On 1 February 2022, the Chinese New Year begins when winter in China gives way to spring. We bid farewell to the year of the ox and welcome the year of the tiger.

Tigers are fierce, courageous, beautiful, self-assured, ambitious and frightening. When the Jade Emperor had his party and invited all the animals, the tiger assumed he’d arrive first (can’t tigers run fast and they swim all right too), so he slacked when crossing the river. But the smart and deceitful rat borrowed a lift from the hard-working ox, then scampered off to take the victory without even acknowledging, let alone thanking, the ox. When the tiger got there, he found he was only third.

I’m afraid I was a bit too optimistic about how the ox year would turn out. I thought it would be more “stable, productive and free of disaster” than its predecessor. Not really! Maybe it was a slight improvement on the year before, but that’s not saying much. The tiger is so different from the ox. Not domesticated, it doesn’t help humanity that much, and, if you’re a villager in areas where tigers roam, you might think they’re downright murderous. But tigers have their strengths, and tiger years are supposed to be years of change. Let’s hope that means change for the better, not the worse. Maybe those responsible can get the world economies going again, without letting COVID-19 control everything we do.

They say people born in tiger years are courageous, determined and active. They definitely belong to the Chinese traditional yang (bright, active, male, strong) as opposed to yin (dark, passive, female, weak). A really important Chinese born in a tiger year was Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925). Among the Westerners born in a tiger year, the most long-term influential and famous is perhaps Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). A more recent really famous tiger-year personality is Queen Elizabeth II (born 1926).

Yes, all of these three can claim to be courageous, determined and active.

I’ll begin with Sun Yat-sen. After all, he was Chinese and this is the Chinese zodiac. He has the credit for overthrowing the monarchy through the Republican revolution of 1911. That’s an absolutely fantastic achievement. Think about it. The imperial system was thousands of years old, and nobody had thought seriously of getting rid of the monarchy before. Overthrow the emperor? Yes! Overthrow the imperial system? No!

At the end of or just after World War I, several major world monarchies collapsed and were replaced by republics – Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman Turkish. But among the great monarchies, China was actually pretty well the head of the pack for the twentieth century. Also, though there were feeble attempts to restore the monarchy in China, none came near to success. The republic is permanent!

There’s another reason to admire Sun Yat-sen. He is more or less alone among modern Chinese statesmen to get good marks both on the Chinese Mainland and in Taiwan. Just think of the ongoing tensions between them, and you can see how remarkable Sun was.

As for Beethoven, he was not only a towering musical genius, with unrivalled influence on music but the best of all exemplars of overcoming disability. How anybody could write his Ninth Symphony never ceases to amaze me, and he was more or less totally deaf! When the premiere performance in Vienna in May 1824 finished, the audience burst into rapturous and wild applause, as well it might. Beethoven heard nothing and showed no reaction, that is until somebody turned him round to see the audience!!

As for Queen Elizabeth, she’s maintained an excellent reputation throughout her long reign, the longest in British history. It began on 6 February 1952, so her 70th jubilee falls a few days into the coming tiger year. The fall from grace of her son Andrew will inevitably mar the celebrations, but is hardly her fault.

Another “tiger year” event of some significance is that the British Captain James Cook (1728-1779) spent from April to August 1770 in or off the eastern coastline of what has become Australia. For better or worse, we all live in the shadow of Cook’s achievements. Recently, some want his statues removed from their pedestals, because he was a representative of colonialism. But I don’t think anybody doubts that he was courageous, determined and active and that his career led to great change.

According to most Chinese predictions, 2022 should be a year of positive, not negative change. Some say we’ll find enthusiasm again, based on the generosity towards friends that COVID has spawned. I hope so, though I think the last couple of years have given rise to quite a lot of mean-spiritedness, as well as generosity. Perhaps this beautiful, courageous, determined and fierce animal can bring the world some change for good!


Colin Mackerras AO FAHA is Professor Emeritus at the Griffith Asia Institute.