The Cursed Year and How to Fix It – From Chinese Belief to Thai Practice
After the Chinese New Year’s celebration, another Chinese practice that the Thai people have been observing is “fixing the cursed year.” In this context, the cursed year is referred to in Thai as “Pi Chong” [ปีชง]. It is the year when the celestial elements will send your destiny on a rocky road. To avoid the bad luck of Pi Chong, the Thai have a tradition called “Kae Chong” (to neutralize the misfortune) to ease the unfortunate events that may happen. Pi Chong is a concept that has been with the Thai for a long time, stemming from the belief in the fate and destiny of the Thai-Chinese people now embraced by many Thais regardless of race. But what is Pi Chong? Where did it come from? And why do Thais have to Kae Chong? Let’s find out.
What is Pi Chong?
The word “pi” [ปี] means year in Thai and “chong” [冲] is a Chinese word that means contradiction or incompatibility. Thus, Pi Chong literally means an incompatible year. It describes a situation when one’s personal horoscope is in “contradiction” with the zodiac and/or element of the year according to Chinese astrology. This phenomenon is believed to result in a variety of obstacles, hurdles, and difficulties for the unlucky individual throughout the year. Sickness, misfortune and disaster will come knocking on the door. This is why it is necessary to Kae Chong to mitigate the looming adversity. “Kae” [แก้] means to remedy or untie in Thai, and thus Kae Chong is to reconcile the incompatibility.
Where did this belief come from?
The belief is based on the Chinese astrology, which in this case consists of the Chinese zodiac cycle, the five elements of Taoism (earth, water, fire, wood, and metal/gold), the date of birth according to the ancient Chinese calendar, and the deity of the year. All are calculated to analyze the impacts, either negative or positive, that each of these factors will have on a person’s life in that year.
In order to understand Pi Chong, we have to start with the first component – the Chinese zodiac, which is a system of counting years according to the lunar calendar. One Chinese zodiac cycle consists of twelve years, each of which is represented by an animal, namely Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog, and Pig. It is also said that people acquire the attributes of the animal of their birth year.
Chinese zodiace [cr. CGTN]
The second component is the principle of Yin and the Yang, which says that the world is made up of five basic elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Wood, and Metal/Gold. Everything, tangible and intangible, is composed of or directed by these elements. For example, the four directions have their own elements: north is corresponding to water, south to fire, east to wood, west to metal/gold, and center to earth. The same applies to the twelve zodiac years. The year of the rat is corresponding to water, the ox to earth, the tiger to wood, the rabbit to wood, the dragon to earth, the snake to fire, the horse to fire, the goat to earth, the monkey to metal/gold, the rooster to metal/gold, the dog to earth, and the pig to water. But besides the fundamental element of your zodiac year, your life will also be influenced by the variable elements that change from year to year. For example, people born in 1963 were born in the year of the rabbit with wood as the fundamental element. However, on their 59th birthday in 2022, metal/gold was the element of that year. Therefore, that was the year of the golden rabbit. And when they were 58 years old, the element of that year was water, thus the water rabbit year, and so on.
So when the twelve zodiac years are fused with the five elements, we will have a total of 60 combinations, each with its own representative deity. These 60 ancient gods are collectively known as “Tai Sui Ye” (太岁爷). They are the gods of the stars who watch over people and protect them from peril. Some of the gods in this pantheon were respectable historical figures who truly existed, such as Yue Fei and Guan Yu, the gods of fidelity.
Going back to the five elements, these elements create and suppress one another. That is to say, earth creates metal/gold; metal/gold creates water; water creates wood; wood creates fire, and fire creates earth. On the reverse direction, earth has suppressive power over water; water over fire; fire over metal/gold, metal/gold over wood, and wood over earth.
The five elements [cr.T4bits – Wikimedia Commons]
Couples of generative elements support each other while the opposing counterparts will clash, yet are inseparable. The power of creation comes from the generative elements, and thanks to the rival elements, we can expect changes and development. It must be noted that the clashes between the zodiac signs, the gods, and the elements do not entail only the catastrophic consequences, but they also serve as a trigger for peaceful changes.
How to Kae Chong the Thai way
To Kae Chong , Thais visit temples, usually Chinese temples, or shrines of Chinese deities. There, they will pay respect to the Budhhas and deities – asking these higher powers to bless and protect them thorough the year – and perform special ceremonies to chase away bad luck. Some may also purchase amulets to carry throughout the year for protection.
The Pi Chong belief has its roots in Taoism with no connection to Thailand’s main religion of Theravada Buddhism. This belief spread to Thailand during the reign of King Rama III (1824-1851) along with the Chinese immigrants, before merging with local Buddhist beliefs. The cultural convergence between China and Thailand results in some changes to the meaning of Pi Chong as well as the practice of Kae Chong; for example
- The missing beneficent side of Pi Chong
According to the Chinese beliefs, to Kae Chong is to chase away the inauspicious and welcome prosperity to life. Therefore, it is an opportunity to turn bad into good. But for Thais, the positive side and the encouraging message of the cursed year have greatly vanished.
- The distribution of misfortune
Originally, the annual misfortune would fall on people born in only one particular zodiac year, but in the Thai belief, the misfortune is now shared among other four zodiacs in decreasing order, from 100% unlucky, to 75%, 50%, and 25% unlucky. This means that in a given year, there will be more people affected.
- The changes in where, when, and how to Kae Chong
Traditionally, people could Kae Chong wherever and however it was convenient to them. Nowadays, people prefer to do it in sacred places, such as Chinese temples, shrines, or even Thai Buddhist temples. The solutions to the unlucky year have become less flexible. People used to take different methods, such as carrying Chinese amulets, doing good deeds, being mindful, and living carefully, in order to counteract the adversity. But nowadays it turns out that the only way to Kae Chong is to go to a temple to perform special ceremonies. In times of trouble, a temple is a spiritual shelter and anchor where the Thai people seek life guidance. In times of joy, they also head to temples to share and multiply the blessings they have received. This may explain why people prefer to fix their bad year at temples.
Worshipers at Wat Leng Nei Yi 2 [cr. TQM]
Concerning the timing, the theory states that people should remedy their ill-fated prediction only after the Chinese New Year when a fresh zodiac year has commenced. Timing must also be carefully selected. However, the time constraints seem to somehow disappear with the busy lifestyle of modern times.
- The forgotten five elements
Although it is your Pi Chong, it is possible to evade the bad luck if your element happens to be on the strong side that year. For example, in the year of the water snake, the most affected group of people are those born in the year of the fire pig because the snake clashes with the pig and water extinguishes fire. Nevertheless, those born in the year of earth pig will not be affected since earth prevails over water. Therefore, when considering whether this is your cursed year or not, you need to look at the elements as well. Sadly, no matter how helpful they can be, the five elements do not receive the attention they deserve.
- The commercialization of Pi Chong
Business has clearly taken over the cursed year. There are many packages of products and sacred objects to make your Kae Chong ceremony easy and convenient. Popular temples are frequented like tourist attractions, for example Wat Mangkon Kamalawat or Wat Leng Nei Yi (a famous ancient Chinese temple in Yaowarat area with many statues of Chinese gods), Chao Pho Suea Shrine (a Teochew shrine in Bangkok famous for its image of Xuanwu – refered to as the “Tiger God” by Thai people – and many other important Chinese deities), Wat Kalayanamit (famous for Luang Pho Toh, a Buddha image highly respected by Thais and Chinese alike), Wat Leng Nei Yi 2 (a temple with beautiful architecture that makes you feel like being in China), and Wat Thiphayavaree Viharn (a Chinese temple of Mahayana sect which has existed since the Thonburi period 1767-1782). The popularity of these temples may seem superficial, but in fact they have long been places of worship for both Thais and Chinese to foster solidarity and moral strength when facing problems, and Pi Chong is no exception.
Offerings for deities at Wat Mangkon Kamalawat [cr. Pantip]
Analysis of the belief
The Chinese belief of Pi Chong quickly blended into the Thai way of life due to their shared belief in astrology. The Thai astrology itself is to a large degree influenced by the ancient migration of the Indian culture into the Southeast Asian region. For example, the belief in dressing in lucky colors of the day is influenced by Hindu beliefs. Later, when the Chinese people migrated into Thailand, Thais embraced them along with their astrological beliefs. Even Western fortune telling, such as tarot reading or Western horoscope, is practiced by the Thais.
The changes in cultural practices may seem jarring at first, but it is perfectly normal when we consider that fact that culture do transform when it spreads and is embraced by other cultures. The adoption and adaptation of Chinese culture by Thai people can be seen as an example of how the Thai people embrace Chinese immigrants and their practices. It is a mean for the Thai population to form a connection with their Chinese brother and sisters. As generations of Chinese thrive in the Land of Smiles, marrying with the locals and forming the Thai-Chinese community, the practice of Kae Chong becomes a shared practice between the two populations.
For the Thai people who have received this culture regardless of why and how they practice it, one thing that is undeniable is the fact that they are open to different cultures. They embrace them as part of their community, and they do it really well.
Author: Soonyata Mianlamai