our connections with China go back a long way. Proponents of the Austronesian Migration Theory such as Peter Bellwood posit that Austronesians migrated from the Chinese mainland by way of Taiwan in 3500 BC, reached the Philippines in 3000 BC, and then fanned out further south, east, and west to Sumatra, Java, New Guinea, Samoa, Hawaii, Easter Island, and Madagascar.

The precolonial history of Mindanao has many references to trading with the Chinese. Paduka Pahala, a Tausug and one of three rulers of Sulu in the 13th century, led a delegation to China in 1417 to pay tribute to the Emperor. He died on the way back and was buried in Shandong Province. Two of his heirs stayed on and became Chinese citizens.

The website Ethnic Groups of the Philippines estimate that Chinoys or Tsinoys—Philippine nationals of Chinese descent—make up about 3% of our population. A number of Philippine national political, economic, and cultural figures are of Chinese blood.

Many localities have their own “Chinatown” that serve as commercial spaces. Rural places, such as the one I grew up in, had general merchandising stores that are often identified with enterprising Chinese.

We have gotten so used to Chinese goods flooding our market that we chuckle over the joke that while God made the world, the rest was made in China.

Based on data from the Philippine Statistics Authority, the People’s Republic of China or PRC has historically been among our biggest trading partners. However, our import payments to PRC (for electronic products and iron and steel, among others) have generally been higher than our export receipts from it. Economic relationship notwithstanding, the western slant of our educational system and geopolitical alignment has shaped Philippine mainstream understanding of PRC to one mainly viewed through the lens of anti-communism.

Philippine-Chinese relationship got spotlighted under President Rodrigo Duterte beginning his campaign promise in relation to the West Philippine Sea, to recent gaffes of Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque concerning the Benham Rise or Philippine Rise.

The hyperbolic promise to jet ski to Spratly Islands to assert sovereignty gave way to a position that the Philippines is powerless against the PRC’s military might. He was quoted in February 2018 as saying “China, we are not prepared to deal with arms with you. We’ll just end up with the slaughter of my soldiers.”

Spokesperson Roque has belittled the Philippines when it came to the Philippine Rise.  He doubted Philippine capacity to explore it, only to be told that Filipinos have been conducting scientific studies of the area for some time. Roque also downplayed Chinese naming of five undersea features in the Rise.

He said the Philippines only has sovereign rights, not a title, to the underwater plateau. Roque argued that with sovereign rights, we had  “exclusive right to explore and exploit the natural and nonliving resources, natural resources found in the area.“ The legalese might have been intended to placate Filipino and Chinese interests, except that for the PRC the United Nations recognition in 2012 of the Philippine Rise as part of the country’s continental shelf did not signify its inclusion in our territory. How this will play out given that President Duterte later said “Philippine Rise or Benham Rise is ours,” is one we will have to monitor.

International relations experts have pointed out that the Philippines is not stuck in a binary of subservience or war when it comes to China. There are other effective non-military and non-confrontational means we can resort to without conceding territorial integrity, as has been demonstrated by Vietnam.

For Chinese astrology believers,  2018 is the Male Earth Dog year with strong connections to earth.  Interestingly, the online Chinese Fortune Calendar predicts that  this year there will be “focus on real estate, agriculture, environment, territory integrity or religious, spiritual area”.

One of the Chinese New Year greetings is “hé qì shēng cái” (may harmony bring wealth). May we find ways of bringing about harmony and abundance amid complexities without sacrificing territory and integrity.

(MindaViews is the opinion section of MindaNews. Mags Z. Maglana is a Mindanawon who has worked in various capacities over the past 30 years for peace, good governance, sustainable development, and the promotion of human rights. Please email feedback to

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