With my birthday imminent I am reminded of the time when, as a self-obsessed youth, I discovered my personal Sign of the Zodiac. I thought it a neat way of defining my personality - and of gauging the suitability of potential girlfriends. Identifying my sign relieved me of the anguish of identifying myself: it substituted fate for responsibility, karma for chaos and lulled me, briefly, into believing that the world was an ordered, harmonious place and that my part in it was pre-ordained.
The reality check came along soon enough - at around chapter 7 of Linda Goodman's Sun Signs - when I read that my nose is typically aquiline, which it isn't. And neither, I argued, were the noses of all the Eskimos born under the same sign as me. Thus I discovered the flaw in Linda's theory which brought down the whole house of cards and left me with an abiding cynicism for the "logical" part of “astrological”.
This week, coincidentally, I was invited to a gala show of traditional Chinese performance arts to celebrate the start of the Year of the Snake and, being ignorant of its significance, I did some research - nothing intense or time-consuming, just a little light googling to enable some polite conversation with my host. To my dismay I learned that there is a Chinese Zodiac which, like ours, is based on nonsense and to which, like ours, I was irresistibly drawn to check out my personal profile. The charts show that I was born in the year of the pig - an animal which, contrary to widespread prejudices elsewhere, in China is attributed with aesthetic sensibility and a philosophical, intellectual approach to life. I found myself basking in the warm glow of this agreeable résumé of my character, having momentarily lost sight of my rational faculties.
Subsequently I sat in the front row of a two-hour show featuring the folksy performance arts of Sichuan Province comprising an assemblage of colourfully dressed dancers, fearsome acrobats, highly-pitched singers and scratchy-sounding instruments. Without a map to consult I was baffled by the place names quoted, especially when it came to the turn of the Tibetan tap-dance troupe. From what little I know of the region, Tibet is a province in its own right but I thought better of raising the question since I am aware of the sensitivities stirred up there in recent years. Whether the show authentically represented the various ethnic traditions I am not qualified to judge but I have to say that the diversity and intricacy of costumes and dances made our own equivalent - Morris dancing – look like a hastily improvised charade. A suspicion lingers, however: are these entertaining, colourful distractions deliberately promoted as propaganda to disguise the dominating intent of the Han people?
It was a question I could not raise with my host, whom I know to be dedicated to the official line, so we engaged instead in talk about the Chinese preoccupation with symbols of good luck - although even this became tricky when I introduced a touch of English irony by suggesting that the mass of Chinese people seem to have had very little of it in modern history. Nor did I voice my opinion that zodiacal systems, like moribund folk-art, seem to lead us into a cul-de-sac of fatalism and that, by encouraging people to identikit themselves, they limit personal ambition: the more you are defined the less you grow.
The exhortation to “be yourself" may sound like good advice -if you are sure of who you are - but I have come to prefer the more aspirational "Don't be yourself: be someone a little nicer".