Saturday, January 12, 2008
Years ago, while visiting a small Asian border town, I saw a peculiar advertisement. In English, it read, "Love your girl child." My hosts explained that infanticide of girls was still practiced by some uneducated villagers. The only explanation I was given was something about boys being valued more because girls leave the home when they marry. I couldn't then and can't now reconcile that answer with infanticide. Years later, when I learned about Fire Horse women in Chinese astrology, I understood the significance of the phrase "love your girl child."
When I first began writing my novel, Secret of The Plains, my central metaphor was the snow leopard. In fact my first working title was Search for the Snow Leopards. I knew that the snow leopards were the mysterious creatures of the Himalayas and it made sense. But as I wrote my first draft, I couldn’t find many ways to connect snow leopards with the characters and the image just felt empty. It bothered me, but I knew I needed this central image to drive the story.
Then in January of 2007 I attended a teachers' retreat. It was a day of journaling, poetry, walking, talking, and space. This was just over a month after I left my husband and I was scared and in search of some peace so the day resonated with me. I threw myself into the activities. At the end of the day one of the participants asked me if I was a Fire Horse. It seemed like a strange thing to say to someone and I asked her what she meant. She explained that women born in 1966 were Fire Horses. She was a Fire Horse sign and thought she recognized a fellow adventurous spirit. I was surprised that as broken as I felt someone recognized strength in me. I am not a Fire Horse sign, but I appreciated that the teacher saw these characteristics in me. Her words stirred something in me. I went home and researched Fire Horse Women.
After reading about this sign and the power these women had, their potential to change the world, I knew that Lili, the main character's sister, was a Fire Horse. I also knew that I had found my central metaphor. I immediately changed the images and rewrote the Lili character. The Fire Horses sought me out. Below is just some of what I learned about this remarkable sign.
Unlike the astrology based on sun signs that my mother reads in her daily newspaper, Chinese astrology is closely linked with Chinese philosophy and astronomy. A person's destiny is determined by his or her birth, the season, and the hours of their birth. Most of us have found our birth year on the placemat in a Chinese restaurant-I'm the Ram. Yet the Chinese actually follow a 60 year cycle that is much more complicated than the animal of their birth year. Depending upon the year born, a person can also be one of the elements wood, fire, earth, metal, or water. For instance, born in December of 1967, I am a Fire Ram. If I had been born just ten months earlier, I would have been a Fire Horse. As a Fire Horse, I would have had a very different destiny.
In general, Horses are outgoing, people-loving, and successful. However, in the Fire element their freedom-loving traits turn to rebelliousness, hubris, and destruction. While this potential was tolerated in a male child, it was thought to be ominous in a woman. The common belief in most Asian countries was that a Fire Horse woman would devastate her nuclear family, drain them of resources, and bring about the early death of her father. If a husband could be found for a Fire Horse woman, he would be mistreated and meet an early death himself. Several stories have perpetuated this fallacy such as a popular Japanese tale dating as far back as 1682 about a Fire Horse woman who nearly burned down the city of Edo.
The power of cultural myth is strong as evidenced by the decline of births in the year of the Fire Horse. The birthrate in Japan during that year is down a half million as compared to the previous and succeeding years. In China, Tibet, and Korea there is also data of a plummet in birthrates. Stories of infanticide of girls from this period persist. You can be sure that women born in 1966 are not quick to reveal this in public.
Today these women are beginning to revise these beliefs, and their stories are capturing the imagination of the world. Fire Horse myths are being rewritten to honor the regenerative strength of women born under the sign of Fire Horse. In Japan the Hinoeuma Association, was formed by six Fire Horse women to raise awareness and better the perceptions of the roughly 1,300,000 fire horse women who were born in Japan.
Films such as the 2005 Canadian film, Eve and The Fire Horse, has raised awareness while also winning accolades such as the Sundance Special Jury Prize. The first woman owned Indian film company, FireHorse Films, was founded by two Fire Horse women, Venita Coelho and Deepti Datt. They told reporters that they chose this potentially controversial name to "encourage creative women in India and around the world, who are unafraid to question the status quo and push the envelope."
Many books, too, have been published. Most noteworthy is by the co-author of Farewell to Manzanar, Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. Her book, The Legend of Fire Horse Woman, is about the survival of three generations of Japanese women and illuminates the purifying strength of women born into this destiny.
The next cycle for this rare sign will be 2026. Following the movement of these wonderful works by Fire Horse women around the world, will cultural perception be different in 2026? Will families receive these strong women with excitement, or will parents genetically engineer a year of boys. Either way, when I think of Fire Horse women, I cannot help but remember that shaky sign wavering on a screen in a dark movie theater: "Love your girl child."